The holiday season, however you celebrate it, is a sensory-rich affair. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year rituals are flush with communal songs and chants, traditional foods and twinkling lights.

"Sensory pageantry" is how Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropology and psychology professor at the University of Connecticut, refers to the holidays' pomp. Such sensory stimulation helps imprint those memories, which, in turn, shape our identities, he said. "These episodic, or autobiographical memories are essential to our self-knowledge."

This year, as many of our traditional holiday rituals shrink or go virtual, they'll likely lose the splendor and frisson that a large family gathering can bring.

But that's no reason to pull the plug on the holidays. Instead, we should try to continue our rituals in modified fashion this year, experts say, because even a lackluster substitute can boost the psyche.

Rituals of all sorts — a nightly bedtime story, a funeral, a New Year's toast — take us out of the daily hustle and bustle and instill a sense of purpose and connection. They help us mark time, affirm values and make us feel like we are a part of something larger than ourselves.

"For as long as there have been people, there have been rituals," said Tai Mendenhall, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. "It's a time for your family or your close community to acknowledge, to celebrate, to mourn, to laugh, to cry, to remember to, look forward."

Among the most obvious benefits of rituals are the connections they foster and the way they affirm a sense of belonging.

"Humans are social creatures," Mendenhall said. "It feels good to connect with the people that mean the most to us during a time that is meaningful. Rituals remind us that we're not alone in this."

And cooking and eating together — the cornerstones of so many holiday traditions — are a defining characteristic of our species.

"This goes all the way back to our ancestors sitting around the bonfire and roasting their meal and sharing it," Xygalatas said.

Mealtime creates space for conversations that can give us a deeper understanding of one another as well as cultivating memories and inside jokes that increase our attachment.

Not only that, but eating the same food, Xygalatas said — along other synchronous activities, such as chanting in unison, dancing together, or wearing the same clothes — has been shown to increase endorphin levels.

"When we behave like one another we actually feel closer to one another," he said — an effect that would even apply to an ugly sweater party.

The tradition of shared gift giving, as well, is more than just an exchange of items, Xygalatas said, but a way to reinforce a sense of reciprocity in relationships and strengthening bonds.

The continuity of rituals can also provide comfort and stability in our ever-changing lives. In his research, Xygalatas found that when subjects engaged in rituals, they reduced their anxiety and calmed their bodies, as measured by heart-rate monitors.

In the big picture, rituals mark the passage of time and give us a sense of progress. They also help us hit the pause button on our busy lives and create space to reflect on what matters.

"Rituals of all kinds are an opportunity to break out of everyday time into a more special time," explained Kathleen Hull, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota.

Because everyone is focused on the same thing at the same time, practicing a ritual — be it a congregation singing Christmas carols or the crowds in Times Square counting down to the New Year's ball drop — can spur a transcendent feeling that sociologists describe as "collective effervescence," Hull said, which helps us recharge our batteries. "These special times have a sacredness about them and can offer deeper sources of meaning than what's available to us in our daily routines."

Rituals also help forge our identities and transmit shared values to the next generation. "It makes us feel that we're members of a community that goes beyond ourselves, and sometimes even beyond time, because it extends beyond the living to include our ancestors," Xygalatas said.

Adapting plans

That's why he suggests doing whatever you can to celebrate, because it will help you feel more connected, relaxed and refreshed than choosing to skip the 2020 holiday season.

So go ahead and decorate your home and play holiday music to get in the spirit, even if you're the only one who will enjoy it. "Don't skimp on the pageantry," Xygalatas said. "It's a psychological tool for creating better experiences."

He also advised extending your online gathering beyond eating "together" via video to also stream meal preparations or post-dinner movie-watching sessions. "These alternatives are not the exact same thing, but they work," he said.

Planning to hold a "real" celebration — call it Holiday Party II — when larger in-person gatherings are safe can help soften the blow of settling for a mediocre version of the traditional ritual right now, Mendenhall advised.

"Don't say that opening presents on Zoom is the replacement, say it's the tide over," he said. "Then there's something to look forward to, and you don't have to wait a whole year."

Remember that what you do is more important than when you do it, Mendenhall said, and that there's no reason your "rain check" gathering can't be extravagant.

"Put up your blowup snowman in your front yard in the middle of July — that's kind of cool."

Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569