Why is it that grown adults still expect Christmas Eve pajamas from mom, even though they have long outgrown the necessity of new pajamas every year? How come you get looks of disbelief and horror if you don’t have turkey for Thanksgiving dinner? What makes someone else sitting in “your” place at the dinnertime feel like complete disorder and chaos is coming?
Why do we get smiles on our faces when we think of our favorite annual family vacation or the simple yet beloved bedtime routine with the kids? Why does Tevye sing so passionately about traditions in The Fiddler on the Roof? “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as a fiddler on the roof!”
As commonplace or maybe even as silly as some traditions are, traditions and rituals are very important to family life. And this is why:
What Are Traditions or Rituals
But before we get into the reasons why Christmas Eve pajamas actually matter, let’s talk about what rituals and traditions are. I Rituals are something symbolic or valuable or special in nature and they are performed over and over again.¹ They are associated with strong feelings (like joy with Christmas traditions) and communication- both verbal and non-verbal. Hence, because brushing my teeth isn’t associated with strong feelings or symbolism, it isn’t a ritual even though it is repetitive. Wolin and Bennett (1984) clarify in their definition of rituals (or traditions) that it is satisfactory to the family. So, traditions of arguing repeatedly over a certain topic or of alcohol abuse, etc. are not included in the researcher’s definition.
Researchers have described different types of traditions and rituals.¹
Family celebrations are the big events such as weddings, Christmas, baptisms, or the 4th of July. People celebrate these big events in their own ways, but these celebrations have a common thread from the community’s culture. For example, Thanksgiving has a basic premise for most people in the United States. We make turkey, eat a big feast with family, and say a thing or two about what we’re grateful for. But, the food and actual activities can vary. I had no idea that sauerkraut or hasty pudding could be on a Thanksgiving menu, because it just isn’t there in the Western states! But, my mom is from California, so sourdough stuffing is very common in our Thanksgiving feast. So, there are commonalities in culture, but each family celebrates in their own way.
Family traditions are a little more unique for each family and less centered around the culture. These traditions include things like family vacations, reunions, or ways to celebrate special events like birthdays. For example, my family goes to Lake Powell every summer on a boating vacation. Another example is every birthday we had a bouquet of balloons tied to our dinner chair. When my little girl turned one, I was so excited to have her pick out balloons for her high chair. She chose the dog balloons…no big surprise there.
Lastly, patterned family interactions are the every day rituals or traditions that you probably don’t even think about. These include things like bedtime routines with your kids or wake-up routines, family dinners, or fun family activities you like doing during the weekends like snowboarding or bike riding or browsing the farmer’s market. These routines might not have the heightened sense of joy like an annual birthday party does, but they are still super important to the family’s well-being.
Instead of repeating rituals and traditions over and over, I am simply going to simplify it and say “traditions” hereafter.
Why are Traditions Important
Traditions help us feel loved, loving, and create memories
I don’t think we need research to let us know that traditions can give us a cozy feeling and help us feel loved. In her Tedx Talk, Rita Barreto Craig said, “Traditions touch us, they connect us, and they expand us.”² She described of her mom’s goodbye routine every day before she left for school. She said it helped her feel touched because she knew she was loved as she listened to her mom’s encouraging words and got a good-bye kiss and lovingly packed lunch. She said it connected her because she shared the experience with her family and siblings. We’ll talk more about connection in a few paragraphs. Lastly, she said it expanded her because she took those positive feelings with her throughout her day, and later on she continued the tradition with her own son.
I love that last thought- traditions expand us as we can leave with positive feelings. Certainly, we can remember beautiful memories we create with our families- whether it’s through traditional activities we do on Saturdays or our favorite vacation or singing around the piano every Sunday night. Truly, time escapes from us and all we have left are memories of the past. So, let’s create memorable, fun, loving and valuable memories from traditions we share with our family.
Traditions pass down family values and goals
Researchers have argued that traditions are very important because it communicates what the family values and what principles are important to them.¹ One very common form of family rituals is to gather at the dinner table to eat and talk about the day. Yes, several if not even most family dinners are probably mundane or just a frenzy to try to teach everyone to pass the food. But, family dinner can be an amazing way to teach children and teens about what is valuable to the family. Some of the best sermons don’t come from long lectures, but come through discussions around the dinner table. These messages of values and principles are also sent nonverbally. Family dinners can send the message that family is important and everyone there is wanted and valued. Homework, work, social media, and extracurricular activities can all be set aside to listen to one another or just relax together.
