Last year, by the time New Year's Eve rolled around, our Christmas tree barely resembled the freshly scented Douglas fir we had proudly strapped to the top of our car the day after Thanksgiving.
"I don't think we should buy a tree so early next year," I remarked to my husband as we dragged the fire hazard out the door, dropping a thick trail of dead needles on the carpet.
"I agree," he replied. "In fact, I don't think we should put the tree up until the middle of December."
"No! That wouldn't be right!" cried our suddenly distraught 5-year-old daughter. "We always buy the tree the day after Thanksgiving. Always! "
As rational adults we know it really doesn't make a difference if we change the way we do things from one year to the next, but to children it can mean everything. In today's unstable and changing world, our children need every source of comfort we can give them. Holiday traditions instill a sense of security in children and provide a source of strength for the entire family.
After all, family and traditions are what the holidays are all about. As we go into this holiday season, there are a few things to keep in mind as you re-enact old family traditions and create some new ones of your very own:
Holiday traditions provide predictability To feel secure, a child needs to feel his life is predictable. Children need to believe that no matter what happens in the world around them, some things remain the same. Just the simple fact of knowing the Menorah candles will be lit exactly the same way this year as last will be comforting to children bombarded with scenes of burning towers and crashing planes. Traditions give children something to depend on year after year, and provide an ongoing sense of continuity - important for creating stable, secure adults.
Traditions celebrate family uniqueness Holiday traditions allow each member to embrace the special uniqueness of their family. A friend of mine loves to tell about the year his mother forgot to buy groceries for their traditional Christmas breakfast. Making do with the ingredients on hand, she prepared the meal and called the family to the table - never giving a hint there was anything unusual about serving frog legs for Christmas breakfast! The family enjoyed such a laugh, the next year the brothers begged for the same breakfast and the tradition continues on today - strange as it may be. Unique family traditions create life long memories and allow children to feel as if they are an important part of a special group.
Traditions bond generations together Traditions help us teach our children about where we came from and how we are connected to one another. Holiday traditions create a wonderful opportunity for family members to bridge the gap between the past and the future. When grandparents talk about their own lives and the family's history, children gain knowledge about the past. A strong feeling of connection to their family's history is the most important gift grandparents can give to their grandchildren. The celebration of Kwanzaa was founded with this purpose in mind - to commemorate African inspired culture and food, and to reconnect African Americans with their heritage.
This year, make an effort to include elderly members of your family in the festivities. Explain the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa, or clear the kitchen for an evening and encourage grandparents and grandchildren to prepare latkes and jelly donuts together. Find ways to connect the generations, even if everyone can't be together in person.
Two grandmothers - two religions Studies show one out of every three marriages in the U.S. is an interfaith marriage, creating a variety of sticky situations around the holidays.
Instead of seeing this as a dilemma (wondering how to choose between the two religions), view this as an opportunity to blend each side of the family's customs. Many families today honor a combination of both Jewish and Christian holidays. Children perceive this as having the best of both worlds and they're probably right! Teaching acceptance and tolerance of other religions and customs is a wonderful gift to our children.
Choose traditions that work for you As families change, so do traditions. As parents, we've all experienced the pressure of trying to continue old traditions - even when they aren't working out. Don't get caught up in continuing a tradition you hate just because it's always been done a certain way. So what if your mother stayed up all night cooking the holiday meal? It doesn't mean you have to do the same. The idea is to enjoy the holidays! Sometimes compromises must be made. What's important is to keep the traditions that truly mean the most to everyone, and to start a few new ones of your very own.
To be effective, traditions don't need to be expensive or time consuming - just consistent. It's the "We always do this" component that turns an event or activity into a family tradition. Think back to your own childhood. What do you remember most? Beautifully wrapped presents, or topping the tree with a tattered old angel? Lavish meals or playing dreidel with your grandfather?
Trust me - your children will feel the same way.
The importance of rituals By Kelly de la Rocha
This holiday season, as crisis shares center stage with celebration, families need ritual more than ever. It's very important for parents to realize that kids still need to have their traditions. "They need to know they're safe, and you can do that through family traditions," says mental health counselor Kathryn Gibson. "Traditions let us know that life can be okay, that we've still got things to hold on to, we're still together."
And despite the pain and fear bred by the recent terrorist attacks, it's important to try to make this year's celebrations as joyful as ever, for our sake as well as our children's. "Make the holidays wonderful, make them festive, do your regular things because kids love to know there's a sameness, just like adults do," Gibson advises.
Holiday rituals provide perfect opportunities to cast worries aside: to spend a day baking with the kids or visiting with seldom-seen relatives. Such traditions not only provide comfort, but can also help children understand their place in a confusing world. "Rituals help us to establish our family identity," states pastor, the Rev. Dr. Barbara Kershner Daniel. "I know who I am because of the stories our family told around the Thanksgiving dinner table."
FITTING TRADITION INTO THE TIMETABLE As children grow, family life becomes increasingly cluttered with meetings, practices, play dates and parties. It's not uncommon for rituals to take a backseat to busy schedules; some effort may be needed to ensure they continue. "People need to step back and realize that some of these things are really important to incorporate as part of what they're doing," says family development educator Claudia Boozer-Blasco. "Whether it's taking time to bake those special cookies with your child, or taking time to go as a family to look at the holiday lights in the neighborhood, it's a matter of consciously thinking about it, reflecting about it, talking about it." In order to make rituals a priority, Mom or Dad might have to decline the chairman position for the winter fundraiser. or the Christmas cards might have to be sent out in January.
WEEDING OUT WHAT'S NOT MEANINGFUL Although ritual adds a valuable dimension to family life, some traditions, over time, become events everyone dreads. Sometimes rituals lose their meaning, yet families continue to go through the motions simply because it's what they've always done. "I think there are some traditions that outlive themselves," comments Rev. Daniel. "If it's not bringing some sense of comfort and peace and connection, then maybe it's time to let it go." Families should thoughtfully analyze their rituals, consider what is being gained from them, and question if there are ways to make them more meaningful.
Some traditions might not be popular with everyone in the family but should be continued because of the joy they bring to others. "Even though kids might not want to be dragged to the family reunion because it's boring, sometimes we need to do that so they know who they are and how they're a part of something. It may not be a happy time, but it does connect us," assures Daniel.
RINGING IN THE NEW Brand new traditions can bring fresh meaning to the holidays. Kids can be a great source of original ideas, and incorporating their suggestions into family practice can be great for youngsters' self esteem. "It helps them feel they're making a significant contribution when what has meaning to them is being embraced by the others in the family," comments Boozer-Blasco.
Traditions can also be enriched when broadened to include community service. Families can share the thrill of giving by doing a chore for an elderly neighbor, buying a gift for a needy child, or volunteering at a food pantry.
No matter what their form, rituals can offer comfort, security, and hope in a world where those things are in short supply. Sheltered by their stable frame, we can laugh, teach, share, heal and find the strength to go on with our lives, just like we always do.