How to Update Old Traditions for New Families

How can you keep old traditions alive?
How can you keep old traditions alive?
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Every generation inevitably puts their own stamp on family traditions. In one sense, this may seem to defy the point of a tradition -- as a set of rituals or customs that remains unchanged throughout time. However, modern traditions are generally family-specific. Even within a culture that celebrates similar traditions, each family tends to put a unique spin on them with their own particular rituals [source: Coady]. And, it follows that as families change, so do the traditions. Perhaps traditions, like pie crusts, are meant to be broken.

That's not to say that keeping traditions doesn't serve very important purposes. The need for ritual seems to be ingrained in our human nature. Anyone who has spent much time with children knows how important ritual is for them in particular. Kids appreciate a routine and are sometimes resistant to even the smallest changes. In studies, children with regular rituals and routine within family life tend to be healthier and better behaved [source: Fiese]. The ritual of regular family mealtimes is believed to be one of the most important traditions a family can institute [source: APA].

Most of all, traditions should strengthen family bonds. But when an old tradition no longer does that, it might be wise to update it for new times and new needs. A marriage is one of the most common reasons for updating old traditions. After all, the two people bring with them different traditions from their own families, and they have to find a way to merge them together to form new traditions once they start their own family.

Traditions are perhaps most important when it comes to divorce, death and other events that cause significant changes in families. Evidence suggests that keeping up traditions can help the family through traumatic events [source: Jackson]. However, such events will also usually necessitate updating or changing the tradition in some way or another.

How do we update traditions without violating their original spirit and purpose? Small adjustments might be all that's necessary.

Tips for Updating Old Traditions for New Families

Find some common ground among multiple generations.
Find some common ground among multiple generations.
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One suggestion for updating old traditions is to start slowly. Making a drastic change risks upsetting everyone who has come to love the old routine. You'll also have more success instituting a whole new tradition if you find a way to do it gradually [source: Coady].

The first step is to examine why an old tradition needs updating. Has an extended family simply grown too big for the annual Christmas gift exchange? Perhaps it's time to reduce the gift responsibilities with a "Secret Santa" system. Has grandma decided that she'd like to retire from cooking duties? Have everyone contribute with a potluck-style feast. Have new families grown so big that they'd like to celebrate holidays on their own? Consider moving the extended-family celebration to a day or two after the actual holiday. There are scores of reasons why traditions will need to be updated, and you'll need to adjust based on the needs of a changing family.

If your family is under financial stress, a common problem in a difficult economy, you'll want to find ways to scale back on extravagant traditions. Cutting back on gift-giving is the hardest, but usually most important way to reduce costs. Instead of simply cutting down on the number of presents and disappointing high expectations, many families institute a new rule that can make gift-giving more fun and interesting. For instance, if you have a creative family, ask that everyone exchange gifts that are handmade with materials that cost less than $20.

If new jobs or bigger families mean that everyone's time is more constrained than it has been in years past, there's no shame in taking a few shortcuts. Instead of letting yourselves get overwhelmed with stress, examine the things that take up an excessive amount of time and try to find alternatives. For instance, if you don't have time to spend all day in the kitchen, consider buying pre-made food for some of the side dishes.

So, although traditions are very important to families, there's also good reason to reevaluate them from time to time.

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  • American Psychological Association. "Parents and Caregivers are Essential to Children's Healthy Development." (July 26, 2011)
  • Coady, Susan. "Family Traditions: The Ties that Bind: A Discussion with Dr. Susan Coady." (July 26, 2011)
  • Coontz, Stephanie. "Managing Old and New Family Traditions." Body Talk. Dec./Jan. 1998. (July 26, 2011)
  • Fiese, Barbara H., et al. "A Review of 50 Years of Research on Naturally Occurring Family Routines and Rituals: Cause for Celebration?" Journal of Family Psychology, 2002, Vol. 16, No. 4, 381-390. (July 26, 2011)
  • Jackson, Kathy Merlock. "Rituals and Patterns in Children's Lives." Popular Press. 2005. (July 26, 2011)
  • Long, Nicholas James, Rex L. Forehand. "Making Divorce Easier on Your Child." McGraw-Hill Professional. 2002. (July 26, 2011)