In my family, we have a sign tradition. My father started it. For every special occasion -- birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, graduations, or to welcome a family member returning home from a trip or coming for a visit -- my Dad makes a sign on a sheet of white paper. He has a real artistic talent and takes a lot of pride in his signs. He creates fancy letters, expresses the appropriate sentiment in a few well-chosen words, and adds elaborate detailing. In my folk's old house, from the time I was little, "the sign" always went up on the wall, over the kitchen table. Now that my parents have moved into a smaller house, the sign goes up on the refrigerator. It wouldn't be a special occasion without one of my Dad's signs. And we've saved all the signs he's made over the years. I have signs from my childhood birthdays, congratulatory signs from when I won gold medals in science fairs, signs welcoming me home for visits when I went away to university. Our sign tradition is something special that makes our family, well, our family. It's a little something that seems to stay the same in my life. I can count on it.
Traditions and rituals help keep us grounded. They give us a sense of connection and stability in an ever-changing world. The Grand Prize winning team in the Something to Remember Me By Legacy Project 2001 Intergenerational Contest was grandfather Larry Faas, 65, and his 13-year-old grandson Chad Trim, both of Tempe, AZ. Their winning entry is about a holiday family tradition. It's a perfect introduction to this section:
Sleigh Bells in the Desert
When I was a boy growing up in rural Iowa in the 1940's, farmers hung sleigh bells on their horses during the wintertime. My Uncle Truman Faas gave me his heirloom string of brass, acorn-shaped bells on a leather strap. The bells jingled as our horses pulled us on a sleigh ride, or pulled a bobsled full of hay for the cattle.
In 1967, my wife and I moved to Tempe, Arizona. The sleigh bells came with us to the desert. Every Christmas Eve we brought out the bells and told our three children the bells' history. After our children were tucked into bed, I sneaked outside and shook the sleigh bells under their windows and ran! I did the same thing in some of our neighbors' front yards causing excitement there too! Now, our grandchildren are old enough to keep the tradition going.
-- Grandfather Larry Faas
Every Christmas Eve my family and my Mom's relatives get together with Grandma and Grandpa Faas. After supper, we open presents and walk down the street to look at the Christmas lights. Neighbors decorate their driveways and sidewalks with luminaries to make a landing strip for Santa and his reindeer.
Grandpa brings out his sleigh bells and my younger brother and sister get excited. I hang the bells around my neck. The family cheers me on while I run up and down the sidewalk. I see faces in the windows when I pass the houses. Sometimes I hear kids yelling, "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!" Christmas in the desert is real to me after I do my yearly sleigh bell run like Grandpa did! I hope someday I'll own Grandpa's sleigh bells.
-- Grandson Chad Trim
Traditions, Rituals, and Families
There's a strong connection between family traditions and rituals and the ability of a family to survive and thrive in today's world.
The family has changed dramatically over the last century. Family members are spread across the country. Young and old have their own separate, hectic schedules. Family time becomes a casualty to tired parents, children's sports practices or lessons, and the lure of television. We're also caught between a pop culture ideal of individual happiness and fulfillment, and the dream of love and connection sold in commercials. We still love each other and we have no less desire for meaning and connection. But we drift apart and feel empty.
We don't know how to deal with the changed family. We generate the highest expectations of family life of any generation in human history, but provide the least guidance and support for making it happen. There are few rules. And so we struggle along, each trying to figure it out in a way that will make sense for ourselves and our circumstances. Building a family, just like building a home, a career, or world peace, needs a plan and conscious, continuous effort. It also requires a foundation on which to build and maintain real relationships, even when they get messy and difficult.
One way to establish that foundation, to find order amid the chaos, is through tradition and ritual. This doesn't mean "going back to the good old days" (there weren't any), but it does mean connecting to each other and our communities in a habitual pattern that we can count on and that slows us down every once in a while. Traditions and rituals are a powerful way to balance the whirlwind of our lives. We are creatures of habit. And when we ingrain a family tradition, it becomes a habit that anchors us. Traditions and rituals can pull us back to what's important -- a story at bedtime, a weekend meal, a holiday gathering. Our best memories -- and sometimes our worst -- tend to be tied to family traditions and rituals. It's not only how we communicate in a family, but how we enact our connections that matters. Research is slowly beginning to uncover tradition and ritual as a very important factor in strong, close families.
Strong, close families have developed ways to balance the pull outward with a pull inward. They have a cycle of disconnection and connection. When they start to get too disconnected, they have automatic ways they can reconnect, which is, over the long run, what makes them strong and close. When they're in a disconnected moment, they use ritual to help them reconnect. Rituals are a natural way of recovering from daily emotional upheavals. Reconnecting rituals can be as simple as a mother and baby cuddling in a familiar chair after an outburst of tears has subsided, a hug after a long day at work and school, or shaking hands to seal a deal agreed upon after negotiating how many books you'll read a child before bed.
Family traditions and rituals serve to create and maintain family ties. Through ritual, family members are nourished with the significance of their connection to each other and anchored to withstand the whirl of the world. The only thing more powerful than being stuck in a rut is being "stuck" in a ritual. You can use that fact to your advantage.
The Meaning of Tradition and Ritual
"Stop! I want to go back to the good old days. It was easier and simpler then." The allure of nostalgia can be powerful. It seems that the minute you hang on to something today, it begins to change. Cars and computers change, fashion changes, the economy changes, love changes, children change, our parents change, our bodies change, we change. Everything changes all the time.
When we feel nostalgic, what we're really feeling is overwhelmed by the current rapid pace of change. Nostalgia is a defense mechanism. Yes, we're exhilarated by all the new possibilities for living in this new millennium. At the same time, we're fearful of leaving the familiarity of what we've known. It's true that throughout history "things have changed." But our era has seen an escalation of the rate of change so dramatic that all possibilities of evolutionary accommodation have been short-circuited. We are drowning in our own victorious advances. And sometimes things speed along so quickly that we don't even have time to ask ourselves whether we're speeding in the direction we would like to -- or should -- go. Individual habits, perceptions, perspectives, concepts of self, ideas of space and time, social relationships, and moral and political boundaries have all been profoundly affected. As our lives proceed in overdrive, we've lost the ability to stop and really see. Life is making more demands on us. There are more choices to be made. But sometimes we just don't want choice, or change.
