Playing with tradition
Photo: Lori Nix
What do you love most about the holidays? All the wonderful traditions, right? The giving and the gathering in, the rituals that connect us to one another and the past… Of course, those same traditions can drive you absolutely crazy. This month, we're thinking about how holiday rituals might be refreshed, reinvented—or just ditched. First, Maile Meloy cuts through the tangle of family ties and find her way home for the holidays .
Gift tags With Love, from Oprah
Sometimes the gift tag is better than the gift.

The Law of Christmas Presence
Unless you're seeing him in person this December, the only thing John Hastings will be sending you is his goodwill.

A Gift-Free Christmas
You shouldn't! No, really, you shouldn't ! Cynthia Gorney cleans up her Christmas act.

Plan C for the Tree
Decorating made easy…

Christmas Spirits
How does Santa stay so jolly? Patricia Towers has the answer: eggnog .
Cassette tape
Tell Me a Story
The relatives are gathered. Reminiscences are flying. Push "record."

All Together Now
Rita Williams never really had a family, much less a family reunion. Then, a motley crew of long-lost relatives pulled together one Christmas to welcome her home at last.

Pass the Platter
Over the years, Mel Walsh had tried every variation on the annual holiday feast. But then it was her daughter's turn to carve out her own traditions.

Eat, Drink…and Remember
Conversation at the holiday table should be worthy of the meal!

The Year of Giving Brilliantly
Our roundup of eight great charities proves that even small donations can make a world of difference.

Holiday letter The Holiday Letter
How to survive other people's too-good-to-be-true news.

A Light in the Darkness
For the lonely, the grieving, a kinder way to mark the season

Plus: O columnist Lisa Kogan reinvents New Year's
With love, from Oprah
Photo: Jens Mortensen
By J.J. Miller

When I was an 11-year-old girl growing up in the South, the Ouija board told me I would marry Tom Weinberg. I didn't know any such person, but that Christmas he surprised me with a yellow Forenza sweater I'd been coveting. A few Christmases earlier, Billy Joel and Chris Evert had sent cassette tapes and a tennis racket. A few Christmases later, Madonna gave me fingerless lace gloves, and Theo Huxtable wowed me with a fabulous winter coat. Oprah's been sending gifts since I was in high school.

It wasn't that I was the world's most connected kid. I just happened to have parents who were clued in to my life and didn't mind stretching the truth to show it. Every Christmas my sister and I would come downstairs to stacks of presents labeled with gift tags from everyone important to us, from the real to the fantastic. In the world according to Mom and Dad, every person we loved, loved us right back; if Santa could give us things, why not Kate & Allie?

There were annual favorites: "Coach Smith"—of my beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heels—"never forgets you, how sweet," Mom joked every year. There were references even to the bit players in our lives: My high school boyfriend's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth, once gave me a tasteful add-a-bead necklace. There were inside jokes: I'm a truly terrible cook, and on the package of pots and pans I would take to college, Julia Child encouraged me to "keep trying."

But the tag I cherish most came in 1998, the year I moved to New York. Apparently, I couldn't stop talking about the nice man who worked at the deli on the corner, and he ("Mike at the convenience store") naturally thought of me—at least in my parents' parallel universe. Today Mike is my real-life husband (sorry, Tom Weinberg, whoever you are), and I love that my parents knew how special he was to me even before I did. Flipping through those gift tags now—yes, I've saved them all these years—is like reviewing a time capsule of everyone and everything I ever cared about. It reminds me that despite the angst and arguments my mother and I had while I was growing up, she and my father knew me better than I knew myself. And that means more than any perfectly wrapped present ever did.

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The law of Christmas presence
Photo: Jens Mortensen
By John Hastings

Even if my wife and I limit ourselves to immediate family—siblings, their spouses, and their children—we still come up with 34 people. Which, at Christmas, used to mean 34 excruciating (and expensive, when you add them up) decisions about what to give—and that's not including the action figures and weaponry on our sons' lists.

