Family traditions are practices or beliefs that create positive feelings in families and are repeated at regular intervals. They’re more than routines, which are ordinary, everyday activities that require no special behavior and involve little emotion. Often traditions are handed down from generation to generation, but every family can create its own traditions as well. Some traditions are based on religious beliefs, such as praying before meals. Others come from cultural or ethnic heritage, such as serving dumplings on cold winter nights.
Traditions cultivate connection between immediate family members and between generations. Family scholars Nick Stinnett and John DeFrain say that traditions are the “we always” of families, like “We always make snow ice cream at the first snowfall,” or “We always have games and popcorn on Saturday night.” Because such traditions have meaning that is special to an individual family, they create feelings of warmth and closeness. By spending time together in a fun and special setting, family members grow closer.
Effective traditions promote a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. They also promote a feeling of safety and security within the family by providing a predictable and familiar experience. Family members have something to look forward to which gives them a sense of assurance in a hectic and ever-changing world. In his book The Intentional Family, family scholar William Doherty says that as family bonds are weakened by busy lifestyles, families can stay connected only by being intentional about maintaining important rituals and traditions.
Regular participation in meaningful traditions helps families overcome an inclination toward what family scholars call “entropy.” In the physical sciences, entropy is the tendency of a physical system to lose energy and coherence over time, such as a gas dissipating until it’s all but gone. As Doherty explains, an “entropic family” is one that loses its sense of emotional closeness because members neglect the family’s inner life and community ties.
Here are ideas for creating meaningful family traditions:
Aim for a moderate number of traditions. Families with too few traditions have trouble staying unified. They tend to forget or ignore important events in family member’s lives. Families with too many traditions, on the other hand, dilute the importance of each tradition. Moderation is the key.
Establish new traditions. Establishing new traditions takes preparation and effort. Parents should first identify a goal they want a new tradition to help them accomplish. Pick a good time to start the tradition and think about how often it should be repeated. Decide what activities will be included and the significance of these activities. Choose traditions that include every family member and are sensitive to the needs of all family members. Remember that every family is unique; do what works for you. Also don’t overwhelm the family with new traditions. Pick one or two and see how things go.
Make sure you have spiritual traditions. Traditions that bring family members closer to God should be a family’s first priority. Some of the simplest spiritual traditions include praying together, having regular family activity nights, reading sacred writings together, and holding regular family councils.
From time to time, evaluate your traditions. To make sure your traditions are working for your family, it’s a good idea for families occasionally to identify and evaluate traditions they already have and make plans to add new ones. Here are suggestions for doing this:
Gather your family together and ask someone to be scribe. Then list on a piece of paper all the family traditions you can think of. You may have more than you realized. Some traditions are such a part of family life that you may not think of them right away, like pancakes on Saturday mornings or family prayer morning and night.
Carefully review the list and discuss how much you enjoy each tradition. Are there some you’d like to do more? Are there some that are no longer enjoyable? Be willing to adjust or discard traditions that don’t help the family.
Cross off any traditions you decide to drop. Put a star by any you’d like to do more often.
Finally, list traditions you might like to add. Keep the list handy in a visible area for a few days to see if you think of anything else.
Common Family Traditions
Below is a list of traditions many families have continued through the generations or adopted as new traditions. As you evaluate your family’s traditions, use this list as a resource for possible new traditions:
For birthdays, each family member chooses his or her favorite menu, then everyone except the birthday person helps prepare the meal.
No one can go to bed until they’ve told each member of the family “I love you.”
For religious milestones such as baptism or confirmation, a child is given a book of scripture.
For religious or historical figures the family especially admires, celebrate that person’s birthday.
Saturdays are Dad’s day to make breakfast with the kids.
Take turns choosing a topic of discussion at the dinner table.
Have a special dinner plate to be used by a family member who has a reason to celebrate.
Tell a story every night before bed.
Keep a family journal, letting everyone write in it.
Establish your own holidays, such as an “Unbirthday Party.”
Watch movies that explore the value of traditions, such as “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Send out Thanksgiving cards (instead of Christmas cards).
Have children dress up as pilgrims and Indians.
Help serve food at a homeless shelter or invite those without families of their own to dinner.
Place five candies on each dinner plate, then for every piece of candy have each person at the table say one thing they are thankful for.
Have each member of the family draw a name of another member and make a handmade gift for that person.
Collect or make one ornament each year that has special meaning to the family.
Have the children write letters to Santa and place them in their stockings. Write letters in reply from Santa commending each child for his or her good behavior that year.
As a family, make gingerbread houses, candy trains, or ornaments.
As a family, put up Christmas/Hanukkah decorations, decorate the tree or light the menorah as a family, making it an event with music and good food.
Visit neighbors singing the songs of the season, and give a small gift to the people you visit.
Enjoy time playing dreidels and eating latkes and other traditional festivities of the Hanukkah season.
Act out the Christmas story.
Drive around the neighborhood looking at lights and listening to Christmas music.
For every day in December, burn a candle while participating in a family activity.
Collect Christmas stories and read them to small children.
Each year, add a special emblem to stockings signifying an important event from that year.
Give the Lord the gift of a personal improvement goal for next year. Write it on a piece of paper, place it in the manger, read it next Christmas or Hanukkah, and evaluate progress.
Have children put on piece of straw in the manger for every act of service they do in December. By Christmas it should be soft and comfortable for the baby Jesus.
New Year’s Traditions
Go winter camping. Make a fire and share stories and memories from the past year.
Leave shoes outside for the baby New Year to fill with candy and small toys.
Re-hang your stockings for a refill.
Set resolutions for the family as a whole.
Valentine’s Day Traditions
Draw names for secret pals the week before Valentine’s Day. Perform small acts of service and kindness for that person, then reveal your identities on Valentine’s Day.
Make heart-shaped cookies and give them to those in your neighborhood or congregation who are alone.
Have a red dinner with red jello, red mashed potatoes, beets, cherry cake, etc.
Call relatives and tell them you love them.
Visit the graves of family members early in the morning and talk about Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
Roll Easter eggs down a hill, symbolizing the removal of the stone that blocked Jesus’ tomb.
Dye Easter eggs together.
Enjoy the Passover service together, including include prayers, scripture readings, songs, hand washing, a meal (including the eating of hard-boiled eggs as a symbol of the renewal of springtime), eating of green and bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and wine (fruit of the vine).
For Further Reading:
The Intentional Family
by William J. Doherty
Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family
by Nick and Nancy Stinnett, Joe and Alice Beam