Traditions and rituals can be a positive way to cope with change. They give us some comfort that some things can stay the same. They also slow things down a bit and, because they are familiar, give us a chance to pause and reflect.
The definitions of ritual and tradition overlap. Different people define them differently in different contexts. For my purposes here, I'm going to use them somewhat interchangeably, although I do want to make a distinction between the two.
Tradition is the handing down of information, beliefs, and behaviors by word-of-mouth or by example, from one generation to another. A tradition is something you do again and again, something that adults teach their children, who then grow up and teach it to their children. Traditions, unlike their cousin customs (which tend to be broad-based across, for example, a particular culture), are very much personal and peculiar (like my family sign tradition). Traditions are special to those who participate in them. They also allow room for adaptation and experimentation.
Rituals can be a part of traditions. Rituals are a prescribed order of behavior, a repeated pattern of meaningful acts. The key is in the meaning. Rituals are generally laden with meaning -- there is a prescribed way to do things and they mean something. Rituals may be public, private, or secret. A tradition may have an associated ritual, but traditions can be repetitive without being ritualistic. Rituals often have a more formal, spiritual or emotional dimension to them.
Popular author Robert Fulghum has written extensively about rituals. He describes them this way:
Rituals are timed by beats of the heart, not ticks of the clock. Most of our major holidays are connected to seasons. They are flexible feast days adapted to human needs. Heart time is not clock time -- rituals should never be rushed. Rituals are frames around the mirrors of the moment. Rituals are the coin by which attention is paid to the moment. Nobody lives without rituals. Rituals do not live without somebody. The function of ritual is paradoxical: to both anchor us to high places on the steep slopes of this world on which we are always losing our footing and to free us from the despair of being stuck in the world's mud. Ritual behavior softens the phases of life when we are reminded how hard it is to be human. Ritual behavior enriches the phases of life when we are reminded how fine it is to be human.
The human longing for both ritual and tradition is deep. It is ageless and universal. Researchers feel that there may even be something in our basic genetic makeup, a need to perform actions in repetitive, ritualized ways. We seek out patterns of prescribed behavior as a guide. Rituals seem to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain simultaneously, briefly creating a state of mental intensity, focus, and clarity.
Unfortunately, in our culture, ritual and tradition are often frustrated. To downplay them though is to lose the way. When John F. Kennedy was shot on that Friday in Dallas in 1963, churches across the country were full on Sunday. In a similar way, churches were filled after September 11. Researchers have found that the heart of this behavior is a search for connection. Particularly in times of crisis and human hardship, we need a sense of ritual to connect with each other, show our respect, and try to give some meaning to something that seems incomprehensible.
All over the world, people use rituals and traditions; and, from the archeological evidence, it looks as if they always have. Most people in our society are not educated to believe that the performance of rituals is as characteristic of being human as is using language and living in social groups. But this is what research seems to show. Human beings are made, not born. A baby has potential, but is not yet human. Humanity has to be learned in many ways. Much learning takes place as the baby imitates the behaviors of others. We enact, rehearse, work, play, and communicate our way into the human condition. We see repeated, meaningful behaviors -- rituals -- and we repeat them. We learn how to do it next time. Further, we not only learn the ritual, but we learn that others before us have done it. As participants in culture, we not only learn but also learn to teach, mostly by example. There is a great rhythm of learning and teaching. Collectively, the passing along of rituals and traditions provides the means for generations to take their place in the human continuum.
To make use of ritual and tradition is to make use of a pathway through what would otherwise be uncharted territory. Learning-by-doing is not left to pure invention and experimentation. What if no pathways for our behavior had been blazed before we got here? It would take a great deal of imagination and courage to blaze a new path each time for every act. As a particular act becomes more and more familiar, it comes to seem less like a pathway and more like a shelter. It's not so much that people have invented rituals, but they have invented us.
At the societal level, ritual and tradition prevent interaction from being unpredictable, chaotic, even frightening. Ritual organizes social interaction into predictable patterns, in the same way that daily habits organize personal behavior. Eating a meal with family members, reading bedtime stories to children, a good night kiss, a family reunion, exercising with a friend, carpooling to work, and even watching certain television shows together are some of the everyday rituals we follow. We tend to take them for granted, but without them our lives would collapse. They regulate the routines of life and give a meaningful rhythm to our life. They also create and clarify our identity. As we confront a multitude of choices, everyday rituals help to remind us of who we are and to whom we belong.
Sometimes the value and meaning of "chores" are camouflaged by their very ordinariness -- shopping in the grocery store, tucking the kids into bed, making a meal together. But these are rituals that carry personal meaning. For older adults, assisted living facilities have found that the most meaningful activities aren't the craft projects (that most four-year-olds wouldn't be caught dead doing anyway), but the ordinary tasks of daily living that residents have a familiarity with because they've been doing them all their life. Ritual and tradition ground us no matter how old we are. Children and adults need them for mental and social stability.
Ritual and tradition may be considered by some to be "old fashioned" and "out of step" with our high-tech times. But they are patterns which can be used at any time in history. The exact form they take may be "old fashioned," but that can be changed. Just as we need to eat but may change what we eat, we can change our rituals and traditions without denying our need for them.
We are desperate for more meaning in our lives, and tradition and ritual are a key to opening that door. They are what marks the flow from our days to our seasons to our lives. We never outgrow our need for them. They link the past and the present, old and new, beginning and ending, individual and group, earthly and spiritual. By linking us with dates and events, they help anchor us in time and connect us with family, community, and culture. Sometimes momentary efficiency is lost when we emphasize tradition and ritual, but the greater rewards are worth it. If you're conscious of your actions, you'll begin to see patterns. Patterns of repetition govern each day, week, year, and lifetime. If you see the patterns, try to understand them. If you can come to understand them, you can enrich them and they will enrich you. That's when you find meaning.
Ultimately, although it may seem that traditions and rituals are nostalgic acts of looking backward, they are actually an act of faith in the future. They remind us that life goes on.
Benefits Big and Small
It's natural to waver between the lure of spontaneity and the tug of something deeply familiar. Many people resist tradition and ritual because they see them as constraining. They don't want to engage in prescribed behavior, but want to be free to do as they please. Our society places an extremely high degree of value on individuality, spontaneity, and creativity. But like everything in life, the pendulum also has to swing in the other direction too -- toward togetherness and repetition.
