Thinking About Holiday Traditions

What is a family tradition, and why are they important?

It’s funny.  Human beings seem to crave being part of a group, of something bigger than themselves.  All through history people have organized themselves into tribes, villages, cities, regions, teams. . . and within each of those they have created customs and visible signs of who they are as a group.  Clothing.  Ceremonies.  Traditions.  Things that showed that they belonged.

To me family traditions are something that your family does in the same way (generally) at a specific time of year (or in a specific set of circumstances such as “birth of a baby” or “first snowfall”).  They don’t have to be big or expensive things (as a matter of fact many family traditions don’t cost anything!) but they do need to be a re-occuring happening and to hold some meaning for the people involved–even if the meaning is just that “We always do this together”.

That pretty much falls in line with what the Free Online Dictionary says a tradition is:

1. The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication.
a. A mode of thought or behavior followed by a people continuously from generation to generation; a custom or usage.
b. A set of such customs and usages viewed as a coherent body of precedents influencing the present: followed family tradition in dress and manners. See Synonyms at heritage.
2.  A time-honored practice or set of such practice
Why are traditions important?  I think that traditions make you feel like a special part of a group, of something unique.  They lend continuity and a certain type of meaning to your life.  When they multi generational traditions they tie families together and add to a person’s sense of self and belonging.  They are looked forward to and they become emblematic of the events they celebrate.   Participating in one of your family’s traditions can make you feel loved, secure and content.  It makes the event seem “right”.
Many traditions revolve around holidays and celebrations (birthdays, Easter, etc)–so this time of year from Thanksgiving through Christmas is typically full of little family traditions.  Here are some of ours.  The ones in bold are continuations of traditions from either Yankee Bill or my family:
advent wreath
  • We don’t decorate for Christmas or play Christmas Carols until after Thanksgiving.  And the whole family has to hear from me about how I refuse to decorate or listen to Christmas Carols until after Thanksgiving 😉
  • Snow days are for making either cookies or homemade soft pretzels–especially the first one.
  • Scalloped oysters is a side dish at Thanksgiving.
  • We all sit down at some point and watch “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” as a family.
  • On the day we decorate our Christmas tree we drink Gluwein (German hot spiced red wine) and eat Potato Pancakes for dinner.
  • During Advent we place an advent wreath with 3 purple candles and 1 pink candle on the table and every night when we eat dinner we light the appropriate number of candles and let it burn all through the meal, then we read from “The Advent Book” after dinner.
  • We attend church on Christmas Eve (and participate in the pageant), have ham in the crockpot for dinner, and then everyone opens a new ornament for the year and puts it on the tree.
  • The last thing before going to bed on Christmas Eve is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas”.
  • Santa puts a pickle ornament on the tree each year, and the first kid to find it gets a small extra gift on Christmas morning.
  • Open presents, eat breakfast THEN open stockings.  Anything else is just wrong :)  And the kids are not allowed to go downstairs until the grownups are awake and have a pot of coffee brewing.
  • Stockings
To me these traditions are important.  I love knowing that I am doing things with my kids that were done with me as a child.  And the kids love knowing that these are the same things that Mama or Papa did as a child (and they DO know and can tell you!).  Some of these things pass on our values–the importance of our faith, what we think is important about the holiday, family togetherness.  All of them are things that bind our children together–joint memories that they will have as adults that I believe will help them continue to be family.  These things herald the coming of the season, building excitement for all of us, marking the time as it gets closer, and building anticipation.
And you know what?  Even if a lot of the traditional trappings of Christmas weren’t present, I think I could still make it feel like the holiday by following these traditions with my family.  By lighting the Advent wreath and reading the bible story.  By going to church.  By reading “Twas the night before Christmas”.  These are the meaningful parts of the celebrations for me.
Now does that mean that every tradition is etched in stone? Of course not.  Sometimes there is a tradition that has to be let go for a year, for a time, or forever.  And that’s ok.  Sometimes you create new traditions intentionally (like our German fest food for tree decorating–totally my idea) and sometimes accidentally (like my friend who’s mom started a tradition of grilled cheese sandwiches on Christmas Eve because it was the quickest thing to feed the kids before the pageant–then they wouldn’t let her change it!).  I always say if you do something two years in a row the kids are going to insist you have to do it that way every year!

I know this has just been me thinking out loud, so I’d like to ask you all to join in with your thoughts.  Do you have family traditions?  Are they important to you?  Why do you think so?

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  1. Juli E. says

    Yes we do have traditions! Every year we have friends/family over for breakfast and then we head out to chop down our Christmas tree. We do the Advent Wreath every evening at dinner and read Twas the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. We look forward to these and several others! Happy Thankgiving!

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