It was during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons of the years before I met my husband that I was most keenly aware of my single state; I longed to share holiday traditions and rituals with a husband and children of my own.
I was so interested in sharing traditions because I remembered enjoying a number of these when I was growing up. That’s why many of us engage in traditions and rituals—we enjoy them! At other times we engage in them out of habit or to maintain a connection with loved ones who have passed.
Regardless of our motivations, traditions and rituals benefit our families. In fact, researchers who study families say that traditions and rituals play a key role in strengthening and sustaining our families. How can a simple tradition such as decorating Christmas cookies keep our families strong? It makes perfect sense if we consider the following.
What are traditions and rituals?
People sometimes use the terms “tradition” and “ritual” interchangeably, but these related concepts are not identical. Traditions are the things we do over and over again that help us hand down information, beliefs, and behaviors to the next generation. They are often unique to individual families. Eating pumpkin pancakes each fall is an example of a tradition that some families share. It is enjoyable and is a way they mark the autumn season.
Though traditions vary in their significance, rituals are always laden with meaning. They are prescribed ways of doing things or repeated patterns of meaningful actions that have spiritual or emotional dimensions. Sharing the Seder meal at the start of Passover is an example of a ritual that some families share. It is a meaning-laden meal that marks the start of an important Jewish holiday. The Seder helps families remember the Israelite exodus from Egypt and instill their faith in the younger generation.
What functions do traditions and rituals serve in our families?
Though they are somewhat different, traditions and rituals both serve many beneficial functions in our families. For simplicity, I’ll stick to using the term “tradition” in the following discussion, but understand that I’m referring to both traditions and rituals.
- Traditions help us stay connected. The demands of life pull us in many directions, but traditions provide family time during which we can reconnect. These periodic opportunities to reconnect help our families stay close despite the upheavals that occur in our lives.
- Traditions offer stability and order. Children (and many adults) thrive when they know what comes next and what is expected of them. Because traditions are predictable, they help us create stable, orderly environments for our families.
- Traditions teach practical skills. Traditions allow us to pass important skills on to the next generation. Examples of skills that children learn from holiday traditions include how to prepare traditional foods, how to set a formal table, and how to practice hospitality.
- Traditions help us make sense of the passage of time. Young children do not really understand the concept of months and years, so traditions that are associated with the various seasons are one of the first ways that they begin making sense of time. As children grow older, they take note of time’s passage when they become old enough to participate in traditions in new ways (e.g., being allowed to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, graduating from the “kid’s table” to the regular table at Thanksgiving dinner). As adults enter their twilight years, traditions help keep them oriented. They may confuse names and dates, but they know precisely what to do when familiar traditions begin.
- Traditions help us cope with loss and trauma. When we face traumatic circumstances (death of loved ones, natural disasters, etc.), traditions give us a blueprint for how to act. For example, many families share the tradition of eating a meal together after the funeral of a loved one. Family members don’t have to figure out what to think or do because this activity is automated. Its predictability provides a sense of comfort and helps restore normalcy.
- Traditions connect us to our pasts. We feel connected to our ancestors when we engage in the traditions that our families have practiced for generations. These traditions preserve the past by helping us pass our worldviews, cultures, and values on to our own children.
- Traditions contribute to our identities. Traditions shape our families and make them unique. Our families play a significant role in shaping us. Consequently, these traditions impact how we understand and express ourselves.
- Traditions can protect against violence and drug abuse. According to researchers, families that make rituals a priority are less likely to experience violence within the home or have members who become alcoholics.
- Traditions help us communicate. Not only do traditions give us family time during which we can communicate, but they provide us with opportunities where it is considered “appropriate” to say things that might otherwise go unsaid. Thanksgiving traditions help us speak of gratitude, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day traditions help us thank our parents, funeral rituals help us discuss our mortality, etc.
- Traditions impart values. By engaging in certain traditions, we are able to enact our values in tangible ways. Demonstrating values in this way (i.e., walking the walk) is a much more powerful way to convey them to the next generation than simply speaking of them.
Isn’t this amazing? In our human nature, we gravitate towards predictable behaviors. God uses these behaviors—enacted as traditions and rituals—to undergird our families. For additional information on the benefits of traditions, visit my sources: Infants & Young Children, Journal of Family Psychology, Legacy Project, and Direction.
How have traditions and rituals benefited your family?