It is true that tradition and ritual can be hollow and rigidly strict. They lose their meaning when we do them without thought or feeling, are bored, or feel forced. They can also do harm, as in the case of ritualized acts of violence and murder. There are times when traditions and rituals can impede progress or be an excuse for ongoing oppression. Since people need ritual so much, it can be used as a weapon against them. Those who long for ritual can find this longing used by people in power to keep them down.
At a personal level, rituals may seem like dreary obligations in middle life, with the exception of times of crisis. But as children we depend on them. Rituals are one of the first ways children start making sense of time. As we enter the rather cynical teen years and young adulthood, we tend to shun them as constricting. Then as we get older, our need for them reemerges. Tradition and ritual can be extremely important in the lives of older adults. It affirms their place and connection to the world. There may be fancy, unfamiliar computers, but there is also the familiar family holiday dinner. Rituals also help keep frail older adults grounded. An older person who gets names and dates confused may know exactly what to do when a familiar ritual starts. When routines and rituals are suddenly taken away, as when an older person is hospitalized suddenly, they often become extremely disoriented.
As we evaluate traditions and rituals, it is important to be clear on what they can do:
- At the level of practical daily and weekly living, they involve set communication patterns and can be an efficient way to get things done. They can give family members clear roles. Part of good, working family relationships is a clear understanding of role assignment. We need to know what we're supposed to do and when.
- Traditions and rituals also teach practical skills, like how to set the table or how to bake.
- They can be used to help solve problems or address fears. For example, a parent may develop a ritual for when a child has a nightmare -- draw a picture of what scared you, then tear it up.
- They offer predictability, a sense of stability, order, and regularity that children -- and even adults -- need. Children love routine, and ritual is routine with icing and a cherry on top. Children don't have to guess or wonder what comes next, they know what comes next and they know what is expected of them.
- They offer a sense of identity, as unique as a fingerprint. They help answer fundamental questions -- What makes us a family? What makes us special? What do we like as a group?
- They're an opportunity to symbolize and demonstrate values. They allow us to walk our talk, enact what we believe is important and hold dear. We can convey, "this is who we are as a group."
- They build connection, making sure people carve out time for each other.
- Traditions and rituals can help children measure their own growth and development. They know that when they are "old enough" they will be able to participate in certain ways. At family celebrations, when people exclaim how big children are getting, how beautiful, or how smart, children may seem not to care or be embarrassed, but what they're taking in is that they are loved, treasured, and important to a group. As they grow older, taking part in these gatherings helps them develop a deep-rooted sense of belonging.
- They provide continuity and meaning across generations. People are linked to each other even though there are other differences between them. Family gatherings, for example, are a time when cultural and ethnic traditions are celebrated, and when we tell stories about the past. Traditions allow us to preserve the aspects of our lives we value by passing them on to the next generation. They connect us to our ancestors and allow us to share their history, accomplishments, and ways of thinking about the world. Annual holiday traditions also provide a sense of family time. While other things in our lives change, family traditions provide a sense of continuity in our lives.
- Traditions and rituals enable us to say things that might otherwise go unsaid or to find the time to say things which must be said. By marking a special occasion in a special way, they create a moment when it's "appropriate" to express certain feelings or thoughts.
- They can evoke emotions while controlling them, guiding people while at the same time setting them free. If the emotions are too strong, a ritual scenario can be used to guide and moderate them; and if the emotions are too weak, draining the event of its energy, a ritual can invoke them.
- They can provide blueprints for interaction under stressful conditions, when we are least able to think and act. By automating certain steps, they allow us to deal with other demands and provide us with a sense of comfort. They can also protect family relationships. They are something "normal" to look forward to and can stabilize relationships. When life is turned upside down, the two best things we can do is talk and hook into familiar and comforting patterns.
- Traditions and rituals can help us through the pain of life's greatest tragedies. Think of the candlelit vigils and memorial services that took place after September 11. We need some way to come together and to mark life's joys as well as sorrows.
- In the case of a death or divorce, family traditions and rituals help affirm that people are still part of a family. They can also maintain a sense of connection to those who are gone -- by making the same pie grandma used to bake, or going through family albums on the anniversary of someone's death.
- Traditions and rituals can be preventative medicine, even against social problems as dramatic as violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. Researchers have found one of the best predictors of alcoholism in future generations is what they term "deliberateness," the degree of importance rituals held within a family. Families who were more deliberate were less likely to pass on alcoholism to children. And children of alcoholics who developed rituals of their own were less likely to become alcoholics than those who did not. It was when behavior became haphazard that the likelihood of alcoholism increased.
- Traditions and rituals generate joy in the moment, and create memories we hold dear.
- They punctuate time. They help us pause to order the contents of our lives. You don't have to invest time and energy into planning or figuring out what to do, just in doing them (which is less of a burden). In this way, they can also help us navigate change.
- Finally, traditions and rituals ensure that the important moments of life that really count won't get lost. Like threads in a tapestry, traditions and rituals bind life together, connecting the individual to the family, the family to the culture, and all of us to the steady march of eternity.
Traditions and rituals not only have and create meaning, but they can operate at the level of "magic" -- at the level of working without effort or thought. The caveat is that although one of their main benefits is that we often engage in them automatically and effortlessly, we also need to be conscious of regularly reevaluating them to ensure they serve rather than imprison.
Where Do You Find the Time?
There's a marvelous efficiency in computers, e-mail, fax machines, and other developments of our high-tech society. They save almost immeasurable amounts of time. Yet, the more we save, the more we feel the need for more time. Perhaps it's because we also have more choices, and we find making these choices more and more difficult.
We have to make a choice to put time into traditions and rituals. More importantly, they require us to shift our relationship to time itself. They require us to hook into cyclical rather than linear time. Linear time is a product of the clock, and the imperatives of technology and the modern economy. Cyclical time is about natural rhythm. As I quoted Robert Fulghum earlier, "rituals are timed by beats of the heart, not ticks of the clock." Linear and cyclical time compete. We feel pressure from linear time and comfort in cyclical time.
We have to learn to use cyclical time to compensate for the pressures of linear time. Birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays acknowledge the finitude of time while at the same time affirm a certain permanence and continuity in all things human. They mark the passing of linear time but also connect past, present, and future in cyclical time. They slow, stop, even reverse time, if only for a moment.
