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Family gatherings are a natural part of the holidays, but so are all the planning, hard work and stress that it takes to host that kind of reunion.

Rather than cleaning the whole house before the relatives come, spending the whole holiday itself in the kitchen and then mopping up afterward, some folks take a different path.

The Stanley family of Santa Rosa, for example, decided years ago to skip gatherings during the holidays altogether and postpone the big party for a month, when everyone's schedule is a bit looser.

"Instead of spending our money on exchanging gifts, because none of us really needs anything, we put the money into a fund for renting a cabin out at Bodega Bay in January," said Tamara Stanley.

Stanley, who works as a special-events planner for Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma, is the acknowledged ringleader of the annual get-togethers, booking cabins through the Bodega Bay and Beyond vacation rental agency.

"We have three generations staying together, and we all take turns making meals," said Stanley. "The grandparents team up with the kids for some of the meals."

Bodega Bay is close enough to allow family members to come and go as needed, taking kids to classes and sports practices, or checking in at work, Stanley said.

"I love our family Bodega tradition, because we get to make family memories that we'll keep forever," said Kim Stanley, Tamara's sister. "And there's no fighting the holiday shopping crowds, no crazy gift-wrapping frenzy the night before, and no 'Oh, um, thanks?' gifts."

For Larissa Ban of San Francisco, a marketing director for a high-tech software company, escaping to rental hideaways in the North Bay is more a bimonthly activity than an annual one.

Ban has been booking houses in Guerneville and Monte Rio through the Russian River Getaways company for the past seven years. She and her boyfriend make a point of coming up to the river area, particularly for the Christmas season but also for July 4, she said.

"It's fabulous to drive barely an hour and a half north of San Francisco, and get reconnected with the redwoods and the eucalyptus smell. We usually want to get a house right on the Russian River, with a view," she said.

"The first Fourth of July week that we spent up there was in Monte Rio. Watching the fireworks over the river was just magical, so we now make it an annual tradition," Ban said.

In the wintertime, even rainy weather only makes holing up in a snug house that much more cozy, she explained.

"The river makes such a beautiful backdrop, and Guerneville has such a genteel atmosphere," she said.

For Anna Schmidt, a Santa Rosa nurse, major holiday family reunions only happen every decade or so, but when the parties do happen, they're big.

"We have 75 to 100 family members come," she said. "I'm the oldest of five, and there were eight kids in my dad's family and seven in my mom's family. So you have all the cousins, and aunts and uncles and siblings from all the families. They come from all over the country."

No one has a living room that big, so the clan chose to rent a spot. Schmidt's family has held holiday gatherings at the Kenwood Depot and the Tomales Town Hall. One year, they even chipped in to hire a caterer. At the Kenwood party, the family brought in a square-dance caller.

"We have such a large family, it can't be any one person doing everything," she said. "It's great to have the space and time to catch up with family we don't see very often, and not have to worry about cooking and cleaning up so much."

<i>You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</i>