I’m a sucker for the holiday season. Now based in California, I’ve lived 2,000+ miles away from my family and its Michigan roots all of my adult life.
Each year around the holidays I get nostalgic for the magical times spent hiding from the snow, curled up on the couch with loved ones, and eating take-out straight from the container (since there aren’t any good cooks in my family). Being able to relax with friends and family in a home that’s warm and comfortable is a privilege I’m always aware of and incredibly thankful for.
But as much as I treasure the memories of holidays spent at home, some of my fondest holiday experiences were the times that I spent traveling. My first taste of international travel came at age 10, on a Christmas cruise in the Caribbean that my grandparents gifted to our extended family. I’ll never forget the magic of opening one small gift each around a restaurant table in Jamaica. I felt so lucky and loved, on an adventure with my family.
When I traveled to Europe for the first time, I flew to Rome on Christmas Eve. It was the only time I’d been away from my family for the holidays. But, as I wandered through a Christmas market in Piazza Navona, I felt an odd sense of connection to every person on the planet who was celebrating.
Whether you’re planning to stay home or embark on an adventure during the holidays, this season is one for making lasting memories. So we’ve compiled a few tips for making the winter holidays special for yourself and your loved ones this year. Hopefully it will serve as a reminder that the most meaningful Christmas gifts for your family are those that come from the heart, not the store…
Start a New Tradition
The holidays bring families closer together because of the traditions they share. But nobody ever said that family traditions have to stay the same forever. What better way is there to kick off the Christmas season than by establishing a new one?
If you’re usually homebodies, perhaps you can arrange a visit to a local park or zoo for a tree lighting ceremony. Attend a performance of The Nutcracker, or gather around the TV to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas. If you usually wait until the last minute to do your shopping, pick a weekend earlier in December and take a trip to the nearest city to make a family event out of it.
My personal favorite new holiday tradition? Playing board games with friends on New Years Eve, complete with frozen pizzas and pajamas. It’s easy, affordable, and it brings people that I love together to celebrate the last night of the year.
Get Out of the House
If you’re looking for a way to end 2016 on a positive, memorable note, consider getting out of the house… or even your hometown.
Traveling during the holidays may seem stressful, but there are many ways to incorporate a holiday trip into your family’s schedule. Whether it’s a weekend getaway or a major vacation, holiday travel can create special memories that you and your family will never forget.
Many providers offer special travel deals during the holidays, and Cyber Monday can be a great time to book last-minute December or January trips. Companies like Discover Corps offer all-inclusive packages specifically designed for special family holidays abroad. But even if you can’t commit to a major trip, perhaps you can manage a staycation or day trip closer to home.
Live in a temperate place? Take the family on a hike and share a picnic together. Shrouded in snow? Maybe there’s a ski/sledding hill you haven’t been to within driving distance. Escaping for a night to a local B&B or cabin in the woods can bring the whole family together in a special way without breaking the bank. I know one family whose holiday tradition is to take a road trip each December to attend services at a synagogue they’ve never visited before.
Of course, the most important thing during the holidays is spending time with your loved ones. But when that time includes taking new adventures with friends and family, it makes the holiday season all the more exciting.
Give Back to Help Others
The most memorable and meaningful experiences are usually those that allow us to help others. During the holidays, when many of us are reminded to count our blessings, it feels good to dedicate our time and energy to people and causes that desperately need it. It’s also a great time to consider making a donation to non-profit charitable organizations.
Growing up, my family volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul’s family dining room, serving meals to at-risk and homeless families. I didn’t view it as work. It was fun to (attempt) to cook together. And even as a very young child I understood the importance of these opportunities. This experience also instilled in me a lifelong love and appreciation for service.
If you’re looking for a way to give back this season, try searching for local opportunities to help. Many organizations need extra sets of hands during the holidays, and I know from my personal experience that they value each and every volunteer.
If you’re considering getting out of town for the holidays, try booking a family volunteer vacation. Discover Corps offers vacations with purpose in 12 different countries around the world. Each trip focuses on helping to solve specific issues in authentic, non-touristy communities abroad. You’ll be giving back, and you’ll get a memorable Christmas gift in return as you learn about life in a new place and make local friends along the way! -Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.