There is a way of living simultaneously on different time tracks, which can keep us unrushed and centered, even in the midst of busyness. A parent has to be crisis-sensitive; life is full of small crises when children are young. At one level, you always have to be there, in the immediate moment, watching and listening. But no one can survive living from moment to moment. There has to be a weekly rhythm and a connection to something bigger. There has to be a seasonal rhythm, and a generational rhythm. Part of this involves planning, but part also involves an intuitive sense of a natural rhythm. There are ripples of rhythms within rhythms, some things being able to be achieved in a short time span, others perhaps taking years. It's about having a sense of the bigger, slower rhythm, of the living, moving frame of all the smaller rhythms. It's like getting your bearings in eternity.
Getting your bearings in eternity while trying to build a life in our particular culture is not easy. The media is full of pop psychology insights that are supposed to help us solve all our problems. The problem of time is one that sells -- big time. Books about managing and saving time are frequently bestsellers. But time management strategies usually just try to get us to shoehorn more activities into an already frenzied schedule. And some advice is downright contradictory. In one book, a helpful suggestion includes, "Don't kid yourself that by cutting back on sleep, you can get more done." But several tips later, there's a tip that talks about carving out "hidden time" for yourself at night or early in the morning "with the help of a reliable alarm clock." All of this babble does little to address the underlying problem. The problem with the problem of time is that I don't think the answer can be found solely in psychology. I think it's more to be found in sociology. This is one of those problems that requires not only a personal, but a societal shift.
At the personal level, you do have to realize what's happening -- that time (or the activities you're trying to cram into time) is controlling you rather than vice versa. Consciousness is a big step toward action. You cannot act on what you do not recognize. For example, take a really hard look at the use of television in your family. Television not only takes time away from the family, but it affects the family experience by breaking down the boundaries between public and private domains. The television is the window on the outside world that becomes the focus of the family gaze. It is the mechanism that allows the violence, sentimentality, and commercialism of the public sphere to pour into the family living room. It's estimated that families spend approximately 40% of their private lives with television -- time you could choose to spend elsewhere.
Note that it is possible to use television as a family connection ritual. TV time can be family time if it's made up of a carefully selected show, within a limited time frame, that everyone looks forward to enjoying and watching together. That's an example of you managing the TV. But the TV manages you when everyone plops themselves down to watch whatever is on, when the TV is constantly on in the background, or when everyone retreats to their own room to watch their own TV.
Popular author Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families suggests that one way to gain some measure of individual control over time it to replace the image of the clock with the image of a compass as you make choices. A decision about time is essentially a decision about values. If you find your true north, and try to set a course toward it, your choices become clearer. When people experience time conflicts, not only are there competing demands placed on that time, but divergent underlying values shaping how the time is spent. Do you put time into work, individual interests, or the family? The choice is as simple as that. You may not like the choice, it may be a difficult one to actually make, but it is the choice.
But, as I said, the personal level is only a part of the time problem. The sociological level is more germane. To create a different kind of pace, there is a need to accept that you can't "fit it all in." Establishing priorities means letting go of some activities. Unfortunately, most cultural rewards are given to those who can do more things faster and better (or at least seemingly better, because faster usually means that in the long run something gets missed). The rewards associated with choosing to do a few things slowly, and in the long run well, must be generated and supported from within the individual or the family. Cultural support would make it a lot easier, but that support just isn't there. Fighting culture can be tiring -- physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
We retreat into our homes to be with our families, but the pace and demands of the competitive world of work are often brought home with us. Given the increases in the amount of time that we give to work and the escalation of the pace of work activities, the result is that the home becomes the site of a parallel set of tasks and responsibilities. The ideal persists: people want to spend time with their families. People yearn for the sense of calm and togetherness that is deeply embedded in our beliefs about what family time is. Our idealization of what family time is leaves us with an unhappy present. We're caught between the nostalgic tugs of an uncomplicated past where families worked together on the farm with no need to "find" family time and an uncertain future that pulls us along with the fantasy of a slowed-down intimacy "someday." The past and future maintain the dream of family time, but the present is the site of our disillusionment.
Bodil Jonsson has written an insightful book titled Unwinding the Clock: Ten Thoughts on Our Relationship to Time. A European bestseller, this slim volume is a thought-provoking look, from another cultural perspective, at how we think about, appreciate, and use time.
As she points out, time is the only thing you have. In one chapter, she talks about her grandmother. Her grandmother died before she turned seven, but is the one person who dominates the few distinct memories Jonsson has of her childhood. One reason is that "she never had too little time. By our standards she had too little space, and certainly sometimes had too little food, heat, and light. But she didn't have too little time. It never seemed that way to her; she didn't look at life that way."
Our culture has been transformed from one with time to fill and time to spare to one that views time as a thing to guard, hoard, and protect. For my grandparents, space and food were constraints and created a certain life story. For my parents, who grew up in the Depression, money was a constraint and created a certain life story. For my generation, time is a constraint and creates a certain life story. My father can't understand why I'm willing to spend a little more money to save a little more time. Our life stories are different, and so are our views of time.
Our view of time not only varies generationally, but also as we age. Jonsson recounts when she was around thirty and had three young children and an exciting job:
Time was passing more quickly every day. I talked to a woman whom I then regarded as ancient -- she was probably no more than fifty. When I rather hesitantly attempted to explain my problem to her, she said, "And you say that now, when you're so young! Just wait and see!"
Once upon a time I thought that getting older would be like moving down a narrowing funnel -- life would just get more and more constricted and more regimented. From what I've had the chance to experience so far, it seems quite the opposite. Since no one told me anything about this when I was young, I'd like to attest to this here and now: life doesn't have to get worse as we age. It's even possible that experiences can become fuller with each day that passes. Perhaps it seems this way to me because I've experienced so much that each new event evokes numerous associations in my life. I couldn't have been aware of such multiplicity thirty years ago, simply because I didn't have enough experiences then.
Time is felt most dramatically in connection with the births and deaths of people we know. A tiny new human being suddenly comes into this world, with all their time ahead of them, and maybe in need of some of your time too. Another person dies, and you can no longer share time with them. Thoughts about time (and the approximately 30,000 days we have on this earth), take on another dimension and perhaps afford us some perspective. A cyclical orientation to time helps us experience our own aging differently, and value time even more. With the aging of the baby boomer generation, perhaps there will be a large enough force to change our cultural views of time to something that is more life giving.
