When I was a kid, my baby brother received a birthday card with a button pin inside of it that was a little larger than a generous man’s fist. It read: It’s My Birthday, and I Can Do Whatever I Want!
He wore it all day, and all day we honored it. He got to choose dinner. He got to choose the cake and ice cream. He got to choose the television show we’d watch and the game that we’d play. He didn’t get to make any serious decisions of course—nobody was plunking the family budget down in front of a 7 year old—but we let him take charge of every minor, fun decision we possibly could.
My Mom saved the button.
When the next birthday rolled around, the honored boy or girl got to wear the button. It didn’t matter if it was one of the parents or one of us three kids. We passed the button around, birthday after birthday, and the birthday boy or birthday girl was King or Queen for a day.
Eventually, the physical button got lost in a move, but the metaphorical button never did. A family member might argue with the birthday boy or girl’s decision without the physical reminder, but every member of the family knew that on their birthday they could get everyone to back down if they just took their hands, formed a circle on their chests, and said, “Hey! I’ve got the button!”
Family traditions can revolve around items, food, special days, special phrases, or particular places, but they all have one thing in common. They help bring families together.
Every time we engage in that silly button tradition my parents, siblings—and now, my daughter—are all making a statement about what it means “to be a Hudson.” It doesn’t matter that we look a little bit mad to outsiders with our secret symbols and code phrases.
The button, and other traditions like it, are just a part of our family culture now, a marker that helps us tell the world—and each other—that we’re part of a shared tribe.
Family Traditions are a Source of Strength
The reality of life in the 21st century can present some real challenges to the concept of the family tradition. Our families break, blend, and fracture. It’s not uncommon to have family members scattered from coast to coast. Culture and technology move and shift in the blink of an eye. Our schedules are hectic, and we stand to lose a lot if we don’t keep up.
If you’re reading this article, it is because you know, deep down, that your family needs traditions.
Your instinct is 100% on the money. Your family does need traditions. In fact, families need traditions more than they ever did. Traditions are the glue that helps to hold our families together against all of the forces working to tear us apart. According to Dr. Susan Coady, Ohio State Professor of Family Relations and Human Development, strong family traditions are statistically linked to both family strength and family satisfaction.
In other words, they can give family members a reason to stick together by enshrining some family time as sacred, and by building up a sort of emotional or spiritual bank account. Traditions can give your family members something to hold on to. Building them helps you guard your family against divorce and estrangement, because they give everyone something to hold on to—a reason to stay when it would be easier to just walk out the door forever.
Author Holly Lisle once said, “Life is short. Love is eternal. All we have to offer to each other that amounts to anything is our love, our time, and our belief that individuals and their dreams matter.” Traditions help you offer your family that love and that time in a way that is both memorable and influential.
Popular Family Traditions
If you haven’t done much with family traditions in the past then it can be very helpful to look at traditions that other families enjoy. Believe it or not, you may be celebrating some of these traditions already, without even knowing it. If so, you’re in luck, because you’ll be able to work on strengthening those traditions over time.
Family Dinner (Nightly) – Choosing to come together to have a family dinner each and every night is a great way to stay in touch with your family. You’ll share excellent food and conversations that will last a lifetime.
Now, you might be thinking: Impossible! Tuesday is soccer night. Wednesday is church night. Nobody ever feels like cooking on Sunday.
That’s fine. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can choose to observe your family dinners once or twice a week instead. Do what works for your family.
Family Game Night (Weekly) – This is a great tradition for families who love board games. Pick a night or an afternoon each week where you’ll spend several hours playing games with one another.
Note that you don’t have to stick with old standbys like Monopoly, Sorry, or Trivial Pursuit. 21st century board games are on a brand new level. If the classics are putting your family to sleep, try challenging new games like Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, or Carcassonne.
Again, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater if you can’t find time to do this every week. You could do it on the 4th Saturday of every month, too.
The Annual Camping Trip – This is a great tradition for families who love camping. Pick a weekend or a week every month and make sure you go to the same place. This works for families who have a vacation home or a timeshare, or who love returning to the same spot again and again. You don’t have to rough it: there are plenty of places where you can rent a cabin for a more glamorous getaway.
Note that this tradition is distinct from the family vacation in two ways. Ideally, it will be inexpensive enough in terms of your unique family budget for you to do it each and every year without fail. You would also make sure to revisit the same place over and over again, whereas the family might wish to see different destinations for the family vacation. It can also be quite a bit shorter—a three day weekend is entirely effective—whereas the typical family vacation, if you take one, might last a week.
Perhaps most importantly—short of a family emergency—the annual camping trip should be treated as sacrosanct, where the more elaborate family vacation can be cut from the budget if necessary.
Holiday Volunteer Work – Many families have begun observing this tradition in response to the increased commercialism of the holiday season. Families who choose to band together to help others tend to feel as though they are restoring meaning to the holidays.
Of course, you can choose to volunteer with one another at any time of year. Maybe you stop visiting tourist destinations on your big family vacations and start planning volunteer vacations instead. Maybe you devote one night a week to working at the food bank or animal shelter.
