So much about the holidays involves the rituals our families have in place to celebrate these annual events. Who is included, what food is served, where the meals take place, when meals are eaten, and how you find time for your nuclear family to be together are just a few of the traditions families cherish.
These customs typically have the strongest emotional attachment when people reminisce about their childhoods.
The Details of Rituals
By building family ties, rituals counteract the forces in our contemporary culture that pull families apart, such as divorce, frequent geographic dislocations, distance from extended families, long work hours, and overloaded schedules.
What Makes a Ritual a Ritual?
To be considered a ritual, the activity must be:
- have special meaning to the family.
- be predictable, which offers the family a sense of regularity and order.
Encouraging connection among members, rituals strengthen family identity so it is clear what is unique about the family. They give the family a way to implement its values (such as community service, family closeness, concern about elderly relatives, religious identity, etc.)
For example, you can hear children proudly telling friends, “In our family, we have big Christmas dinners every year and all my cousins come from all over the country.”
This increases self-esteem in children as they see the positive and special ways that their family celebrates and connects.
Rituals can Occur throughout the Year
To increase the meaning and importance of life and to create a sense of family identity, parents can consciously create these established formal practices throughout the year.
They can be established around special occasions acknowledged in unique ways including:
- Mother’s Day.
- Father’s Day.
and as life cycle celebrations such as:
- Bar/Bat Mitvahs.
These can take place not just around the holidays, but through small everyday customs such as:
- a weekly family meal when everyone eats together.
- breakfast out every Sunday morning.
Rituals can even be built around an annual family vacation or a monthly trip to the local nursing home to give a helping hand.
They can involve the whole family, or sub-groups such as Mom and the girls; Dad and the boys; or other combinations.
How Rituals Form
Often times, rituals are passed down from our parents and we repeat what we experienced during our childhoods. In this way, parents pass on a family legacy to their children, thereby connecting their family’s past to its future.
When people marry, they need to blend the rituals from each of their childhoods so that over time they create their own way of doing things that reflect the family they are raising.
There are no right or wrong rituals; each family uses their own history, values, religion, beliefs and culture to create the traditions that are meaningful to them.
Sometimes families either don’t have any rituals or want to consciously create new ones based on their family’s values and interests.
For example, maybe you feel that community service is an important value you want to pass on to your children. You can start going to a soup kitchen with your children once a month, and involve your children in deciding what food you will donate.
There are times when an activity becomes a ritual “by accident.”
For example, one year, you take your children to a cabin in the mountains. It is so much fun that you do it the next year and the year after that. Suddenly, you realize that everyone looks forward to the outing. The children are expecting that “of course we are going to the mountains this year.” It provides a special time when your family is together without the interruptions of everyday life.
You have created a new ritual!
Rituals can be fluid events that evolve over time. Sometimes, the specifics stop working for us and lose their meaning for one reason or another – family dynamics change, children grow up, family members move, new family members are brought in.
When the Ritual Doesn’t Work
People can feel pressure to continue family rituals even when they are causing more stress than comfort or enjoyment. There is no need to be wedded to a ritual just because “that’s the way it has always been done.”
For example, this can happen if the hosting of a holiday celebration becomes too exhausting for a family member or when children become more independent of family as they enter the teen years.
A little bit of flexibility, creativity and accommodating family members’ needs can go a long way to maintaining family traditions that work for every one and maintain the family bonds.
Since change can be difficult, it is best to make changes slowly and to involve all family members in the development of a new or modified tradition to ensure “buy-in” from them.
When You Want to Add to the Ritual
People also add to a ritual that already exists to make it more enriching. When I was growing up, my family had a small Thanksgiving dinner. With my own family, over the years we have gradually added elements that have increased its meaning:
- many more family members from far and wide.
- a family cookbook.
- an annual video and notebook where people can record their reflections.
- a formal time when people can update the group about their lives.
- a ‘talent’ show put on by the children.
By purposely tending to your family’s rituals, you can strengthen ties that will:
- increase a sense of cohesion,
- buffer your children from the forces in our culture that pull them away,
- and create great memories that your children can carry into the next generation.
With life being so hectic these days for most families, I can hear parents groaning about yet another thing they ‘should’ be doing – creating rituals. But the good news is that some of the things you already are doing need only be tweaked a little bit for them to take on the feeling and give your family the benefits of a ritual.
You are most likely feeding your family anyway; why not have one meal a week (or two) when you all sit down together, add some candles and nice dishes, have conversations that encourage people to share their thoughts, and voila! – You have the makings of a beautiful dinnertime ritual!
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