One of Jonsson's best pieces of advice: TTT. She quotes Danish poet and scientist Piet Hein:
Somewhere I've written
so each day I will see
the admonishing letters
When you see how hard it is
to scrub off the grime,
don't ever forget that
Things Take Time.
My addition would be that things take the time that they take. They need to take the time they need, and if you don't give them the time they need, you end up frustrated and feeling as though there isn't enough time. Working on this kit has taken more time than I would have liked, or than I estimated. But to rush it would have been not to give it the time it needed. It needed the time it needed to be what it needed to be. Creativity is a child of cyclical time. Linear time puts pressures on us which do not allow for creativity. Creativity has to flow. Creativity requires playfulness, patience, and imagination. It can't be rushed. But we live in a society addicted to rushing. The low boredom threshold of many young people may be attributed, in part, to the loss of the ability to let events reveal their creative possibilities. Being bored is one of the privileges of childhood. The child who learns to play, and who has sufficient resources and sufficient space to be bored in, has the unique opportunity to be bored in a productive way. Some parents are horrified at the thought of a holiday without a series of planned activities. But boredom is the basis of creativity, and central to our lives and our sanity.
Tradition and rituals are the same way. They need the time they need, and they do take time. But they can also give time -- a sense of time across time, a sense of perspective which gives present time more meaning.
Get started by noticing that the sun rises and sets every day. There's a big tradition for you. Now let cyclical time trickle into your life through tradition and ritual.
Traditions and rituals don't have to be difficult, overly time-consuming, or expensive. What they do have to be is rich and flexible in order for you to derive benefits from them. You have to decide, based on your own values and circumstances, how to best take advantage of traditions and rituals. First, do you have any? What are they? Do they reflect your values? Are they meeting your family's needs for connection, meaning, and community? Look in different areas -- daily rituals like meals and bedtime; coming and going rituals; weekly rituals (like Saturday evening popcorn and a rented movie); couple rituals; holiday rituals; birth and death rituals. Are current rituals lacking something, and do they need an infusion of fresh energy? Is the burden of a ritual falling too much on one person? Is an underlying family problem hurting a ritual?
As you complete your evaluation, keep in mind that every ritual needs a beginning, middle, and an end -- just like a good story. There are the things you do, the things you say, and the things everyone expects. And everyone knows the signal for when a ritual is over. Most importantly, a ritual is something that has meaning within the context of your family.
To make changes and create new family traditions and rituals, start with yourself. What does a new ritual mean to you and why? By discussing your needs and values, it's easier to get other people onside rather than just unilaterally deciding you want to make a big change to family structure. You can try the direct route -- directly bringing up the change or idea, letting everyone air their thoughts, feelings, and needs, and then negotiate. Children, particularly teenagers, may take a little more time initially to buy-in; adult leadership is the key here.
There's also an indirect route. You might say, "Why don't we try something different this time?" Rather than making a major commitment, people are far more likely to agree to try something "just this once." Afterward, ask whether everyone liked it and might want to do it again. Then, negotiate the specifics.
Another way to initiate a ritual is to discover that you enjoyed something that happened spontaneously and state that you would like to make it a ritual. Keep your eyes open for things that work and build on them.
To prevent good rituals from going bad, plan ahead, communicate clear expectations, and involve everyone. Remember to mix in some spontaneity -- there's nothing that kills a ritual faster than rigidity. Some rituals can involve the whole family, others a subset. Don't put pressure on everyone to be happy. Just make opportunities to be together and see what grows. And expect difficulties and the occasional disaster -- that way you'll be less shocked when they happen.
As circumstances change, be flexible about changing or dropping rituals. A birth or death, a divorce, and aging (of children and parents) may all require some changes. You can redefine a ritual or tradition without undermining its underlying importance and meaning. You can also change roles if need be. In our family, we've set the expectation that Thanksgiving is at our house, while Christmas is at my parent's house. But now that my parents are getting older, we are helping out by bringing some of the food for Christmas dinner.
And keep in mind that we need traditions and rituals to mark the changes in our life -- including retirement, moving from a home, and loss of physical and/or cognitive functioning. Rituals can help us find hope in change, even when that change is moving into an assisted living facility. One progressive facility has a transition ritual that involves staff and the family to help orient a new resident to their new home. It includes saying good-bye to the older adult's old home, and providing reassurances that the people they love are still there for them. Tradition and ritual can smooth even the most difficult of changes.
Looking for areas where you might start family traditions and rituals? How about a hug? Make it a ritual to give a hug before everyone leaves for school and work, and before bed. Don't assume children know how much you love them. Tell them. And it's not true that all kids want their parents to stop hugging or kissing them when they become teenagers. Don't force it, but don't let a little embarrassed look stop you either.
A bedtime story ritual is a big one with me because reading is so important to children's development. It's also a key way to build a lasting intergenerational connection.
Try a calmness ritual at the time of the day when chaos starts to reign in most households -- usually around dinnertime. Parents and children come together with the accumulated fatigue of the day and the spinning effects of their participation in the outside world. Energies are low and needs are high. To deal with "tired and hungry" at the end of the day, have a snack and just sit and talk for a while before you start thinking about dinner. Hint: To avoid conflict, set the expectation of the same snack every day -- a cup of soup, some fruit, and maybe cookies every Wednesday.
Food has a major link to ritual. Eating is a social activity that itself is laden with rituals of sharing, manners, customs, and traditions. Food draws people together, provides a focus, engages the senses of smell, taste, and touch, and can be both consoling and celebratory. So eating meals together is important. We all have to eat. Take advantage of that time. Research has shown that healthy families value table time and conversation. These families are very protective of their mealtime. It's the one time each day that parents and children are assured of uninterrupted time with each other.
Some basic guidelines for a successful mealtime:
- Have a flexible but predictable start time. Everyone should know when they're expected to arrive, but some allowances can be made for changes in individual schedules (communicate changes to everyone, of course).
- Get everyone to help. Assign tasks -- who plans the meal, shops, sets the table, cleans up, does dishes, etc.
- No television -- otherwise how can you talk?
