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Traditions: Why Family Traditions are Important

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My family likes traditions, but it wasn't until I got married and acquired another family with very different traditions that I realized what's important isn't necessarily how traditions are celebrated, but that they are celebrated. Growing up, my family made a very big deal of Christmas with multiple Christmas trees, a house full of decorations, and a special "Gift to Jesus" ceremony Christmas morning. On the other hand, my husband's family, bless their hearts, adamantly refused to put up a tree until Christmas Eve, and even then, it was the shortest, stubbiest thing ever. They prided themselves on serving pizza for Christmas dinner. They pride themselves on these symbols, these "non-traditions" of their laid-back approach to life. But their lack of traditions is as much a part of their identity as the my family's abundance of traditions is a part of ours.

Ernest W. Burgess, professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, says this about family traditions: “Whatever its biological inheritance from its parents and other ancestors, the child receives also from them a heritage of attitudes, sentiments, and ideals which may be termed the family tradition, or the family culture.” Tradition is not just a family's unique way of celebrating a holiday, it is a way of creating cohesiveness. Wikipedia, in fact, cites multiple purposes for traditions, including:

  1. Tools for parents and elders to carry out the responsibility of raising children and inculcating into them social values and ethos, and
  2. Ways to ensure the warmth and closeness of family bonding, which is a balancing force against entropy. "In physical science, the term entropy means the tendency of the physical system to lose energy and coherence over a period of time, like a gas dissipating until it is all but gone. An “entropic family” is one that loses its sense of emotional closeness because members neglect the family’s inner life."

It is easily arguable that another important function of traditions is to make occasions memorable, to distinguish certain days or events so they last for years and years in the collective memories of participating family members, thus providing a sense of continuity and belonging. In their best sense, they anchor us to each other.

That being said, how does one go about creating traditions that fulfill such important roles? In the continual laying down of generation over generation, each one like the page of an open book sewn on top of those before it, how do we create things out of eggshells and dreidels that not only bond our immediate families, but maintain our connections with our other families as well? How does a mother create new traditions for her young family, when she is also a member of a family that was once young itself and has its own set of traditions, and when she is also joined to a man who is a member of a family who has its own set of traditions, as well? I suggest you start with the basics:

  1. Define what you want to commemorate. For some families, like my family growing up, this answer comes easily in the form of holidays. For others who are perhaps less "conformist," like my in-laws, this may be lesser-known holidays or even random days. We have friends who make a bigger deal out of St. Patrick's Day than they do about Christmas. That a family celebrates consistently and enthusiastically is what's important.
  2. Define what traits your family values most about your family. This exercise alone can be invaluable.
  3. Define what ways of celebration best match your family's style. There are thousands of ideas available on the Internet. The details of how you do it aren't as important as the fact that you're doing it. Celebrating Christmas with pizza is just as good as celebrating it with pizzazz, as long as it's done purposefully, as a family, and as a way to have fun.

How have you dealt with different traditions from your spouse's family and created new traditions with your own family?

Open book picture courtesy of Flickr

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