Even the most holidays-hardened, Christmas-season cynics among us usually have at least one tradition that stirs up sentimental spirits. Our awareness of these significant rituals—handed down through generations or created anew—are what can make the holiday season magical even if other things about the impending yuletide bum you out.

For me, the smell of cold November air always conjures up an anxious urge to get the holiday season rolling. My extended family has always been a gift-giving clan, so much so that we often overwhelm new comers. The art of finding the perfect gift, or, better yet, making the perfect gift, and then wrapping and delivering it, comes with big fan fare. But before the gifts are ever exchanged, the scene must be set.

At center stage has always been a real, live Christmas tree. When I was young, we had access to my grandparents sprawling ranch near Coeur d’Alene, so trees were harvested right from our family forest. Our tree-cutting expeditions were often led by my grandfather, who passed away this fall. Dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents would trudge off through deep snow to find our perfect trees. Us kids were taught to find one that was snugged up close with other trees, which would give the remaining trees a better chance to thrive.

Once the tree was home, it would invariably need some pruning to fit (trees always seem smaller in the forest). Next came the decorating. My mom insisted on putting the lights on when I was young since they needed to be just right, a practice I have since picked up at my own home. Then came the ornaments, put on one by one, with silent or shared reflections on where each one was acquired. Most were handmade or purchased on some memorable trip or have some other family significance. This tree-decorating practice has always been steeped in meaning for me, an act that conjures fond memories and a sense of home wherever these Christmas tree rituals have unfolded over the years.

Once the tree was up and the holiday setting was just right, the various family gatherings began in earnest: wreath-making parties, sledding and chili on Saturday afternoons, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling outings, and progressive dinners at the homes of aunts and uncles and grandparents.

On Christmas Eve came the finale. We would all gather at my grandparents’ house with bags of gifts for each person in our large family. Reflecting my value of meaningful gift giving, the presents I put under the tree were often ones I made myself or were thoughtful and useful—painted dish towels, ornaments, sachets of potpourri, and other crafts. After a big, traditional Christmas dinner, the kids would play elves and the culmination of gift giving, an ancient human tradition that has long helped tie families, tribes, and societies together, ensued.

Last year my mom purchased DNA kits for everyone. Turns out, my grandmother is half Jewish. This revelation has brought a new dimension to the holidays for me as I ponder the possibilities for incorporating new rituals into my own small family’s holiday traditions. As families grow, fracture, evolve, and move forward without passing elders, it’s important to take stock in the traditions we hold onto and add new ones that make sense. That may mean learning about Hanukkah; ditching the plastic tree for a real one you pull out of the woods yourself; giving gifts to the less fortunate; or celebrating winter solstice with a snowy hike, bonfire, and boozy hot beverages. However you celebrate the holidays this year, find a way to make it a little more magical. //