Most of us have our own unique family traditions, like gathering at the holiday table, taking annual vacations together, or watching special sporting events.
Family traditions help us form our identities (as individuals, and as a larger group) and they’re a critical part of creating a positive family culture.
In this article, we’ll take a look at what traditions are, why creating and honoring them is important, and the best ways to document our family rituals so we can pass them on to future generations.
What Are Family Traditions?
The official definition of “tradition” is handing down of information, beliefs or customs from one generation to another. Traditions are behaviors you engage in time and time again, often at the same time or in a similar fashion.
Family traditions can be large (like a holiday dinner attended by 25 people) or small (like a good luck ritual performed before a big game). To be a tradition – as opposed to a daily routine – a ritual has to been done intentionally, with a specific thought or purpose in mind.
In “The Book of New Family Traditions,” author Meg Cox defines a family ritual as:
“Any activity you purposefully repeat together as a family that includes heightened attentiveness and something extra that lifts it above the ordinary ruts.”
When they wrote about family rituals, bloggers Brett and Kate McKay said, “Traditions, when done right, lend a certain magic, spirit and texture to our everyday lives.”
What Are the Benefits of Family Traditions?
We often celebrate events, holidays, and occasions with traditions – and sometimes our family traditions are the only time we get to reconnect with certain relatives. Our lives are busy and packed full every day, so family traditions allow us to slow down and take notice of the things that are most important to us.
Traditions and rituals provide us with a number of important benefits, including:
1. Traditions give us long-lasting memories.
My father was an avid Green Bay Packer fan. He would watch every game while comfortably ensconced in his Lazy Boy chair, and he always dressed in head-to-toe Packer fan clothing.
Anyone interested in watching the game with Dad knew the rules: You could only talk about the Packers when the game was happening, and if you wanted to talk about anything else, you had to wait until a commercial break. As soon as the game coverage resumed, you had to circle back to talking about the game.
Even though I have moved out of Wisconsin and I don’t usually watch football, I’ll always be a Packer fan because of my dad’s devotion to his team. And thinking of him in his Packer gear is a fond memory. When you think back on your childhood, you probably have happy memories involving your own family traditions.
Family traditions – both large and small – can provide your child with happy and positive memories that can have major long-term benefits. Recent research has shown that positive childhood memories can actually make your children happier and more generous (even as they grow into adults).
2. Traditions strengthen family connections.
In their article, The Importance of Establishing Family Traditions, bloggers Brett and Kate McKay wrote, “Researchers have consistently found that families that engage in frequent traditions report stronger connection and unity than families that haven’t established rituals together.”
If staying close to your family is important to you – or you feel like you want to do something to draw your family closer together – family rituals could be important tools in your toolbox.
One year, my mom organized a friendly team competition during Memorial Day weekend that included multiple generations of my family. We had lots of fun playing games throughout the weekend.
The competition allowed me to feel closer to all of our extended family members, and the invitation and team hats are now silly reminders of that special event.
3. They remind us who we are.
At a high level, our traditions teach us where we came from and let us learn about our cultural and religious backgrounds. They remind us of our family genealogy, and the cultural traditions of our ancestors.
In my family, we always said a specific Swedish table prayer before sitting down for our Christmas meal with my father’s family. We even made a plaque for our grandmother to commemorate that tradition that featured the words of the prayer.
Years later, when I met a first generation Swede, I learned our grandmother had accidentally omitted a few lines of the prayer! Nonetheless, we continued saying our own version of the blessing, and kept the plaque without changing a word on it. After all, that slightly modified Swedish prayer has become OUR family tradition!
On a smaller scale, our family traditions also act as reminders of the events that have shaped us into who we are today. Some families send their kids to the same summer camp they went to as children, and that ritual bonds the family together and remind them of many happy summer spent canoeing, horseback riding and singing songs around the campfire.
Every year when I was a child, we would spend the entire month of July at a cottage in Wisconsin. Having a second home was a luxury that my parents worked hard to afford and maintain. We no longer own that cottage today, but those memories are a reminder of the hard work my parents put in to provide a fun, summer vacation for our family.
