What is it about traditions and especially those associated with a holiday that make them so important to us? Our family Christmas traditions have become something of a legend to those who know us. Although my four children have long outgrown any belief in Santa Claus, they still expect us to observe every ritual our family has ever instituted! After all, there are now two grandchildren in the picture to enjoy and pass on the holiday traditions!
They want to hang the stockings (that Grandma made for them) by the fireplace. We still wrestle with putting the tree together. I am still expected to make the same type of cookies each year. I can make other kinds if I choose; but there had better be the red and green sugar cookies and the iced shortbread cookies on the counter by the time everyone arrives home for Christmas break. The list goes on and on! My Mom is in charge of the fruitcake and tourtière (French Canadian meat pie made with ground pork and spices), so the holiday traditions live on.
Family holiday traditions provide great value, and the value lasts far beyond the moment. The value of a tradition isn’t in completing the ritual; the value comes from what it provides for those who participate.
First of all, traditions provide stability. Activities that are observed year in and year out become a means by which family members can build trust and security. Regardless of what else may happen, the traditions will not change. So much in our lives these days is temporary. Family holiday traditions provide something for every person to hold on to and to rely upon.
Secondly, traditions give us a sense of identity. They are one of the things that make us unique to other families. I remember reading about a person who recalled his childhood Christmas traditions. The writer was clearly moved by thoughts of his mother’s Ambrosia Salad that was served every Christmas Eve. In this article, he commented that he experienced a normal American Christmas, but as I read it I thought, “I don’t even know what Ambrosia Salad is!” For him, Ambrosia Salad was the crowning glory of Christmas.
Although our Christmas traditions may have some commonality with other families, each household still has their own way of living out those holiday traditions. That is what is so special about them. Each family’s unique twist is what gives that family its identity and helps the members bond with one another. Ethnic foods, decorations, special activities, all help families become distinctive.
Thirdly, traditions are important because they provide continuity between generations. It can be difficult to keep up with extended family members these days, and of course it is impossible to touch those who are long gone. But holiday traditions create a bridge between the young and the old, between the past and the present.
We have some Christmas decorations that have been passed down through the years. And of course, what better way for the generations to mix and mingle than over a table laden with foods made from well-loved family recipes?
Traditions are obviously good for families. We can build memories and share stories so that we draw near to one another. But with everything there is to do these days, how can a family determine which activities ought to become holiday traditions? Here are some tips to help you figure out what will work best for you:
Recognize that some traditions just happen.
These are the ones that you stumble upon, quite accidentally. You hadn’t planned on them happening, but they did and became a tradition by default. Who would have known that teaching the youngsters to make paper chain for the tree would continue on into their adult lives?
Traditions need to include everyone.
We used to have a quiet Christmas with just our children, but we realized that husbands and wives and grandchildren would join in eventually. Grandparents visit and friends drop by. Activities that can easily accommodate different numbers of people are more apt to make for good traditions. One tradition we observe is always reading both The Night before Christmas by Clement Clark Moore and the story of Jesus birth from the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve. It is a good time for everyone to quiet down, enjoy being together, and everyone can participate.
Choose activities that will serve others.
Christmas is a great time to practice generosity! One of our sons enjoys taking gifts to the Salvation Army to be distributed to the less fortunate. Over the years, we have gathered presents for others, collecting hats and mittens for disadvantaged children, and provided holiday foods for others through our church. Samaritan’s Purse and Angel Tree are just two organizations that families can work with to help others.
Choose activities that are fun and will relieve stress.
This may seem obvious, but sometimes we get caught up in the idea that we need to provide a perfect Christmas for our families. We don’t. We need to give them homes that are happy and filled with love and joy.
Finally, choose activities that are easily reproduced year after year.
What is important is not that they be elaborate, but rather that they be lived out repeatedly. The holiday traditions that have meant the most to our family: reading stories, special decorations, making cookie houses and so on, which have become traditions in our home in part because we practiced them every year.
All of us have holiday memories. Some of those memories are hard and painful; if a loved one is no longer living, Christmas can be something that is dreaded rather than anticipated. Some of our memories are good as we remember a special gift, a fun event, or a moment when it seemed that all of life came together and we held it in our hands.
We cannot plan all of those moments for our families. But through creating and maintaining family holiday traditions, we can offer stability, identity and continuity to our loved ones. We can look to the past and not be afraid of remembering those who are no longer with us. We can enjoy the present, knowing that we are building strong families. And we can look forward to the future, when our children will sit by the fire in their homes and tell stories of their Christmas traditions.