- Encourage sharing -- the best thing that happened during the day, the worst thing.
- During the meal, differences of opinion that come up as a normal part of conversation are fine. But personal grudges, unpleasantness, and conflict should wait until a more appropriate time like a family meeting.
- The meal should have a formal beginning -- say a prayer, ring a dinner bell, light a candle, close the door to the kitchen, lower the lights.
- The meal should have a formal ending. In my family, you couldn't leave the table until you said, "Please excuse me." I don't know how old I was before I realized what those words actually meant. The words were like a secret code that allowed us to escape from the table, a jumble of magic sound. Their importance though was that they signaled the end of the meal and the transition into the evening's activities.
A final note about meals: If you're a long way away from being able to have dinner together every night, start with Sunday brunch and take it from there.
I also think that having a regular family meeting -- once a week or once every couple of weeks -- is important. Someone should take notes so that decisions are recorded. Talk about things that are going well. Then move into what needs improvement. Whether you talk about how chores are divided up, what's "fair" or "not fair" around the house, or who needs to shampoo the dog, give a voice to young and old. You can also integrate in the "Memory Jar" suggested in the Memories & Keepsakes section of the Grandparents Day Activity Kit, and/or the "Conflict Jar" suggested in the Peace Building section of this kit.
The Holiday Season in a Historical and Cultural Context
Each year, the holiday season links us to our own past, past generations, and to our culture. Modern Christmas is a time not only for returning home, but for looking back. The ritualized nature of the day, with its emphasis on doing things just as they have "always" been done, gives it the unique feel of being time out of time -- recoverable time or what social researchers call a "succession of eternities."
In general, holidays are an example of public rituals. They organize the collective behavior of millions of people and lead us through the weeks, months, and years. Holidays create solidarity. The same people get together again and again to engage in the same activity. Holidays affirm the values we hold dear. We remember our religious or ethnic beliefs. Holidays also regulate behavior. In these ways, public rituals infuse our lives with order and meaning. Holiday rituals connect us with each other and the larger community.
Historically, holiday community rituals, not family rituals, were the glue that held people together. Communities would gather for church services or harvests. Holidays were celebrated communally, not within individual families. But today, we place much more importance on holiday traditions and rituals within the family. Society is also set up to make the holidays a time when we get "permission" to focus on family.
Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the world. People in virtually every country celebrate it, and more than one hundred countries officially recognize it in one way or another. Although there are other holidays at this time of year -- Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan -- Christmas overshadows them all. Christmas has established a successful precedent for the creation of a new kind of family time. Although Christmas has a Christian origin as the birth of Jesus, many of today's traditions are secular. You do not even have to be Christian to engage in Christmas festivities. In the 1950s, a sample of American Jews showed that 40% had Christmas trees. Today, families may bring together people from diverse backgrounds and many celebrate both Christmas and another holiday like Hanukkah.
Christmas has evolved over the years. Many of the traditions and rituals we hold dear are relatively recent additions (since the 1800s). Christmas traditions in the US and Canada are a combination of those from other countries. They include Santa Claus, Christmas trees, cards, presents, carols, feasting, and lights. Every country's Christmas celebrations vary according to that country's beliefs, folklore, climate, and traditions. Some common practices and symbols: nativity scenes, bells ringing, stars and candles, gift giving, ornaments and other decorations, and decorating with greenery (evergreen trees, holly, ivy, mistletoe). And there's a common spirit -- joy, hope, peace, friends and family, sharing and giving.
Gift giving is a fairly universal part of Christmas, but it's done differently in each country. Most countries tell of a character who secretly delivers gifts to good children during the night. The gift giver who started this practice was a man named Nicholas. He lived in what's now Turkey around the year 300. When his wealthy parents died, he spent his life secretly doing good things for children and performing other good deeds. There are many stories telling of his aid to sailors, merchants, and children. After he died, Nicholas became the patron saint of many countries. Gift giving takes place on his feast day, December 6. Since December 6 is so close to Christmas, some countries have maintained the tradition but moved its date to December 25. In some countries, children receive gifts on both dates.
Today, Christmas is very much about children. Originally, in a secular context, it was actually about aging and death. Its major symbol was old Father Christmas, a figure bearing a close resemblance to grim Father Time. Children had their own saint, Nicholas, and their own day early in December. Christmas did not become a day special to children until Saint Nicholas underwent a fictional makeover in Clement Clarke Moore's The Night before Christmas (written in America in 1822) and was given his present costume and image as Santa Claus by American illustrator Thomas Nast during the 1860s. Once he became Santa Claus, Father Christmas lost his association with death and became the eternal grandfather figure, no longer so judgmental as the old Nicholas figure -- who used to visit children with warnings as well as gifts -- but now jolly and bountiful, a provider symbol.
Christmas has always been seen nostalgically, as "bigger and better" some time "before." Lamented Charles Dickens, "People will always tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be." Christmas exists very much in memory and anticipation. And Christmas is, of course, followed closely by New Year's -- with our yearly resolutions. New Year's reflects one of our most primitive of hopes: that tomorrow will be better.
Holiday Highs and Lows
The last six weeks of the year can be a challenge. Everything seems supercharged. It's a season of high expectations, and even non-Christians are affected by the hugeness of Christmas.
December is a month when more opportunities exist for tradition and memories. The world of work slows, schools take time off, and everything in general seems to make a nod toward spending some time with family. The holidays are the one time of year when we are expected, in fact encouraged to connect. The holidays are a once-a-year call to family. This can put a lot of stress on people. Depression soars during the holiday season, as does exhaustion. It can be disappointing and frustrating as everything becomes one big "photo op" that never lives up to the commercials we see on TV.
The messages at this time of year are so seductive: warm family gatherings; well-behaved, well-groomed children; time and money for gifts and festivities; feeling loved and secure and happy. We stop, listen, and want to believe. It's easy to be persuaded by the commercials, with their fuzzy, warm, well-crafted images and soothing, buoyant music. But the reality is that we face the same problems at Christmas that we face year-round -- a less than perfect family, budget constraints, and no soothing background music that follows us around from one hectic task to the next. The holidays can also be difficult because we feel pressure to be happy, we may be grieving a recent loss, or we may be filled with a void of meaning, which becomes even more pronounced.