The benefits of this particular tradition extend beyond the tradition itself. Service is powerful, and it tends to cultivate strong, positive family values that last for a lifetime.
How to Create Family Traditions
Creating family traditions isn’t as hard as it might sound. As you’ve seen, you don’t have to attach your traditions to any holidays. They don’t have to be expensive, they don’t have to take a long time, and they don’t have to be complicated.
Start by thinking about what your family already does. Chances are you’re already observing some practices that could become family traditions. You just haven’t taken the final step: ritualizing and codifying them. You can do this by using the words, “We always (fill in action here).” You could also say, “It’s (activity) night tonight.”
You can even just state that the activity is one of your family traditions.
If you do these things long enough you will have sealed these activities as traditions in the minds of each and every one of your family members. Remember, a lot of family traditions spring up organically (like our family’s birthday button).
Remember that traditions are strongest when you are intentional about creating them. Once you’ve identified existing tradition-worthy activities you can start thinking about traditions which you would like to incorporate into your family in the future.
It’s important, however, to note your family phases and stages. These can have a huge bearing on your traditions—both the ones you start, and the ones that you continue to observe.
For example, when you and your spouse get married, you’ll have a period of time where you’re sifting through the traditions that both of your families have observed over the years. You’ll be picking and choosing which traditions your new family unit will want to hold on to, since some will be mutually exclusive—one family always goes caroling on Christmas Eve, while the other family always stays in for hot chocolate and story time. Compromise is key; think about picking one or two traditions from each side of the family, and make sure they are the traditions that matter most to both of you.
You’ll hit another phase and stage when the children are very young. At this point, you’ll be able to establish some childhood traditions. Your children won’t want to do these things forever, but they’ll provide your kids with some awesome memories. You can reach back to your own childhood for some of these traditions, or you can look to see what other families are doing. Remember to think about what they will enjoy, even if the traditions seem goofy to you. They’ll only be young for so long.
These traditions can be creative or funny, too. Faydra Koenig of DoingLifeWithFaydra.com wrote in a recent blog post that she used to go out with her kids on Christmas Eve to fling oatmeal and glitter on her roof so that the reindeer would know where to land and would have a snack. While her kids likely didn’t want to do that when they turned 15, it was probably a big part of the magic of Christmas back when they were between the ages of 4 and 10.
As your children grow older you might want to swap out some traditions, or ease off on them. Be sure to actually consult your kids; nothing is worse than trying to drag a truculent teenager somewhere he or she doesn’t want to be.
You may hit a trouble spot when your kids are grown—when they’re marrying and having kids of their own. Studies show that the middle generations feel the least positive about their family traditions, in part because they feel the most pressure to keep them going. For example, it’s tough for Mom and Dad to feel enthusiastic when Junior would rather do anything but engage in the family traditions, but Grandma will just feel heartbroken if he doesn’t. As a Grandparent, try to ease off and work with your adult children to engage in traditions that work for everyone.
Looking for some inspirations? Try “60+ Family Tradition Ideas” from The Art of Manliness.
Heirlooms: Family Traditions Made Tangible
Heirlooms are traditions made physical. When you pass on a favorite piece of furniture such as a beautiful antique dresser or a classic, all-American rocking chair you are passing a piece of your family’s history. There is something soothing about knowing that you’re settling into the same chair, on the front porch or even in the nursery, that your family members used in the past.
Heirlooms are easy to overlook in our throw-away culture. Some families have struggled to find pieces that have enough value and quality to be passed on. You can re-ignite the heirloom tradition by choosing a few high-quality pieces that are meant to be enjoyed today and passed on tomorrow. Cultivating heirlooms is another conscious, intentional way to build your family legacy.
How to Pass Your Family Traditions to the Next Generation
Remember, traditions are something you practice. A tradition is something that you and your family members choose to observe. It’s a conscious, intentional choice. You’ll be building love and good memories as you engage in each of your chosen traditional activities.
Name the tradition. Claim it. Make sure you perform the tradition the same way each time that you dive into it. Make sure the tradition is easy to follow.
Remember, it’s better to build a few high-quality traditions that everyone loves than it is to try to load up the family with a ton of traditions. Attempting to build too many traditions can backfire—you can end up sucking the meaning and power out of them. When you engage in any tradition you’re saying, “This is special. This is important to us.” Too many “special” things render everything mundane.
It’s also important to avoid forcing the issue. Never hold on to a tradition that causes more hurt than joy. If your family members are getting stressed, depressed, or upset over a tradition it’s time to stop.
Finally, don’t take it personally if your adult children decide to let a particular tradition go. They might take it up later when they start to miss it or see the meaning in it. They might choose to forge traditions of their own. There’s just no way to guarantee that any given tradition will withstand the test of time, passing from generation to generation without fail. Your children are individuals, so all you can do is build the memories, doing your best to make the tradition as warm, friendly, and fun as possible so that you build positive associations that will last for a lifetime.
Don’t Give Up!
Whether it’s carving out some time with each other or passing down an heirloom, building a family tradition takes time. If your family seems reluctant, just keep trying. When this happens it simply means that you haven’t found the right tradition yet!