IF EVER THE country needed a time to pause and reflect, it is now because this has been one helluva year. Can I get a witness?

Oh, there've been good times. This year's highs have been exceptional - watching Barack Obama being inaugurated president was the biggest. The lows, though, have been staggering - the nation's continuing economic problems, wars in the Middle East, and the bruising battle to get some kind of health-care reform passed.

But you don't need me to rehash what has happened. Suffice it to say that Christmas this year comes at an especially opportune time. We really could use this moment to take a step back and regroup.

Think what you want about the crass commercialism of the holiday, but there's something mentally restorative about having an annual day that's rooted in spirituality but that's also about spending time with loved ones and picking the green things out of fruitcake.

I'll be spending at least some of the holiday in Washington, D.C., with my parents and with a couple of my childhood girlfriends. I met one of these women in the third grade, when she had waist-length hair and granny glasses, and the other in kindergarten when we were both still practically babies. Every year, for as long as we can remember, we've been exchanging gifts at Christmas. Back when we were kids and had no money, we used to wrap up our old toys to give each other as presents. We'd literally walk around our bedrooms and toss things into a gift box.

By the time we were older and had money to spend, this habit already had become ingrained. That's why we're rabid, habitual regifters. I've gotten presents from one friend that I could swear I'd given her just the year before. Another year, one of these friends gave me a pink candle that I couldn't help noticing already had been burned.

There was no sense in pointing out that she was busted. It's part of our little game. That sweater Janet gave you? Hated it. Pass it onto Kay. Or maybe Kristie, Janet's daughter, could use it. Mind you, all of this is done boldly, right out in front of each other. Hurt feelings take a back seat. When you've known people since your age was in the single digits, you can get away with this kind of rudeness . . . I mean honesty. Miss Manners would be appalled but our gift-regift-exchange is our wacky tradition, and it's special to us since this is the only time of year that we're guaranteed to make a date with each other and actually keep it.

Lots of folks have offbeat traditions or rituals that they do this time of year.

In Norway, people hide brooms on Christmas Eve to keep witches from stealing them to ride around on.

And in this town in Sweden called Gavle, people erect a large straw goat that pranksters try to burn down.

Closer to home, AJ Adrian Smith, who works for ABB in Warminster, described this ritual in an e-mail. "Every year at my mother's house, the youngest person in the house is dubbed 'Santa's helper' and hands out all the gifts underneath the tree. If neither of my siblings and their kids are there, it sometimes falls on me, and I'm now 41."

Last Christmas, my friend Kay took a photo of the three of us and framed it as a present. The picture came out so dark that except for the shine on my forehead, you can barely tell it's me sitting on the couch between the two of them. Janet's hair is almost completely gray. And Kay has a few lines around the eyes. From what I can make out of myself, I look the same in that photo as I always have, but don't let either of them know I wrote that.

That photo was just a snapshot, but it may be the only present that I've gotten from either of them that I know I'll never give away. Here's hoping that your Christmas will be full of warm moments shared among friends and loved ones - and presents you won't want to regift.

Happy holidays, everyone.