Food How to Infuse the Holidays with Meaning

by Jenny Rosenstrach | December 13, 2019

Is your holiday spirit already starting to fizzle?

If you are a) human and b) in America, chances are, everywhere you go this time of year, you are bombarded by magazine covers and social media posts telling you everything you need to know about the holidays.

Here are the ultimate cookies to bake for the swap! Want to know the trendiest gifts to buy this year? Follow this Christmas menu and you can make it entirely in advance!

Helpful as it’s meant to be, it can all be a bit daunting, like someone is shouting at you HAVE SOME FUN ALREADY for the entire month of December.

I get as excited about all the holiday hoopla as the next person, but if the whole thing skates by without moments of true meaningfulness and connection, I end up feeling a little…empty. It’s the emotional equivalent of bingeing on cotton candy and gummy bears all day.

Thankfully, the condition is curable. With that, here are ways to easily (I promise) infuse meaning into the holidays.

Make the food special to you

If you are the one hosting or in charge of cooking your family holiday feast, you probably feel like the meal is all you’ve thought about since the Halloween decorations were boxed up. It’s just one dinner, you keep saying to yourself, so why does it feel so overwhelming? Because you want it to be delicious, of course, but mostly you want it to be special.

To be clear, special does not have to mean complicated. Look to serve dishes that have a connection to your family or family history; otherwise, in some ways, it is just another dinner. In my house, we are big fans of cooking dishes that have graced family tables in the past or have stories behind them.

For example, my mother-in-law has been making the same cranberry-marinated filet for decades now, and you’d think we’d be tired of it, right? But it’s quite the opposite. It’s the only time of year we eat that entrée, so it literally tastes like the holidays to our family.

We also serve it with an arugula, pear and walnut salad that might grace the table on, say, a Tuesday night in March. But, the difference is that it’s a recipe from a close family friend who recently passed away. In that way, it’s way more than just a salad, it’s a reminder of all those loved ones we have shared meals with.

I am not saying everything on the table has to be a nod to the past (go ahead and debut that sweet potatoes with tahini butter dish), but it’s nice when one or two things do.

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Look to serve dishes that have a connection to your family or family history.
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Remember to give a toast

You don’t need me to tell you that taking a moment to say a few words before you eat is going to instantly infuse meaning into your holiday. So I’m just passing along this friendly reminder to mark the occasion with a toast, a blessing or whatever fits with your tradition. Because, is there anything stranger than spending an entire day (maybe even a week or a month!) planning for a big meal only to see it disappear in under six minutes in silence?

To give this ritual a boost, get everyone involved in the pre-feast toasting. I know a family who goes around the table and offers predictions for the next year. And another where you have to say something kind about the person sitting next to you.

Or, consider taking a page from the holiday handbook of the U.K. and put Christmas crackers at every place setting. These festive party favors filled with jokes, silly prizes and paper crowns double as table décor — and even your grumpiest relative can’t help but break a smile when donning a faux crown.

I love these traditions. If for no other reason, they teach young kids at the table basic conversation skills. (It should go unsaid that unless there is a potential emergency situation, phones and devices are verboten at the holiday table.) Try it out, get everyone talking. Then, take a moment to pull back from the scene and savor it.

Happy family celebrating Christmas together at home.

Remove as much unnecessary stress as possible

I know, I know, it's easy to say this and a lot harder to execute. But if you want to enjoy the holiday, not merely endure it, there are things you can do to minimize the stress factors.

For starters, you can delegate way more than you think you can. Why are you the one up until midnight on Christmas Eve wrapping presents? Surely someone else in the house can lend a hand. (Make it easy, using all brown bags and bright bows.) You can assign grocery shopping to someone else, and even a ten-year-old is capable of licking envelopes for the holiday card mailing.

Also, there are some years when you may not be up for checking off everything on the holiday list — and that's ok! This year, instead of having a holiday party, I’m asking local friends to dress up and meet at a neighborhood bar (bring a friend) for a holiday toast. (First round is on me!) I’ll be just as excited to see everyone as always, but with way less stress.

Create your own rituals

I am a big fan of celebrating traditions all year long. My book How to Celebrate Everything is all about how even the smallest rituals have the power to infuse big meaning into a family’s everyday existence. This time of year, though, is like the pinnacle of family rituals.

For many, rituals may already be part of their religious practices, but there’s nothing that makes a holiday feel more meaningful than honoring rituals that are specific to your own family. It gives kids (and their parents) a real sense of identity and belonging. And, again, we are not talking complicated rituals.

You do not have to wrap 24 individual gifts for each kid in their own customized advent calendars. Bake the same holiday cookies you baked with your mother and play her favorite classic crooner holiday album while doing so. Throw a potato latke open house party for your neighbors. Exchange one special gift on Christmas Eve. Go for a family 5K run to work up an appetite for that epic holiday feast. Go ice skating on New Year’s Day.

Two young girls ice skating during the holidays.

Whatever the ritual — a family recipe served once a year, kind words shared at the table, an annual potato latke party — it doesn’t have to be fancy. But it does have to be yours — that’s what bringing more meaning to your holiday rituals is all about.

Jenny Rosenstrach

is the New York Times bestselling author of Dinner: A Love Story, which is also the name of her blog. You can find her @dinneralovestory.