December 6, 2016

When I ask people about their family rituals, most parents report back that they don’t really have any. Even my own brother has told me that our family doesn’t have any rituals. When I hear people say this, I am in shock. Not because people don’t have rituals, but because they fail to recognize the ones that are already in place.

Calling attention to and intentionally creating new rituals is important for kids.

Why are rituals important?

First, research shows that children who know about their ancestors are more resilient in the face of challenges. This is true even if your family history includes some shady or non-flattering details. Knowing about your family history helps your child feel connected to a greater community-they grow up understanding that they are part of a tradition, a legacy (even if it seems unimportant to you) that will continue beyond them as well.

Also, just like routines help children feel a sense of predictability in their daily life, rituals help children mark special occasions in a way that helps manage the chaos of parties, traveling, and disrupted schedules.

In my practice, I notice that behaviors seem to spike between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Often this is because the disruptions to normal routines create a sense of anxiety and lack of focus. Rituals help children make sense of the disruption by providing a yearly routine to manage the chaos.

How To Identify Your Current Family Rituals

  • Think about the small things that your family does every year. Rituals are often tiny things-not huge or expensive celebrations.
  • Recall stories that start with the words “usually” or “normally” and see what habit follows. For example, in my family, “we usually open one present on Christmas Eve.” Guess what? That my friend, is a ritual. But when I ask people about it, they consider it no big deal. Well, to kids, failure to open that one present is a disruption to a routine. And we all know that for kids, anything that happened once is destined to become a ritual.
  • Ask your older relatives what they consider to be a family ritual. Listen to the specific thing that follows “I remember that we would always….”
  • Take note of the timing of your habits: do you put your tree up on Thanksgiving weekend or closer to Christmas? Do you eat holiday meals for lunch or dinner? Those are all rituals. You know why? Because not every family does it the same way as you. That is what makes you special. (this is also why foster children have a difficult time with holidays-they are expecting rituals that might not be part of your family and then they are disappointed that you did not do it that way).

How to Firmly Establish a Habit Into A Ritual

  • Start by talking with older and younger relatives about what parts of the holidays they enjoy or remember the most. Make a decision to celebrate those memories by designating them as family rituals.
  • Announce it as important before it happens. You might say, “Wait, we HAVE to do this, it’s a tradition!” That announcement will make everyone take notice of its importance.
  • Photograph it! If possible, snap a picture or take a video of your family participating in the ritual.

In the social work profession, there is a saying,

“If it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”

  • If there is no evidence that it is important, it will probably fall by the wayside at some point. Put those pictures in an album or a special frame that you update every year.
  • Talk about it afterwards. Make a comment about how you feel after the ritual is completed. You might say, “I really love how happy everyone is right now.”

Need Ideas for Simple Family Rituals?

I am happy to share some of the tiny traditions in my family and hope that you are able to put your own spin on them.   Some of my favorites are:

  • My husband and I ALWAYS go Black Friday shopping together, but we look for things that we want for our house or ourselves. So selfish, I know. But, we enjoy finding some deals on things that we have been eyeing that are too expensive to ask a relative to buy. Now, I do buy presents for family members on this day (get my top ten gift ideas for kids here) too because…
  • I will not put my tree up unless it has wrapped presents under it. My kids know that the presents under the tree “are for other people” and that theirs come on Christmas Eve. I like my tree up on Thanksgiving weekend and ALWAYS have a wrapping paper theme (from the dollar store). Like, snowmen in different colors, or wrapping with words and no pictures, etc). This year its 6 different styles of parchment paper
  • While decorating our tree, we ALWAYS listen to Christmas music and even more specifically, Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Weird pick? Yes, but this song makes my holiday and I dance around with my kids and pretend to conduct the orchestra. Picture that!  I dare you to listen to it and not be inspired! Just writing this post, I had to stop, listen and enjoy!

While my husband was deployed, I sent him a CD with that song and some mini-decorations. After all, it is a tradition!!!

  • I wrap EVERYTHING! If it’s not moving, it gets wrapped. My mom wrapped all the stuff inside our stockings. Crazy, right? Anything that extends the time it takes to open gifts and create a bigger mess in the living room is part of my master plan.
  • Again, we open a present on Christmas Eve-something from the father’s side of the family. Why? Because my Dad’s family celebrated on Christmas Eve. So, that’s part of our ritual. (Oh, and out again with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra).
  • We wear pajamas all day! Christmas Day is a “don’t get dressed day.” Now, if you got a new bike, you at least need shoes, but otherwise, it is perfectly okay to lounge all day and test out your new stuff.
  • On New Year’s Eve, we bang pots and pans. Yep, in the front yard. With the little kids at their bedtime so they think that its new year’s without keeping them up too late. And then we put them to bed and play card games. Specifically, “that game we hate.” The game we hate is called Shanghai Rummy. It takes forever to play. My cousin used to quit in the middle. But we play it because that’s what we do. And because I live far away from family, if I miss it…I feel sad.

Other Ideas-

  • Cutting down a tree from a Christmas Tree farm
  • Going to a movie on Christmas Day
  • Getting a picture with Santa
  • Decorating a gingerbread house
  • Watching the Macy’s parade or specific football games
  • Playing football in the yard
  • Watching a specific Christmas movie each year as a family
  • Baking and decorating cookies
  • Volunteering as a family
  • Church or religious celebrations
  • Hosting a party
  • Elf on the Shelf or something similar
  • Reading a specific story or attending a theater production (Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol)
  • Visiting local lights displays
  • Taking a family photo

It’s Not Too Late

Yes, your family might look at you like you’re crazy. But, if you truly can’t think of anything that you have done repeatedly during the holidays, start this year!  Let your family know that you want to create a new holiday tradition and maybe start with just one or two.  You can do it!

What’s Your Ritual?

Now that you have had a peek into the tiny and silly rituals celebrated by my family for generations as well as some I have heard from other families, I hope that it inspires you to talk about the specific things that make your family unique and special.

And to give importance to the things that you do out of habit because they are the traditions that your children will remember as adults. They are the backbone of your family.

They are one of the most important responsibilities you have as a parent.

Remember, the key to tradition is the word “always.”

We always do this… it’s tradition.

Share your family rituals and traditions with me. I might steal some of your ideas!


About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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