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6 Ways to Make the Holidays More Meaningful

Around the World Floor Puzzle

Help your kids get a sense of life in other countries by introducing them to a variety of holiday rituals celebrated around the globe during this time of year. A few examples for you to check out:

Ethiopia: Here, many families celebrate Christmas on January 7—though most people actually refer to the holiday as either Genna or Ganna, after a hockey-like game that is traditionally played on that afternoon.

The Netherlands: Children set out pairs of shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 6. In the middle of the night, St. Nick pays a visit, filling the shoes with small treats such as chocolates, candies, and toys.

Italy: Kids write letters to their parents promising good behavior (and apologizing for recent misdeeds), as well as telling them how much they love them. The letters are then placed under Dad's plate on Christmas Eve; he reads them all aloud once the meal is through.

Mexico: December 28, Day of the Holy Innocents, is celebrated much in the same way as April Fool's Day. Children—and adults—play innocent pranks. If successful, the trickster gives his victim a candy treat.

Sweden: St. Lucia Day, December 13, is the beginning of the holiday season; one girl in each home dresses as Lucia, patron saint of light, in a white gown and a crown of leaves—and then wakes everyone by bringing a tray of breakfast treats.

Korea: Families celebrate January 1 by making Duk Gook—also spelled Ddeokguk—or rice-cake soup. According to tradition, enjoying a bowlful on New Year's Day allows everyone to advance a year in age.

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Start a discussion of where traditions come from with info from the experts at patheos.com, a site dedicated to world religions.

Why do people light candles each night of Hanukkah?

"We light them to remind ourselves of an ancient miracle that occurred after invaders of Israel tried to force the Jewish people to practice a different religion. When they refused, the invaders ransacked their temple, destroying almost everything. The Jews pushed them out, then hurried to restore the holy site. The first time they lit the oil lamp, there was only enough oil for one day. Yet to their surprise, it burned for eight days and nights."

Rabbi Keith Stern, leader of Temple Beth Avodah, in Newton, Massachusetts

Why does Kwanzaa last for seven days?

"Inspired by many African nations that hold weeklong harvest celebrations, Kwanzaa was created in the U.S. as an African-American holiday. It draws on these traditions in order to connect African Americans to their African heritage. Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a different principle (including unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith) to help us honor our family, community, and culture."

Anthea Butler, Ph.D., associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia

Why do people exchange Christmas gifts?

"Each year, Christians honor the birth of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago. Shortly after Jesus was born, Magi, often called the wise men, came from the East to Bethlehem and offered the infant gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. As part of the Christmas celebration, we give gifts too—to our friends, family, and the poor and hungry—as a way of remembering the gifts given to Jesus."

The Rev. Emile R. "Mike" Boutin Jr., copastor of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Walpole, Massachusetts

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You'll probably dig out the camcorder to film the gift-giving frenzy anyway, so use it to record interviews with your kids after the excitement has died down. It's a great way to document their changes from year to year. Try these questions for your annual "exclusive."

1. What was your favorite thing that our family did together this year?

2. Who are your best friends? What do you like the most about them?

3. How is school this year? Why do you like your teacher? Which subject do you enjoy most and why?

4. What do you like to daydream about?

5. What is the nicest thing that a friend or someone in the family has done for you this year?

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Volunteering during the holidays gets kids in the habit of helping those in need, but so many families do it that most charities see a huge surge in donations and participation each December—it's every other time of the year that they need attention. Here, three ways to get your family to do good and keep up the bighearted action in the off-season.

1. Start a Charity Tradition: Many churches and soup kitchens prepare Christmas dinners for the needy; just call ahead to find out how your crew can pitch in.

Keep It Going: Fight hunger throughout the year by volunteering one afternoon a month at a food bank.

For locations, visit feedingamerica.org

2. Start a Charity Tradition: Help make wishes come true by assisting with a holiday toy drive for needy kids in your area. Go to secretsanta.org for events near you.

Keep It Going: Sponsor an underprivileged child abroad and make an ongoing impact on her future. Click on savethechildren.org for info on getting involved.

3. Start a Charity Tradition: Brighten up a nursing home by bringing homemade decorations (think paper snowflakes, garlands, etc.) for residents' rooms.

Keep It Going: Check in with the home's volunteer coordinator about activities your family can help out with regularly, like craft sessions or reading hour

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Give your family a chance to think during the holiday rush: During December, share a half-minute of silence each night at dinner. Tell the kids to focus on whatever they like—something good that happened that they're grateful for, positive thoughts for a sick friend, a wish for the coming year. These moments together each day will help you feel more calm, connected, and appreciative of what you have the rest of the year too.

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A unique tradition teaches kids that they're part of something special—your family—and binds this holiday to future ones.

"One year, the day before Christmas, I was about to snap. So I threw food in a pack and told my family we were having a picnic. Though confused, they went along with it. We live in a mountain valley, so getting to a secluded spot was easy. The downside: It was so cold that the food froze! Our 'Doomsday Picnic' has become a tradition (we go better prepared now!). It's a time to relax—we love it." Lynnette F. Harris; Millville, Utah

"Every year during the holidays our entire family sits down to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. It makes us realize that we are not as dysfunctional as we might think!" Betsy Gravalec; Marietta, Georgia

"To help our kids really understand the holiday, on Christmas morning we throw a birthday party—complete with cake—to celebrate Jesus's birth. Sometimes the kids seem as excited about the balloons as they are about the gifts!" Kelly Wilson Mason; Ohio

"Rather than giving gifts to all 17 family members, we each draw a name and then give the money we would have spent on Hanukkah gifts for everyone else as a donation to charity. Before opening presents, we all share what we did with the money to benefit someone less privileged than we are." Carol Hochman Dierksen; Orlando, Florida

"Every year, when the first snow falls I make 'First Day of Snow' fudge, just like my mom did. You could make it any time, but it just wouldn't taste the same." Kris Wittenberg; Eagle, Colorado

Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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