Of course, family dinner is just one example of such a routine. I’m sure you can see how holiday traditions, everyday rituals, or fun family outings etc. send messages of what is good, worthwhile, or valuable. For example, having a routine of helping your children with their homework every day before dinner can send the message that education is important. It’s easy to see how religious or spiritual traditions and routines send messages of what is valuable.
Researchers Steven Wolin and Linda Bennett said, “Family ritual is a means of educating its members and regulating their behavior. It acts as a mechanism for sharing beliefs and for perpetuating those beliefs over time.”¹
Traditions help define “who we are”
Traditions help families answer the question, “Who are we?” Every year I know that my family will have gnocchi on Christmas Eve and go boating, if possible, on the 4th of July. These traditions are in part what defines us. My family is a family of boaters and foodies, among other things.
Researchers Steven Wolin and Linda Bennett said, “Ritual offers them the opportunity to experience and even celebrate their identity as a family, an identity that does not negate but transcends individual boundaries.”¹
Other researchers state that rituals can provide meaning across generations. Some rituals are started when new families form. For example, my husband and I started a couple Christmas traditions of our own that neither of our parents passed down to us. But other traditions began with our grandparents or maybe even great-grandparents. Having generational traditions is important for both the older family members to feel involved and for the younger members to understand what makes up their heritage and who they are. Researchers found that that rituals and traditions help adolescents form their identity. To learn more about why oral traditions and family stories are important, read Family Ninja’s article about it.
Researchers Fiese and others said, “Family rituals were seen as very important in providing togetherness, strengthening family relationships, emotional exchange, and stability, maintaining family contact, and providing opportunities to create special times in single-parent families.”³
I think Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof again sums it up perfectly: “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do….”
Traditions provide stability through stressful times
It probably goes without saying that rituals provide stability to family life. Because by definition rituals are repetitive, family members know what to expect. Other researchers have found that when families continued traditions and rituals even through stressful times it helped them stay strong, resilient, and adaptable.³ They found that families where traditions were disrupted by alcoholism were more likely to pass alcoholism down to the next generation than families who continued traditions despite alcoholism being present in family life.
Despite the stability it provides, or perhaps even because of it, families must be flexible in dealing with rituals and traditions. There will come a time when bedtime stories are no longer read or when certain holiday traditions can’t be continued because it is the in-law’s turn to be with family members. One friend started doing Thanksgiving dinner the Saturday before Thanksgiving so that she could gather the whole family together. Or maybe traditions are just no longer working for the individual needs of your family as your family ages or changes in situation. In these cases, it is best to adapt or even begin new traditions.
Traditions are associated with health and happiness
Fiese and her associates found in their summary of research that keeping family traditions and routines had several positive benefits on physical and mental health.³ It was overall associated with well-adjusted families. Who doesn’t want to be a family that is doing well? They found that young mothers fared better when they kept routines after the birth of a newborn and marital satisfaction was higher in the beginning of parenthood. (That makes sense…after the birth of a baby I just wanted to feel normal and know what to expect.) Single mothers felt more confident and some rituals provided ways for the mothers to spend special time with their children. And, it is associated with lower symptomology in children in some cases.
A note of caution and encouragement
Of course, most of this research isn’t done with the gold standard of lab tests. You just can’t randomly assign traditions in a double-blind procedure. There are many different explanations and ways to interpret the results of all of these studies. And, I’ve only provided a couple of literature reviews on the subject. However, I think it’s safe to say that traditions are definitely important to family life.
And of course, continuing dysfunctional traditions isn’t going to be beneficial. But, there are so many wonderful traditions that can really impact the family, and probably even the larger community for good.
If you feel like you want to add more family traditions into your life, start with something small and simple. You don’t have to completely change family culture in one day. Instead, try adding a small, 5 minute routine into your day. Or, make an effort to plan a fun family activity on the first Saturday of every month. As these activities are repeated eventually you’ll create wonderful shared memories and start engraining new traditions with all the values and benefits that come with it.
¹Wolin, S. J. & Bennett, L. A. (1984). Family rituals. Family Process 23. pages 401-420.
²Barreto Craid, R. (2015). Lessons about tradition from a little brown bag. TedxBocaRaton. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knTBMoqluv0
³Fiese, B. H., Tomcho, T. J., Douglas, M., Josephs, K., Poltrock, S. & Baker, T. (2002). A review of 50 years of research on naturally occurring family routines and rituals: Cause for celebration? Journal of Family Psychology 16(4) doi: 10.1047//0893-3220.127.116.111