*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on January 31, 2018. It can also be found online here.

It turns out tossing some fruitcake might have been the healthiest thing you could have done this past weekend.

I did, this past Saturday, at the 22nd annual Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss. Hundreds took advantage of a sunny afternoon to descend on Memorial Park to try their hand at three fruitcake-infused challenges: throwing for accuracy (through hula-hoops of various sizes), throwing for distance (on a marked field), and balance (speed-walking a zig-zagged path while holding a cake on a spatula).

No fruitcake of your own? No problem: with a canned food donation or a buck, you can “rent” a fruitcake to partake in the festivities. Or, if you’d rather not throw, you can watch the massive slingshot fire fruitcakes several hundred feet, narrowly missing cars.

On the surface, it might appear like a lot of other Manitou festivals. There’s the costumed guy on the stilts, the one my daughters call “the giant,” juggling and forcing us all to crane our necks upward. In the crowd you’ll find your usual assortment of visible tattoos, colored hair, enormous smiles, and kids playing.

But something is different about this one. For starters, why would anyone do this? There’s no reason to go outside in January, in front of a crowd of your neighbors, to pitch a cake, fruit or otherwise. No religious doctrine proscribes it. And there never was, and certainly never will be, a tradition of throwing fruitcakes for sport. It is extremely unlikely that U.S. Olympic Committee officials were there to investigate developing this for future Olympic Games (besides, would it be a summer or winter event?).

We’re left with one thing: The Great Fruitcake Toss is about community. Look past the surface and you’ll see this is just an excuse to get citizens and friends and neighbors out of their houses and, well, together. While organized by the local chamber of commerce, and one goal was certainly to drive much-needed business during the post-holiday slump, the community-building on display visibly overwhelmed the event’s financial aspect.

And this couldn’t be more important for our health. Social isolation kills. The census tells us marriage rates and the number of kids per household are dropping; roughly one quarter of the population lives alone. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, has conducted two large studies on social connection and health.

The first was an analysis of 148 other studies covering about 300,000 people, and found that those with social connections had a 50 percent lower risk of dying early compared with people without strong social circles. The second was a review of 70 studies and found that living alone, loneliness, and isolation all have a significant impact on a person’s likelihood of early death.

A 2010 AARP study determined that nearly 43 million adults over 45 in the U.S. suffer from chronic loneliness. In Great Britain, it was recently reported that 14 percent of the population “often or always feel lonely,” so much so that they’ve appointed a cabinet-level position to address the problem. One British expert pointed out that it’s “worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

Enter the Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss. In two hours, our family saw or met an abundance of the people that pepper our daily routines.

First up was Allison the librarian, who took our two girls over to secure a ticket. We got to know David, whose daughter Ashley is my daughter’s assigned “buddy” (mentor) at school, and we chatted about churches and moving to Manitou. There’s Chris, the friend my wife hiked the Intemann Trail with earlier in the day, who brought her son Grant, a boy my girls love to play with.

We saw others, too many to list here, and on our way out we stopped by the Manitou Heritage Center for a cup of hot chocolate. Even there, simply looking for a sweet warm drink, we bumped into Dale, Shirley, and Michelle, folks that have been instrumental in helping me understand the community and its history.

Two hours packed with handshakes and, yes, even a few hugs – good for growing friendships and improving health.

That’s what great communities do – they come up with excuses to get together. Even if it is to throw some fruitcake.

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