The Refuge of Holiday Family Traditions

December 2, 2018

Within the walls of our homes, we can create a sense of belonging that binds family members through tradition and our inevitable nostalgia for it. 

Is anyone surprised that the coziest holidays, the ones centered around the hearth and home (and a dinner table supersized with extension leaves) all take place when the outside world is at its darkest and coldest? Family is, among other things, our safe haven. So it’s little wonder we build it up with meaningful traditions in the depth of winter when the warm light of ritual and comfort holds such sway.

Families can fracture so easily when they aren’t actively being welded (and re-welded) together. Traditions help us to do just that, fusing a sturdy narrative of children, parents, siblings, and generations through festive holiday rituals we inherit and repeat each year. Traditions can also link our family to larger cultural and spiritual roots—communities beyond the walls of our home that help support our families through the difficulties and transitions that happen to all of us.

We invest in each other through these happy, shared traditions, building up the kind of common ground, social capital, goodwill, and trust that help to salvage broken relationships, comfort grief, heal loneliness and mend hurt feelings. This is the important heavy lifting going on behind the scenes of our seasonal fun: building up an emotional reservoir for future droughts, learning to become “us” through thick and thin.

Families can fracture so easily when they aren’t actively being welded together.

What tradition looks like

So who are we as a family, and how do our holiday traditions reinforce that? Are we service-oriented and make it a point to volunteer with our kids? Are we rugged outdoorsmen who look forward to annual polar plunges or chopping down our own tree each year? If we’re passionate about music we might host living room family concerts, or attend Handel’s Messiah sing-a-longs. Consummate sportsmen can spend holidays armchair quarterbacking and playing family flag football. If the kitchen is our happy place we’re likely to spend long hours teaching each other new culinary skills. Recent immigrants can use the kitchen to help instill a taste of the “old country” by passing down family recipes to new generations.

Traditions: old, new and blended

Some family traditions are new: curated on the fly as we learn, and reveal, more about who we are as individuals and as a group. Still, others are blended as our families gain new partners who bring with them their own traditions. Some are inherited and hold particular significance because they’re so wrapped up in our childhood memories of security, laughter, and routines. We pass down values and beliefs through these rituals, and whether they’re old or new, traditions can help family members to feel united, and help the family unit to feel unique.

Our ongoing narrative

The specific traditions we choose are certainly important (Christmas quilts, anyone? Dreidels and eight nights of lighting the menorah?), but equally important is understanding what these activities signify about us and how they unite our family members and generations. The stories we tell each other are woven into these seasonal reunions, artifacts, meals, trips, and activities—and shared identity is at the heart of all of them.

Reclaiming together time is a way of pushing back with activities we want and plan to do, showing family members how important they are to us in the process.

How we process and remember traditions

No matter the specific details of the traditions we practice, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that the way we remember them is the real source of their impact on us. In his now-famous TED Talk clarifying the differences between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self,” Kahneman says the “fast, intuitive” way we live through experiences moment-to-moment isn’t what colors our long-term decisions and our sense of joy or sadness. It’s the “slow, rational, conscious mode of thinking that tells the story of our experience to ourselves.” If nothing else, this helps explain why so many holiday catastrophes later end up being retold with such good humor. Or, to quote Mark Twain: “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

The power of nostalgia

The influence that family traditions (and their memories) have on us was recently quantified in a 2018 Cigna study of 20,000 people, revealing that 18- to 22-year-olds have the highest rates of homesickness, loneliness, and nostalgia. A sociological study published in the Journal for Environment & Behavior adds interesting detail: “The most meaningful things for homesick individuals are activities, family members, feelings, and places. An analysis reveals that ‘home,’ for them, is synonymous with a comfortable and safe environment.”

While nostalgia may have gained something of a clichéd, Hallmark reputation over the years, these two studies are among many others now documenting its psychological hold over us. As we venture out into the world from childhood homes to forge our own paths, family traditions remind us that we still belong to a massive family tree made up of diverse branches, limbs, and leaves, all connected by a sturdy trunk with deep, ambling roots.

How to bring more tradition into your holidays

It’s so easy to let the outside world to push us around with its unrelenting urgency: there will always be things we need to do, especially during the holidays. Even inside our homes, screen time can compete with our holiday priorities, whether it’s our kids’ video games or our smart phone’s special gift for tethering us to work on a 24/7 basis. Reclaiming together time is a way of pushing back with activities we want and plan to do. With that planning we can better keep those external commitments and digital alternatives at bay, showing family members how important they are to us in the process.