It can be hard to see the holidays as opportunity rather than obligation and stressor. Yes, we are pulled together by often unrealistic expectations -- but you have to start somewhere. We can celebrate new members of the family and remember old ones. We can take stock of where we are and where we're going. And although the holidays have in many ways become commercialized and trivialized by our culture, I think many people would feel poorer without them. We need some sort of community celebration that brings together the powerful elements of spirituality, family, community, beauty, peace, and hope. We need the sanctioned time off school and work. We need time to pursue the ideals, even if we cannot always reach them.
You have to make conscious choices during the holiday season about where you're going to put your time. This is particularly important for women, who often feel pressure to make the holidays "Christmas-card perfect." Traditions and rituals take time, especially women's time, adding to our sense of time famine. It helps if you truly believe that it's everyone's job to pitch in and help. It also helps to be creative and make celebrations work for you in your situation. Don't expect too much of yourself, and don't let your childhood memories overlook the fact that your parents were doing all the work. Now that it's up to you, it can't be quite the same.
Expectations are also important. When family gets together, expect that it won't be perfect. The holidays shine a bright light on family relationships -- bringing out their strengths and their weaknesses. Few families ever measure up to the expectations set by commercials. There are imperfect people, complicated relationships, and unfortunate circumstances. Even in the most loving and supportive families, there is always an undercurrent of mixed emotions and perhaps tensions from holiday pressures, unfamiliar routines, and tiredness from parties and travel.
One approach you can take to prepare yourself ahead of time is to make a list of your family members, and what you don't like about them. Be clear in your expectations that these people will probably engage in the behaviors you don't like. But, you can also write down the qualities that you like and focus on family strengths. Do you share common values? Do you support each other when the chips are down? Do you have fun together? Do you give each other a hug when it's needed most?
You may be trying to bring together people who don't get along or who have simmering conflict. It may erupt. You can try to prepare a "crisis plan." If you know there's a pattern to a behavior, come up with something to cut it off at the pass. For example, I know that my mother will make comments about my cooking techniques. My husband's job is to keep her out of the kitchen while my brother and I do last-minute preparations and serve. My husband knows that under NO circumstances is he to let my mother into the kitchen. This keeps the peace -- between my mother and I, and my husband and I.
There will be holiday realities like crying babies, bored teenagers, annoying relatives, dirty dishes, a messy house, and moments of exhaustion. But there are some things you can achieve -- simple gifts, pretty but not overwhelming decorations, traditional food, music, an emphasis on family activities, and some time to relax. All these things are within reach.
So, you're willing to try to look at the holidays as an opportunity rather than an obligation (I said "try"). You have an open mind to being creative. And you recognize that you can use traditions and rituals -- ones that you create to work for you in your family, not ones created in television commercials -- to make things easier and more meaningful.
Start by assessing your present holiday activities -- Do you enjoy them? Are they meaningful? Are they your choice? Is there enough money to do them? Do you have enough time to do them? Are you doing them by yourself, without any family support? Also ask yourself -- What are you celebrating? What do the holidays really mean to you? What are your values? Do you want to strengthen family bonds, give your spirits a lift, counteract the dull, cold days of winter, create a beautiful environment, have a good time at parties, help those who are less fortunate, take some time to relax, be more generous, do something to make a difference in the world, get in touch with distant friends and family, confirm your spiritual beliefs, and/or make your mark in the social order? Then maybe you need to do one more reality check: Are you expecting too much?
Once you've done some holiday self-examination, evaluate the holidays in terms of the things most important to young children and grandchildren: a relaxed, loving time with their family, which includes a sense of connection to all generations; realistic expectations about gifts; a reasonable pace of activities that lead up to the holiday and mark it (rather than a flurry of rushing about that goes on for weeks and becomes one big blur); and enjoyable, predictable family traditions. This last point is particularly important. Traditions give children something to look forward to year after year. They give children stability, even if there have been changes in their world. Traditions enrich each holiday with the memory of holidays that have come before. Each year the same decorations and recipes come out and prompt memories and reminiscences. Traditions also give children comfort. They have a sense of order and security of knowing exactly how events will unfold.
As you decide on your family's traditions and rituals, ask yourself some questions: What are the parts of the holiday that are most meaningful? How do we mark them? What is the message I hope my children or grandchildren will take in?
To come up with meaningful traditions and rituals, think back to your childhood Christmases. Which traditions or activities were most meaningful or enjoyable for you? You can look to your parent's and grandparent's childhood holidays as well. Sit down and have them share their holiday memories. The joy of reaching into the past and resurrecting a forgotten tradition can bring a spark of life to every generation in your family. Also look to your ethnic heritage for folk traditions. Go to the library or onto the Internet to do some research.
The traditions and rituals you choose don't have to be elaborate. Just putting a certain decoration in a certain place, or pulling out the holiday music on a certain date, is a tradition. Ask children what they remember from last holiday and you will begin to get some insight into which traditions they perceive to be important. Come up with simple activities that involve everyone and that are done year after year -- pulling out a specific board game, playing cards, singing, playing musical instruments, reading aloud to each other, telling family stories, cooking together, going for walks. And make sure you include things that mark time, like looking at photos from last year as a measure of time, of growing up.
As you organize your holiday, make a list you can use year after year. The list should include all the possible key tasks (choose and prioritize them so that they work for you): making a gift list; shopping; making gifts; wrapping gifts; mailing gifts; helping children choose gifts for teachers; buying stocking stuffers; making cards; writing cards; getting children ready for school celebrations and concerts; helping out at your church, at work, and at your child's or grandchild's school; baking; sewing; cleaning; getting the tree; decorating the tree; decorating the house; hosting parties; preparing meals; planning family gatherings; grocery shopping; travel arrangements; packing; preparing for houseguests. Based on your list, discuss expectations and assign everyone roles.
To make holidays more manageable and less stressful, grandparents can often help out parents -- if they're asked and the request is put into context. Children will also enjoy being involved in holiday preparations. Everyone helping is part of what makes you feel like a family. Holiday preparations and celebrations give children a chance to see their parents and grandparents as people, revealing them in a new and different light. They see you working, but also being playful. They're surprised when you take a break in the action to do something unexpected, like dancing to some old songs.
