Are family traditions important?

Even a simple family dinner can be a meaningful tradition to preserve throughout the years.

Sometimes it can seem like the whole world changes overnight, every night. Divorce, blended families, single parents and tragedy can make us feel like the family units that many of us came from are a thing of the past. Often, our family traditions seem like the only things keeping us together, linking our past generations with the bright hopes of our future.

Almost every family tradition has its roots in necessity. Over time, that necessity becomes nostalgia, and eventually, it just becomes another way for families to relate and connect with one another. In fact, as families evolve and change, those traditions once again become necessities, as they assume new meaning in the context of our need to communicate and understand our loved ones.


Family dinner, for example -- whether nightly, weekly or on holidays -- often carries with it a lot of small but beautifully significant pauses, associations and kindnesses. While your concept of family dinner may descend from a prior generation's beginnings in this country, let's say, it's those same traditions that we choose to preserve that keep us from sitting at the table, many years later, playing on our phones and ignoring each other.

A great deal of the reason behind the usual traditional holidays and observances, in fact, is about establishing a healthy and meaningful purpose for coming together. The winter holidays only come once a year, and even for the most secular family, they provide the simple pleasure of knowing that you'll see your loved ones at least that often. For more religiously observant families, the holidays still provide a healthy reminder to let the world go on spinning while we connect with our families and engage in our heritage together.

Many of our traditions make a lot more sense if you look at them that way: not the holiday itself, but the pretext it gives us to affirm our faith -- not just in our beliefs or our cultural duties, but our faith in our families and the love we share, too.


The Importance of Tradition

For many families, finding a balance of traditions can become a nightmare. A blended family, one with stepparents, can end up heading into nuclear meltdown over something as simple as when Christmas gifts should be opened. This is because we base a lot of our emotional and family lives in traditions, even those we might normally say aren't very important.

Because our traditions only occur at specific times, under specific circumstances, we often make emotional connections during those times that only flare up once they've returned. Feelings that were hurt as children can resurface, old wounds and resentments can reopen, and lost or absent family members' presence is more sorely missed.


Likewise, positive feelings and situations are often relegated to traditional times and holidays that we spend together. It's possible that, as children age and scatter, the holidays are the only time the whole family is together. That's not a sad thing, but a joyful one. And it's encoded in each tiny tradition that we share over those times, from the traditional dishes we make and serve together to the jokes that nobody seems to remember the rest of the year.

A family is a moving target: not just Mom and Pop and two-and-a-half kids, but who those kids became, their mates and children, and all the traditions they've imported as a result. But your family is also forever: the only group that you're born connected to -- and remain connected to -- your whole life. When you look at it this way, you can see that what we call "family" is really just one frame in a long, long movie.

Tradition ties us all upward into our family trees, and down into the families that are still being created. It's a way of honoring our ancestors and departed family members, and of welcoming new members in. Family traditions are physical representations of our place in a never-ending story that includes everyone we've ever loved, and everybody they've ever loved, and so on. Observing and preserving tradition, and teaching it to our children, grounds us all in an ongoing project that will last far beyond our own short time on Earth.


The Importance of Flexibility

It's a good idea to allow some holiday traditions to grow and change, just like your family does.
Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

As the saying goes, it's important to give ourselves and our children both roots and wings. What that means, of course, is that -- as families and individuals -- we allow ourselves to grow and change, to accept differences and adjust traditions as the time comes. For some, that can be desperately hard to do, but it's essential.

When cleaning out your attic, the rule is to get rid of everything you haven't touched in a year. Things that have great "meaning" -- an ugly antique lamp, say, or old moth-destroyed clothes -- must be divorced from their meanings. Clutter experts recommend that you let the feelings remain and get rid of the objects.


In the same way, holding onto traditions strictly for their own sake does nobody any favors. Every holiday is an opportunity to examine your traditions and their meaning to your family as it stands today. By changing a single aspect of the holiday -- to accommodate far-flung family, for example -- have you really destroyed the holiday itself? Or have you allowed flexibility to bring your family closer together in the spirit of that tradition?

Holidays and traditional gatherings are notorious for power plays and old resentments. If you find yourself or a family member stressing about changing a tradition, it's important to be honest with yourself and your family about what that tradition means to you, and what parts of that tradition carry the most meaning.

We're always told that etiquette and manners make people feel more comfortable, never less comfortable. Like the finer points of etiquette, when an old family tradition causes more trouble than it does wonderful feelings, it may be time to let it go. We cannot be slaves to traditions any more than we should simply let them slide. The point is to keep our families warm and strong, both in our memories and in the comfort they bring us during the rest of the year. Anything less just isn't worth the ruffled feathers.

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Related Articles

  • Oxenreider, Tsh. "Family Traditions: 10 Ideas To Get You Started." Simple Mom. May 2009. (Aug. 1, 2011)
  • Stone, K. "12+ Holiday Traditions to Bring Families Together." 2009. (Aug. 1, 2011)