Keeping it simple

While there’s nothing wrong with elaborate Instagram-worthy holiday moments, we’re wise not to let social media one-upmanship (or any other form of outside pressure) dictate what’s right for us. We keep it simple when that’s what works in our family because setting expectations too high during the holidays is usually a recipe for disappointment, if not a total (sometimes hilarious) disaster. If you have any doubt, just pay attention to the plotlines of our favorite holiday comedies as you and yours dive into a casual night of family movie marathoning: Christmas with the Kranks, Deck the Halls, anyone? (Neighborly Christmas decoration competitiveness at its funniest.)

So…when our own exterior light pageantry short-circuits the neighborhood, when our outdoor family nativity scene gets rained out, and when our toddler breaks into the Christmas cookies, gets hopped up on sugar and rips open every fastidiously-wrapped gift under the tree while family is still at the dinner table…what could be a better consolation/backup plan than jumping into pajamas, stringing popcorn, and binging on holiday movies together.

As much as we cringe at the intrusive nature of devices during the holidays, digital tools are increasingly serving as powerful ways to amplify and expand the circle of our family traditions.

Intention turns routines into rituals

Author and sociologist William Doherty is among the most widely-cited advocates of boosting traditions and rituals in family life, and his book The Intentional Family answers the question of “why” we should invest the effort to do so. Turns out, the effort is the very point itself. “Ritual activities used to occur primarily in such community settings as churches and public commons, not inside the family itself. Families had routines, of course, but they weren’t really regarded as significant sources of family connection.” Not unless we put in the work to make them so. We can gather for meals, decorate Christmas trees, and exchange gifts, but these aren’t necessarily meaningful activities until we purposefully steep them with personalized meaning and momentum. Doherty also has practical advice for getting us started, 6 steps or stages to work through: 1. Adult agreement; 2. Eventual buy-in from the children; 3. Maximum participation; 4. Clear expectations; 5. Minimal conflict; 6. Protection from erosion; 7. Openness to change. It’s real work, he contends, but adds: “Now, more than any time in history, we have the freedom to shape the kind of family we want.”

And just who is your family?

“Extended” family is a term we use in its broadest definition at Famifi because few of us count DNA as the only link to the people we love and consider our kin. So we include a wide swath of people from our custom-made village when mapping out our holiday plans. And as good as it feels to expand our circle to include new babies, spouses, in-laws, and close friends, we also acknowledge the departures that mark our evolving sense of “us,” gaps that are especially hard during the holidays.

Sometimes these are due to newly far-flung geography, or because of deep wounds. Sometimes those painful gaps are caused by divorce, or illness and death. When the head of our family departs we feel a particular sting because he or she is often the keeper of the flame when it comes to traditions. Like in any tribe, family elders hold pride of place for good reason: they are our institutional memory.

How do you document your family traditions?

Ready access to digital recording has allowed more of us to start documenting our traditions among family members, and we’re smart to start with these elders. Our matriarchs and patriarchs created or passed along, the lion’s share of the traditions we consider to be family bedrock; recording their tradition origin stories is a great place to start while they’re still with us.

The power of the spoken word

As much as we cringe at the intrusive nature of devices during the holidays, (our kids texting while grandpa is toasting, our own phone going off in the middle of family Christmas caroling) digital tools are increasingly serving as powerful ways to amplify and expand the circle of our family traditions. We’ve long used journals and photo albums to pass down traditions among the generations, and even now they play an important role.

But there is something remarkable about hearing and seeing the people we love captured digitally with of all their distinctive charm and unique style: grandma reminiscing on past traditions, dad making reunion plans for the next season, or the kids caught in the act of prepping for current holiday activities. Skype and Facetime have their place in this digital landscape, but it’s not easy to always be hair-and-makeup-ready just because your uncle, cousin or sister decides to spontaneously call for a video chat—as much as you’re always happy to catch up.

Welcoming the new normal in fostering family ties

An emerging, more polite way to bolster family engagement is a visual version of texting rather than phone call. “Asynchronous visual communication” (think: opposite of synchronized) are messages with the brevity, ease, and immediacy of a text, but an incoming dispatch waits politely for you to see it and create your own visual response when it’s convenient. Nice, right? You do you whenever you’re ready, not when someone is clamoring to see you on demand.

Famifi is introducing an app early next year that does exactly that, helping us to capture our family’s traditions and conversations in one place, and turning a distraction device into a family-building machine. So if the goal of our holidays is to reclaim and bolster the relationships that matter most to us, then this just might be the Christmas miracle that our family traditions, and we, have been waiting for.

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