4. Rituals offer comfort and safety.
At some point, we all feel a little harried and stressed out from our increasingly busy and fast-paced lives. Our family traditions offer a few important constants in our lives – big and small rituals that give us a little space of sanctuary in the midst of all the craziness.
When I was in college, my family stayed connected via the telephone. Because a call home was long distance (and I didn’t have a long distance phone plan at school), my family figured out a ritual that allowed us to chat on a regular basis without racking up a big bill.
On Sundays, I would call and let the phone ring three times (because I was the third daughter), and then I would hang up. My parents knew that was the signal to call me back, and I didn’t get charged on my phone bill because my initial signal call didn’t connect.
Now technology has changed and we can stay connected with our out-of state children via a video conference call. Every couple of weeks, we set up a call using an app called Zoom, and we can all see each other on our computer or tablet screens. For me, it’s the next best thing to having everyone here in person, and we all get to share news with the entire family at one time.
Traditions can also help us during times of change, grief, or emotional turmoil.
A few years back, my husband Tom and I had to move our family multiple times in a short period of time. To give our children continuity, we tried to continue our holiday traditions – even if it became logistically difficult. One year we moved shortly before Christmas, so we invited Tom’s family to visit us, instead of traveling to visit them. Our relatives happily gathered together among the moving boxes and slept on air mattresses so we could share the holiday together!
5. They reinforce family values.
One of the most important purposes of family traditions (whether they are religious or secular rituals) is that they allow us to impart and reinforce our values.
Brett and Kate McKay wrote:
“Through daily family prayer, the importance of faith is re-enforced: through nightly bedtime stories, the value of education, reading, and lifelong learning is impressed; and through regular family dinners or activities, the centrality of familial solidarity is instilled.”
In our family, our Christian faith is part of our values, so attending church on our religious holidays is one of our major traditions. For Christmas, we typically attend our home church, but if we’re out of town, we will find a local church. This tradition gives our family a sense of spiritual grounding.
We’ve also got secular traditions at Christmas. Before we are turn in on Christmas Eve, Tom reads the poem “The Night Before Christmas” to our whole family.
Maintaining your traditions (and passing them down to future generations) is important, too – that’s why documenting your family rituals is a critical part of this process. When you document your traditions, their evolution become richer and more distinctive.
Documenting Your Traditions
What are the best ways to document your own family traditions?
- Write them down and take pictures. Writing down the details of your traditions (who does what, and when) is a great start – and then you can supplement your written descriptions by adding photos of your regular rituals.
Taking pictures as a tradition unfolds – such as preparing a holiday meal or decorating your house – can be a great way to document a beloved ritual.
You can take the documentation process one step further by gathering a book of traditions, too. I started keeping a scrapbook of Christmas traditions and memories the year Tom and I became engaged, and I add to it every year. My book includes photos, Christmas correspondence, and even our kids’ letters to Santa – but your scrapbook can include anything you want to document and remember!
- Use Pinterest. You can use Pinterest boards to document your traditions by pinning ideas and suggestions, and uploading your own photos of your family rituals. For example, I like this idea for creating a Thankful Pumpkin.
- Create a keepsake. You can also create a keepsake out of a collection of things. While helping a client sort through memorabilia, I found this neat idea for a birthday card book.
- Create a video. Videos are also great way to capture the details and memories of your traditions. Video gives you the opportunity to replay the exact sights and sounds of a tradition – which really helps you bring the memories back to life and document the nuances of your traditions.
Creating Your Own Memories of Important Family Traditions
We’ve talked a bit about the benefits of creating, maintaining and documenting your family traditions and rituals, and how they can help you build and maintain family bonds and connections. I’ve also shared some of my favorite family tradition memories with you.
Now I’d love to hear about your family traditions! What rituals give you your fondest childhood memories, and what traditions have you started to implement with your own families? Tell me about it in the comments below.