Adult friendships are essential to good health. So why don't we make time for them during the holidays?

We tend to focus on family during the holiday season, but carving out time for friends can strengthen your bond, while boosting your mental health.
Girls laughing in cafe
Creating a holiday tradition with friends gives you a shared experience in the moment and an extra push to keep that connection alive year after year.fotostorm / Getty Images
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By Ronnie Koenig

When most of us think of holiday get-togethers it’s all about family — catching up with cousins, hosting your in-laws from out-of-town or visiting with your own parents and siblings. But what about our friends? For many of us, friends serve as a de facto family, especially if relatives live far away. Our friends are the ones who support us through crises, celebrate our victories with us and are usually the most up to date on our day-to-day lives. So why don’t we have our own holiday traditions with these very important people?

“Holidays can be stressful and friends provide a sense of support,” Janice McCabe, associate professor of sociology at Dartmouth College and author of "Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success", told me. “Friends help us feel better about ourselves and that can be especially important during the holidays. A holiday can be an excuse to get together when carving out time for friendship can feel like a luxury.”

Since moving to a new state two years ago, I’ve had to work a little harder to keep up with my friendships. One friend in particular has been great about staying in touch. Even though Amy and I can no longer just pop over to each other’s homes for impromptu kid “dinner parties” (we have kids the same age) or meet up for a drink, we still plan — and actually show up for — fun outings.

The importance of maintaining friendships in adulthood

“Research has shown close friends are essential to physical and mental health,” said Marla Paul, author of "The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore" and the Health Sciences Editor for Northwestern University Media Relations. Paul explained the importance of maintaining friendships even when you feel too busy.

“Friendships are important at every stage of life. But the greatest stresses on them tend to be in midlife when women are pulled in so many different directions. Friends offer us support when we go through hard times. And they share and enhance our joy when good things are happening. By keeping tabs on their lives, and them doing the same for us, we feel a deep connection to each other. It keeps us from feeling isolated and alone. Someday the kids will go off to college, we will retire, and have even more time for cherished friends. And they’ll still be there — if we’ve valued and nurtured those relationships along the way.”

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Koenig and her friend Amy making candles at Wax + Wine.Ronnie Koenig

A new holiday tradition: Candles and wine

When I came across Wax + Wine — an adorable place in Philly where you can drink wine and make candles, I invited Amy on a “fun Friday” friend outing. Amy took multiple modes of transportation (subway to train to my car) and crossed state lines just to meet up with me. Since many of us can’t even rally to meet up with friends who live in our own neighborhoods, it was definitely a sign that our friendship could thrive despite the distance!

The idea of making candles sounded both unique and seasonal and when we walked into the beautiful and very Insta-worthy candle bar we knew we were in a special place. After pouring some red wine into the provided glasses we were ready to select the fragrances for our candles. Inhaling the different scents (there were an overwhelming 75 to choose from) we wrote down our favorite combinations, eventually choosing the ones we wanted to pair for the two candles we each made. It was sensory overload trying to select our favorites from options like “cashmere cedar,” “fireside embers,” “amber sensual” and “butt naked.” After mixing the scents with precision using a dropper, we mixed them into the wax and poured them into our selected containers. The most fun part of the evening was naming our candles. Mine were “Sex by a Roaring Fire” and “Warm Blankie.”

Even though we would have been content with just dinner and drinks, doing a unique activity together helped to bring our friendship into the here and now. Instead of just talking about the past, we were making new memories together; creating new inside-jokes and experiences. Especially with long-time friends, it's easy to fall back on reminiscing about the past, but here we were, creating new memories that would keep our friendship current.

Especially with long-time friends, it's easy to fall back on reminiscing about the past, but here we were, creating new memories that would keep our friendship current.

The takeaway: Create your own traditions with friends this year

It’s never easy to find the time to meet up, but it can be even trickier during the busy holiday season. Maybe that was another reason our girls’ night felt so special: When we could have been doing a million other things, we chose to take time out and do this activity together.

“Women tend to push friendships to the back burner when they’re busy and juggling work, kids, exercise and, perhaps, helping older parents,” said Paul. “But friendships must be a priority. They are essential to a healthy and happy life. To find time you need to have this mindset, then set regular meetups with friends so it’s not something you have to keep scheduling. It can be a weekly or even monthly coffee or lunch. Or, make it a weekly walk with a pal so you are combining fitness and socializing. You can even plan your manicures side by side.”

“Creating a tradition gives you a shared experience in the moment,” said McCabe. “Shared experiences can make friendship last over time. Next year, when that comes around, you have an extra push to keep that connection alive.”

Whether it’s candle-making or something else, I am certain that Amy and I will continue to make efforts to see each other — to share laughter, support and friendship, even though we are now many miles away.

So, when you’re playing touch football or making cookies with your family, don’t forget to call your friends and make plans with them, too. Start a holiday tradition that honors and celebrates all that you do for each other during the year. Because in the end, friendships really do matter!

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