New family traditions through volunteer vacations

Now here' s a unique twist on a family holiday. Writer Wendy Donahue in the Chicago Tribune suggests integrating and incorporating annual traditions into a truly memorable and possibly life-changing event:

Happy faux-lidays

Extended families create their own reason to celebrate each other

By Wendy Donahue, Tribune Newspapers

3:13 PM CST, March 6, 2012

Every year, Marie Puskas and her extended family put all of their eggs in one basket ' along with their Valentines, New Year’s noisemakers, Christmas gifts, Thanksgiving fixings and Halloween treats.

Naturally, they call this annual family gathering “New Valeastweengivingmas,” a contraction of several holidays, and it is celebrated in July or August at her parents’ house in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“We count down to midnight, give valentines in Easter eggs, dress up in Halloween costumes, have a Thanksgiving dinner and have a secret Santa/white elephant gift exchange,” said Puskas, who lives in Tampa.

Just over a dozen family members, along with some family friends, travel from across Florida for this off-peak holiday rush, which dates to 2003.

“We weren’t sure if we’d all be able to get together once we all had families,” Puskas said, “so this is one tradition we make sure stays intact.”

Modern family life has birthed a brood of custom holidays, often to preserve closeness while easing logistical and financial pressures on extended, blended and interfaith families separated by miles. Sometimes they honor sacred milestones (the date of a child’s adoption, often called “gotcha day”). Sometimes, they’re whimsical (the date a boat goes in the water after winter, christened “Cold Duck Day” by one family because the “really cheap” wine was all they had aboard to toast the launch the first year).

A venerable holiday twist for extended families involves shifting the celebration of Christmas to a few weeks before or a few days after Dec. 25 ' which one family christened “Mockmas” ' in part so that individual families can wake up on Christmas Day in their own homes. On the opposite end of the calendar is the old-fashioned family reunion in summertime when kids don’t have school and travel conditions are more hospitable.

Even somber events can spin off annual celebrations. The family of Melissa Byers of Myrtle Beach, S.C., marks the date of her father’s death.

“I know that sounds weird, but we go to his favorite restaurant, make his favorite dessert, etc.,” Byers said. “We’re on year three in March and the first two were festive, not sad. No balloons or anything, but time that we deliberately remember and enjoy the things he did. It’s nice.”

Birth of a complicated schedule

But, as Puskas said, it’s the birth of babies that most universally redefines holidays for families.

“It’s a time of complete reinvention in some ways,” said Linda Murray, editor in chief of Its recent poll found that 23 percent of respondents stayed closer to home after having a baby, with 44 percent describing the traditional holiday season in their home as “a reasonably low-key event with just a few gatherings and a handful of relatives. Fourteen percent described theirs as a “quiet event at home with just our immediate family.”

Many new parents report that they initially travel more than they did before, introducing the baby to relatives. Once a child turns 2, constantly on the go and requiring a separate plane ticket, air travel declines, Murray said. Then the school years start, with new financial demands, hectic schedules and limited breaks.

But Murray cited a surprise in the poll: 92 percent of parents will pull their children out of school to travel with them “and not feel guilty about it.”

She speculates that might be feeding alternative-holiday momentum.

It’s a big world out there

“Parents tell us they have a real belief in life experience,” Murray said. “The opportunity to see another place or learn something new or bond together as a family, they really value those things on par with traditional education.”

That’s why some families have turned volunteerism vacations into annual holidays.

Through the Globe Aware ( organization, Mark Edwards and his family have assembled desks for a school in Ghana, painted a school in Laos and built stoves in Peru. That was their first trip when their youngest of three daughters was 9 and their unheated hostel meant sleeping in all of their clothes to stay warm.

“But our kids never complained,” said Edwards, who lives in Boston. “They loved it, we loved it, and we were hooked.”

Globe Aware, which is one of the partners on, reports that about 40 percent of families turn its trips into an annual rite, though families make up only 15 to 25 percent of its volunteers.

“We’ve seen many multigenerational families ' kids, together with their parents and grandparents ' all traveling with one another as a bonding experience in a truly unique and wonderful environment,” said Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of Globe Aware.

Friendship matters

Other faux-lidays aren’t just centered on the traditional definition of family. Some surround friendship.

“Two of my good friends have birthdays three days apart from each other,” said Jenny Des Jarlais, who lives in northern California. “They’re the same age for just those three days out of the year. They consider it a three-day period of celebration.”

Celebrations of half-birthdays have become commonplace for kids whose birthdays are lost in the December or summer shuffle, as with Murray’s daughter, who was born on New Year’s Eve. Murray points out a related post on

“My sister’s and my birthdays fell at inconvenient times (hers is Dec. 21, mine Jan. 4), so rather than let them get overlooked or run together with Christmas, my family would throw us a joint ‘unbirthday party’ some time when everybody could come. And we’d usually watch ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where the Mad Hatter explains that everybody gets 364 unbirthdays a year.”

A new holiday dawning

Thinking about proposing a new holiday for your extended family? For 64 years, relatives of Jessica Hebenstreit have gathered for the Benz Family Reunion at Rathbun Lake in Iowa. Here are five ways they started and sustained the tradition.

Agree on a day that remains clear year after year, such as “the second Sunday of July.” Once there’s reasonable consensus, stick to it to avoid confusion.

Make the official celebration a single-day event, then individual families can tailor their trip to their liking. Hebenstreit’s relatives start trickling in as much as a week in advance.

Pick a destination with some affordable recreational options. They don’t have to be highfalutin. “People go boating on the lake, spend time in town; generally, the adults find their way to the local pool hall,” Hebenstreit says.

Schedule some events, but not too many. A little bit of “corny” is OK too ' it’s family. “On Saturday we have a weenie roast at the campgrounds,” Hebenstreit says. “Sunday entails a potluck, a family report given by a member of each of the families on the past year, prayer, singing of songs, games for the children.”

Tend to business for the next year while everyone is there. On Sunday, Hebenstreit says her family passes a hat to raise money to reserve the shelters for the next year as well as to make a donation to the cemetery where their forebears, Charles and Anna Benz, are buried. They also elect a president and vice president who are responsible for booking the shelters and ensuring the reunion takes place the next year.


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