When you think about celebrating the holidays, what comes to mind? Baking gingerbread men with your children? Taking the entire family to cut down the family tree the day after Thanksgiving? Or maybe, it’s the extended family progressive dinner that takes place every Christmas Eve.
“Traditions are often what make the holidays meaningful,” says Dr. Susan Hickman, clinical psychologist. “They are like the support beams for a building, communicating to children that in all the rush and seemingly randomness of our lives, there are still some things we hold sacred which remain relatively unchanged over the years.”
These annual celebrations create memories and bring generations together. They give families a structure around which to organize time and events since people are much more likely to take family photos and “rehearse” what transpired as they look back on the photographs and videos.
In an informal survey, we asked about meaningful traditions. Here are a few of the responses.
Many years ago, Betty Bergin began collecting antique crystal candlesticks - one for each of her four children. As children have started their own families, the Bergins have loved finding the crystal treasure that best represents each new addition to the family. Every Christmas Day, the candlesticks fill the center of their Christmas table. When their oldest son found his life mate, he announced it by giving them a crystal candlestick.
“What a precious memory that is to me, that at 31, he saw value in our tradition,” says Bergin.
"My favorite holiday tradition as a child was getting to open one present on Christmas Eve,” says Anne Hooser. “It was the same gift every year - a brand new nightgown. I remember when I was in my late twenties and had not been home for Christmas in many years, my mother sent me a present to be 'opened Christmas Eve.' It was a brand new nightgown! When I opened it up I just felt loved."
For more than 50 years, Lorena Garza Gonzalez’s family has re-enacted the journey of Joseph and Mary in the traditional Mexican “Posada.” Now their children and friends of all ethnic backgrounds and ages help and share to celebrate the birth of Christ. Singing and praying is concluded with tamales, menudo, frijoles borrachos, and many sweet-pleasers.
“Traditions are so important in family,” says Gonzalez. “This is one I hope my children will continue for years to come.”
Special celebrations give families the time and place to discuss what is important to them.
“We often hear people talk about wanting to avoid getting into any discussions that might create conflict at these types of gatherings,” Hickman says. “Some of the best family discussions I can recall occurred during our holiday traditional celebrations. Sometimes there was conflict, but conflict isn’t always bad. Just because people disagree doesn’t mean it has to escalate into a fight or that you don’t love each other. In fact, when children see family members handle conflict appropriately, it is a great lesson for them.”
Consider ways you can incorporate holiday traditions, whether old or new, into your celebrations. It just might keep you focused on the things that really matter. For every family the traditions are different, but they all allow for a greater sense of shared identity and meaning. There is something very comforting about being able to think ahead and anticipate participating in a longstanding family tradition.