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Beyond the Cookie Exchange: New Ideas for Holiday Gatherings

Before Jack Frost even thinks about nipping at your nose, get in the party-planning spirit and consider a unique way to celebrate the holidays. We’ve all been invited to our fair share of cookie exchanges and caroling parties, and they might be getting just a little stale. If you love to entertain, but are looking to do something different, here are some ideas to help you “freshen up” your get-togethers this winter.

A Family Affair
Family parties are most certainly on our entertaining to-do list, and we often make a special effort to invite branches of the family tree we see only rarely throughout the year. Aunts, uncles and cousins who aren’t as familiar to your children and spouse may need some reintroduction. To put everyone at ease, find some common ground to start on. Try making up a family trivia game that you can pass around the dinner table. Start with questions that have to do with family history or great-grandparents you all share, and move on to the younger generations. This will require effort on your part, but you may hear some stories about your parents or grandparents that you had not known.

If it seems like all you are doing is trading money, rethink the gift exchange. Consider letting the kids draw names, and ask each family to ban gift cards. Encourage your kids to put some effort into picking out a special gift for a cousin and let them wrap it themselves. As far as the “big kids” go, a great take-home gift is a personalized calendar featuring family photos, complete with birthdays and anniversaries noted for your relatives to use all year long. Another personal idea is a small family cookbook including all those special holiday recipes people like to prepare every year. Send out a call for recipes a month in advance, and be sure to give a deadline. Many online cookbook templates are easy to use and make creating this gem easy. Your book can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish, but will surely become a treasured gift long after the holidays are over.

Friends Young and Old
Sadly, we may not see our friends as much as we would hope throughout the year. A group of ladies that I met when my daughter, now 20, was in preschool still gets together every year the Sunday after Thanksgiving. For years, we met at one another’s homes for a cookie exchange. Each one of us baked for days, trying to get enough sweets to make the “Cookie Exchange Requirements”—eight dozen per person, individually wrapped (with a cute ribbon and tag), recipe included. I always loved seeing my friends, but hated the pressure leading up to the get-together. Inevitably, one of my kids was sick or my cookies didn’t turn out quite the way I wanted. A couple years ago, I let it slip that I hated the “cookie” part of the day, and to my delight, everyone readily agreed! Each year since, we have tried something new to exchange. One year we made soup, but only one pot, and each one of us went home with a different kind.

Kids enjoy holiday parties, too. Last year when my daughter came home from college, she wanted to get together with friends she hadn’t seen for several months. We came up with the Alma Mater Christmas Party. Several friends were contacted the week before they came home for the holiday break and were asked to bring home a sweatshirt with their college name or logo on the front. The kids arrived with their wrapped sweatshirts, and the packages went into a pile. Throughout the night my daughter threw out trivia questions about the universities, such as the names of mascots, famous alumni and more. Answers led to heated debates and several laughs, but whoever answered correctly got to pick a package out of the pile, unwrap it and put the shirt on. It was especially hilarious when a Notre Dame student ended up with a Michigan sweatshirt! If you have younger children, start the party with an outdoor activity such as sledding or skating, and end up at your house for snacks and board games. If your child has friends who attend different schools and don’t know each other, keeping them all active provides them the opportunity to get to know one another and dispel any awkward moments.

Pay it Forward Party
Clubs and groups usually throw some kind of holiday soiree, too. Sometimes these end-of-year parties include a gift exchange or elaborate dinner. For a couple of years, my book group exchanged holiday ornaments at an upscale restaurant. We always had a great time, but things changed one year when we read an inspirational book called “Christmas Jars” by Jason F. Wright. Now, as a club, we save our extra change, and at the last meeting of the year, we combine it in a huge Mason jar and deliver it anonymously to someone who needs a helping hand— much like what happens in the story we read. At the November meeting, we rarely know who the jar is going to, but by the December meeting, it magically becomes apparent. None of us misses the ornament exchange or the steak dinner, but each of us remembers those jars and the story behind each one.

Preplanning is the key to breathing fresh air into your holiday gatherings. Think beyond the cookie exchange with these festive, heartfelt ideas. Happy holidays!

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