Are Your Family Traditions Based on Ritual or Routine?

By Lauren Hall
February 6, 2024

It’s been twenty-five years since my grandfather was killed in a tragic car accident.

He was sixty-two and the true patriarch of our family. His joy for life was infectious, and his love for his family and friends was intoxicating. As a child, I adored my grandfather, and his death left a gaping hole. Luckily, he left many traditions and values to aid us through the grieving process and carry on his legacy – the most important of which happens around Thanksgiving.

For twenty-eight years, the Swafford Family has spent a week together around the Thanksgiving holiday. Our family has grown to thirty-two members, so finding a place to accommodate us certainly has its challenges, and not everyone can stay the whole time due to work and travel issues. But everyone tries. It’s what we do.

During our time together, we dance, sing, play games, eat a ton of food, and most importantly, we hold each other accountable and support one another. Over the years, we’ve sat around the kitchen table and cried over the death of loved ones, shared our fears and frustrations with work, school, or relationships, and opened up about challenges in our marriages, parenting, and faith. Our Thanksgiving tradition sets the tone for what my grandfather wanted our family to be – something we’re proud to be a part of, something we rely on for support and belonging.

I recently read a 50-year review about family traditions in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Family Psychology.

As it turns out, family routines and rituals are alive and well. They are associated with marital satisfaction, adolescents’ sense of personal identity, children’s health, academic achievement, and stronger family relationships. Psychologist Barbara H. Fiese, Ph.D., and colleagues at Syracuse University began their review by distinguishing the difference between a family routine and a family ritual.

“Routines involve instrumental communication conveying information that ‘this is what needs to be done’ and involve a momentary time commitment so that once the act is completed, there is little, if any, afterthought,” says Dr. Fiese. “Rituals, on the other hand, involve symbolic communication and convey ‘this is who we are’ as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations.”

Dr. Fiese goes on to say that rituals create memories through evoking emotional imprints. Rituals are often looked back on with fondness or looked forward to with anticipation. On the other hand, routines are expected, planned, and implemented. They leave little to no room for building values or creating environments.

As you find yourself making plans with the ones you love around holidays or other special occasions, ask yourself these questions to determine if your family traditions are built on ritual or routine:

  1. Are we making plans simply because it’s a holiday and there’s an expectation for us to get together? Are we intentional about connecting or deepening our relationships outside of the holiday as well?
  2. What are our family values? What type of environment do we want to create in our family, and how will we make sure it’s consistent in every gathering, life event, or interaction we have?
  3. Do I want my family to remember what we did year after year? Or how it made them feel when we were together? 

The year my grandfather died, he had prepaid for us to stay together in a cabin in Gatlinburg, TN. We almost didn’t go because it was so painful, but we knew it was what he wanted, and that we ultimately wanted to be together. We decided then and there that we would continue the tradition he set, not out of expectation, but because it’s part of who we are. Now, it’s a ritual.

If building family traditions around rituals feels a bit overwhelming for you, start by opening the conversation to other family members.

Talk about what values your family already shares and what values you may want to implement and why. Think about the future generations–what legacy will they remember and want to pass on? How do your traditions mirror your answers? Traditions based on rituals should help people feel connected, appreciated, and like they’re a part of something bigger – a family.

Lauren Hall is the President and CEO of First Things First and can be contacted at [email protected].

Photo by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash

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