I want to offer some holiday suggestions I've collected that you can use for inspiration in your family. I'm going to focus on Christmas. But first a preface: Many Jewish families feel Christmas pressure at Hanukkah. Hanukkah really is a minor Jewish holiday, but it's been increasingly set up as the Jewish equivalent to Christmas. Reclaim the holiday in your own way, for your own family. It was traditional even in ancient times that children were given "gelt," or money, during the holiday. But in recent years, gift giving has become more elaborate, partly because many Jewish families feel they have to compete with Christmas. Gifts every night for eight nights can be a burden. Try to downplay the gifts, perhaps doing a gift every other night. You can also designate each night as something distinct -- big gift night, food gift night, reading night, giving-of-self night. And do creative things, like giving each child their own menorah to light so that there are no fights over who lights the first candle. You can add more of a family tradition dimension by starting a menorah collection and adding a new one each year, with the whole family helping to pick it out.
Now back to Christmas. Here are some holiday tradition and ritual hints (pick and choose among them):
- Get a big calendar for the month of December and mark important events on it -- Christmas card writing day, wrapping presents day, baking day, tree decorating day, and even when grandma and grandpa are arriving. Don't forget relaxing day (you can have more than one of those!). Then "count down" as a family. Kids need to know when things will be taking place. They will expect certain activities and look forward to them. Young and old will also arrange their schedules to make time for things and everyone is more likely to participate. Finally, the Christmas countdown takes advantage of our human tendency to enjoy the anticipation as much as or perhaps more than the event itself.
- Try a Holiday Reading Basket (see the Storytelling for Hope section of this kit) as you lead up to the New Year.
- Introduce a formal fire or candle ritual to your celebrations, perhaps on the weekends leading up to Christmas (e.g. making a big fire and telling stories). A common element around the world in rituals is fire. It's used for incense, sweet grass, fireworks, birthday candles, Hindu Dewali festivals, Asian fireboats, Hanukkah menorahs, Yule logs and, symbolically, Christmas lights. It represents light and warmth in a dark, cold world. Fire is both soothing and explosive, simple and rich.
- Celebrate the winter solstice, which falls around December 22. "Solstice" is the Latin term for "sun standing still." Winter solstice is the date when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator. It is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Light a candle in celebration of the fact that you'll soon start getting more daylight.
- Start a puzzle and work on it as a family a bit at a time throughout the holidays.
- Discuss gift expectations in advance. One year, I got fed up buying presents for adults. We called each family member in the Fall and explained our reasons for wanting to only buy gifts for the kids. No one's feelings were hurt (we hope!). Now I feel far less gift stress by being able to focus only on the children.
- You can change gift traditions to make them work for you. For example, everyone can make a list of what they want and post it on the refrigerator for family discussion and so that everyone is aware of what people want and need. Everyone can also shop together (although this may not work very well with very young children). This gives you time together as a family. You can still wrap presents and put them under the tree. Add a couple of small surprises -- a new book or something silly. There's still a great sense of anticipation.
- Why not shop for Christmas in the summer? You can often get great deals; in a cold climate it's much more enjoyable to shop in the warm weather; it's something to do when the summer vacation starts to drag on interminably; and you save December for family time together.
- Do something special with ornaments. Making them is fun and memorable. When my brother was young, he made a "missile-toe" out of paper (a big, flesh-colored toe with a missile going through it -- complete with orange-red flames shooting out the back). We still hang that decoration in the doorway. Or, give your child or grandchild a new ornament every year. Collect ornaments during family vacations or trips. Choose a new ornament each year that represents an important event in the family that year (e.g. a new house, birth, graduation).
- Mix ornaments of the past with ornaments of the present to evoke memories and bring generations closer.
- Make decorating the tree a family affair. Assign everyone a task -- taking out the tree if it's artificial; hanging specific ornaments; feeding the troops. Make it a ritual -- setting aside a day or afternoon. Get all generations together and have a party. If an older relative is in a nursing home, arrange to have them join everyone for an hour or two.
- Make a new tree-topper ornament each year.
- Give children a small tree (it can be artificial) that they can decorate in any way they choose.
- Take a multi-generational photo by the tree each year so that you can see changes through the years.
- Hang mistletoe in heavy traffic areas -- the doorway to the kitchen, the bathroom doorway, a child's bedroom -- as an excuse for extra kisses.
- Prepare holiday foods with children and grandchildren. They love to bake and cook.
- Include at least one preferred dish or dessert at the holiday meal each year -- an unusual stuffing for the turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, a pecan pie your great-grandmother made, or a new recipe everyone loved last year and is fast becoming a family favorite.
- Use the special dishes on more than Christmas Day.
- Make Christmas Eve a quiet family time. Have a light supper (bring in pizza!). Then have hot chocolate with cookies and bring out the "Christmas Eve box." Wrap up the same items each year -- new pajamas for everyone, new socks or slippers, and a new game. Everyone unwraps the presents, puts on the clothes, and plays the game.
- Maybe you enjoy the frenzy of opening gifts all at once, or perhaps you want to ritualize the process -- go around the room, one person at a time. Someone is in charge of handing out the gifts. Each person opens a gift and looks at it before the next person opens a gift.
- Cook breakfast together Christmas morning. Do the stockings before and presents afterward.
- Hide one gift for each person to find during Christmas Day.
- Make Christmas last the whole day. Have a plan so that everything doesn't grind to a screeching halt after the gifts are torn open. The plan can include helping prepare dinner, doing some reading aloud, and going for a walk. Building in some individual time can relieve togetherness tension.
- Plan something for the day after Christmas -- a puzzle or board game marathon. Make it something quiet and cozy, that everyone can count on but will also wind things down.
- As one of their Christmas gifts, give each child a box of pretty "thank you" notes. After Christmas, make it a family event to write "thank you" notes for gifts.
- Build in an annual element of review -- looking at family photos or videos, and sharing family stories.
- Have an "end of holiday" tradition that brings the festivities to a close and helps everyone get over the post-holiday blues. It could be something to do with taking down the Christmas tree and having a special treat. Or you can complete a scrapbook of all the developed holiday photos.
Finally, if your children are no longer young and your family is spread across the country, create new traditions to match that reality. Make sure they include and involve all generations. For example, if you can't all be together, start a letter tradition that you read on Christmas Day. Or, especially for older relatives, try a phone-call-on-the-hour-every-hour tradition that keeps them involved in what's happening.
From Holiday Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2003