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Young family walking on street and carrying Christmas gifts for a holiday party.

During the holidays, routine stress can morph into borderline panic. We splurge on gifts and fret over the coming credit-card bills. Even if we don’t exchange presents, the constant clamor to get out there and shop can drive us batty. Plus, we probably have to see our in-laws at least once, and — well, enough said. But it is a special time, after all, so we’re supposed to be finding joy, right? And we’re supposed to spread that joy around — even if we aren’t feeling too jolly ourselves.

If your goal is to enjoy some genuine joie de vivre this holiday season, keep in mind that the simplest acts of generosity, connection and self-care can offer the biggest rewards.

It all starts with reconnecting to the moments that mean the most to you, and making sure you have time to fully experience their magic.

“I love to turn the lights off and bask in the twinkly glow of the Christmas tree lights while listening to old-fashioned holiday music,” writes Experience Life reader Melanie Dawson. “It makes me feel so peaceful.”

If it’s been a while since you dreamed up things to do just for the fun of it — either during the holidays or any time of year — here are some ideas to get you started. Use this list as a jumping-off point for your own joyful brainstorm.

1. Put it on Paper

Clear your schedule and dedicate one whole day (or part of a day) to writing your holiday cards. The rewards of sending and receiving a personalized note are so much greater than a tossed-off impersonal one (think of your own disappointment when you slice open an envelope to find the only personal connection on the holiday card is a signature). You don’t have to spend a lot of time on each one, but when you carve out room in your schedule for writing notes, you won’t be harried or worried about something else that isn’t getting done. If you want to go one step further, make your own cards. Better yet, gather your family and go to work with colored paper, scissors, glue and glitter. You’ll create family memories as well as memorable messages.

2. Make Gifts Instead of Buying

This is the three-dimensional equivalent of the hand-written note. You don’t have to go to great lengths: Make homemade granola and package it in a classic Mason jar. Buy an inexpensive set of glass spice shakers and fill them with the basil you dried from your garden this past summer. Look online for some simple instructions for making holiday ornaments, and then piece a few together, find a way to personalize them, and distribute to friends, family or coworkers.

3. Tackle Your To-Do List Together

Some extra shopping and holiday-related errand running is probably inevitable this time of year. Improve the experience by going with a close friend. You can both cross off items from your to-do list while you reconnect. Consider doing your gift-wrapping and decorating with a friend or partner, too.

4. Donate To a Good Cause

A spate of recent research has shown that charitable giving brings people more authentic happiness than any other type of spending. Make a donation to a cause that is personally meaningful to you — the environment, homeless animals, humanitarian groups, research organizations, anything that makes your heart sing. Or donate in the names of friends and families in lieu of exchanging gifts. You can use websites like to find reputable organizations to support.

5. Adopt a Family

Many social-service organizations have “adopt a family” programs that allow you to supply gifts and holiday dinners for needy families in your area. This is a great way for you and your family (especially kids and teenagers) to feel the profound joy of giving back. It’s a transformative experience to actively participate in helping another family.

6. Surprise a Stranger

Acts of generosity don’t have to be big or preplanned to be gratifying. Surprise the person in line behind you at the coffee shop by paying for his drink. Or pay the bus fare or the freeway toll of the person boarding or driving behind you. Spontaneity and surprise can amplify the joy of the gift, for both giver and receiver.

7. Modify Your Rituals or Create Meaningful New Ones

Always go to your parents’ house on Christmas Eve? Does your sister’s family always come to your place on Christmas Day? Consider switching things around this year. Go to your in-laws instead of hosting, or meet the extended family at a nice restaurant so no one has to cook or clean up. Novel locations and new routines can give longstanding traditions a much-needed shake-up and create delightful holiday moments.

Or create meaningful new traditions. On Christmas Eve, one EL staffer joins her whole family in the orchard where her grandmother’s ashes are buried. They light snow-filled luminarias, hold hands and sing Christmas carols under the stars, taking breaks to share stories about her and all the other loved ones who are no longer with them. On the walk home, they sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and bust out laughing as they mangle the lyrics. Once they’re home, they warm up with dessert and hot toddies.

8. Go Caroling

You’ll sing. You’ll laugh. You’ll spread good cheer. Really.

9. Have a Classic Movie Night

Whether you’re a sucker for It’s a Wonderful Life or ElfMiracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story, grab a couple of your favorite films, turn off all the lights except those on the tree and have a holiday movie marathon. (If you detest holiday films, grab some of your all-time favorites, no matter the genre. Rear WindowSingin’ in the Rain? Top Gun? As long as you love it, it counts.)

10. Play Some In-Person Games

Before Angry Birds and Words With Friends, there were fun board games played with real live humans around the real-world dining room table. There was talking! Interaction! Laughter! Food! Friendly competition! Grab your kids, spouse, neighbors, friends and extended family and resurrect this joyful tradition. Consider old favorites like Aggravation, Boggle, Monopoly, Apples to Apples and Trivial Pursuit.

11. Be Kind to Yourself

Yes, it’s a busy season. But when you take care of your body, mind and spirit — making sure you’re well nourished, hydrated, rested and sane — you’ll be better able to handle the intensity and you’ll be a lot more fun to be around.

12. Make Time for Self-Care

Self-care, bodywork, workouts, yoga, meditation, a few hours of quiet downtime with just your sofa and a good book. Showing up calm, happy and open-hearted for festivities (even if every last little thing didn’t get done) is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself and others any time of the year.

Thoughts to share?

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