This was Gift Giving Gone Wild , so we came up with an equally promiscuous-sounding solution: Love the one you're with (LTOYW). Which means we buy presents only for the family members we'll actually see. If I'm not in your house during the month of December, forget it. Should you have the poor judgment to show up on my doorstep unexpectedly, bearing gifts, you'll receive one of the wrapped fruitcakes we keep on hand to discourage such behavior.

The family had tried drawing names, but after the second year of my "funny" brother-in-law ending up with mine, I argued strenuously for LTOYW. (Two novelty lamps are one more than enough.) Now we're able to focus on choosing just the right gift, and we're there when the presents are oohed and aahed over.

And now that LTOYW is established, we're free to circumvent it as we see fit. If, as has happened in the past, we feel the need to remind our 2-year-old nephew exactly who his favorite aunt and uncle are, we simply send him Junior's First Fully Operable Monster Truck. Sure, it's possible the kid could rat us out, but he's a smart boy who knows what's good for him. The system would be flawless, if not for one looming problem—a proposed holiday family reunion in 2008.

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By Celia Barbour

We spent weeks working ourselves into a happy lather over the Christmas feast—my mom, my sisters, and I conferring by phone, divvying up the shopping and chopping, the cooking and baking. Finally, the day would arrive, the whole family would sit down to a spectacular meal, and proceed to talk about…work. Or the weather. Or some people my parents ran into at the store. Now, I am not typically a crusader, but this seemed wrong. Conversation at the holiday table should be worthy of the meal! Which is why, a few years back, growing quite impatient, I called out, "So! Everyone! What was your favorite thing that happened this year?" Everyone stopped chewing, put down their forks, thought. And then the memories started pouring out—remember the trip to Lake Louise? The picnic on the terrace? When you learned to ride without training wheels? Swallowed your loose tooth? The promotion? Oh, a year goes by, and another, and each carries off into oblivion a thousand moments. But at least on this one evening we sit together and savor them.

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Holiday letter
Photo: Jens Mortensen
By Judith Hooper

You know this type of holiday letter. You've received it, read it, and cringed. "Little Jenny worked so hard preparing for the Peyton County beauty pageant—she won!—that she fell a bit behind in the gifted program. But the French nanny we hired is a gem; Brock can now chat with the maître d' at La Maison des Prétentieux!" To keep such letters from denting our holiday spirit, my family and select friends make a point of collecting and trading them like baseball cards. The best ones, we read aloud—though I doubt if any will ever top the classic from years ago that, in the middle of a chirpy catalog of the family's activities, slipped in the news that Grandfather had accidentally (and fatally) set himself on fire in his hospital bed.

Some unwritten rules seem to guide the crafting of these letters. An omniscient third-person narrator is popular, suggesting that the family hired an itinerant biographer who happened by in late November. Boasting, early and often, about kids, home renovations, and big purchases is required, with some writers making valiant attempts to justify the latter ("the new white Rolls Royce turned out to be a blessing in disguise"—though, alas, the scribe left out the really crucial part: how?). Exhaustive descriptions of expensive vacations come with useful "insights" (and plenty of exclamation marks): "Venice is such a romantic city!" "The Taj Mahal was really spectacular!"

In these holiday missives, the lives of others are impeccably well ordered. Careers advance like clockwork. Children glide from triumph to triumph. Goals are achieved with nary a bead of sweat. But occasionally a letter arrives with a higher reality quotient, with actual news about people I know and love, and the challenges they overcome or don't. I think of the Oklahoma family whose dream of owning a chain of truck stops was always being undermined by calamity. One year, the father suffered a heart attack; the next, a son filed for bankruptcy; the next, there was a tornado and more bad health. It was evident that their truck stop empire would probably elude them, but they went on believing. And after a year in which my own life had borne its share of hardship and frustration—a painful breakup, a discouraging job, a mysterious illness—reading about their faith, still unshaken, helped renew mine.

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