Are Traditions a Source of Peace or Stress?

Traditions are much more than activities we regularly do for fun or foods we regularly eat. After all, traditions make up a large percentage of social small talk and family discussion, and they help us get to know each other. Traditions set us apart from others as they demonstrate our uniqueness, individualized family experiences, and memories. However, traditions don’t just set us apart, they also unite us. Traditions tie us to other people through a deep sort of bonding that no one else can fully understand. Families, who originate and often recreate traditions, have a connection that runs deeper than personality or common interests. Enduring family relationships are rooted in memories created during  the planning and participation in family traditions.

Family relationships are formed as families establish daily routines, such as, family prayers, mission statements, after-dinner clean up and other family work. On a weekly basis, many families create lasting bonds and memories by diligently planning and having family activities, family meetings, and attending regular events together. Yet, seasonal traditions, especially the ones associated with holidays, are powerful in fostering lasting memories, because of the extra special nature of the tradition and the anticipation it involves.

Family traditions are so magical that they transform us all into children again. During a 2023 Christmas Devotional, Gerrit W. Gong said, “Part of the magic for Christmas for me is to be a child and an adult at the same time. We delight as an adult in what once delighted the child we once were. We delight with the child as we create and recreate memories and traditions together.”

Holiday traditions, whether good or bad, lay a foundation for connection and communication patterns for our lives. The traditional experiences of our past, whether unifying or dysfunctional, influence our identity and bonding habits. They can promote enduring joy or family-oriented anxiety. 

Distress Over Traditions

Maybe this anxiety is why some people worry over creating family traditions and even sometimes hesitate to recreate traditions from their childhoods. On, Connie Lissner wrote an article called “Creating Family Traditions is a Bad Idea.” In her article she suggested that since children sometimes push back against seasonal traditions that parents should consider discontinuing those traditions. She even suggested bribing children to participate in traditions by having all seasonal traditions include gifts. Neither one of these ideas will solve the problem of entitlement, selfishness or complaining behavior in the family. They are simply placing a bandaid over a deeper problem. 

Sometimes children can feel that they have outgrown a tradition or that they would rather do something else with their time, missing the significant point of a family tradition. 

Family traditions aren’t meant to please only one person, they are to unify the group. They create a unique memory that represents the family identity and includes the whole family. Of course it would be perfect if everyone liked participating and found pleasure in the tradition every time, but that isn’t likely to happen since we can’t control the choices or processing of others. So, when push-back happens ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this family tradition? Is the purpose important enough to emphasize even if one person is not having a good time this year? Is it okay or even healthy for one family member to not get his way sometimes?” Sometimes being part of a group involves looking at the bigger picture and not thinking only of yourself and what you want. Bonding is grounded and family identity is established when families create traditions and stick to them. 

There are other reasons people don’t like the idea of family traditions. Some people have had bad experiences with traditions that have left them feeling distressed, neglected, or even abused. If sarcasm, prejudices, aggression, and put-downs are part of family traditions, then it’s no wonder that a person might start to think of family traditions as toxic or hostile environments. These family traditions can potentially pass on unhealthy behavioral patterns that will last for generations. In such cases, it could be best to make new family traditions or have open conversations about how to help the family traditions hit the mark for family unity in the future.  

What We Lose When We Lose Traditions

Gerrit W. Gong said, “A Christmas memory recalled, is a Christmas memory made anew. Christmas memories become traditions.” (Christmas Devotional 2023) When we lose a treasured tradition we lose some of the beautiful family memories that lead to identity, security and hope during difficult times ahead. Memories build traditions and traditions make memories. 

Memories get lost when we give up or lose family traditions. When the memories get lost the opportunity to increase a sense of family identity through tradition is also lost. Family traditions offer families who have had relationship problems the hope for healing relationships and greater happiness in the future.  It gives families a  chance to push aside problems, and to focus on family the way they intentionally want to be as a family. When we stop having traditions we potentially destroy the chance for families to deliberately unify about something when they normally wouldn’t. 

How can a certain game, pudding, Christmas decoration, or bedtime story really do that much good? If the same attention is paid to that item or moment, then that item or moment, when repeated is a reminder of old days and joy in relationships. For some people it likely sounds liberating to adapt to life changes and abandon old traditions. 

However, traditions are roots of identity that our children return to again and again as they go through life. We don’t want to lose that. Maybe those temporary selfish complaints are a sign that a tradition needs to change, but they could also be the sign that they need to just invest more in the tradition instead of looking at traditions through an entitled lens. Before you change a treasured tradition, ask yourself, “Am I changing this tradition into an even better tradition for my family, or am I giving up an important tradition that makes us who we are?” 

How To Create Healthy Family Traditions 

Since family traditions are so foundational, it’s worth the effort to establish healthy family traditions for seasonal holidays. Here are four steps for creating healthy family traditions. 

First, work on yourself. The way we feel about ourselves can directly impact the way we interact with and feel about others. If you don’t like a family tradition or are struggling with family interactions, ask yourself, “Is there anything about my own thoughts or behavior that I’m not seeing which I could work on to improve the situation?”

Second, you don’t need to do every new tradition you hear about. I know that some people struggle with the “fear of missing out” more than others, but don’t overwhelm yourself or your family by attempting too many traditions. 

Third, explain to your children why you want to use traditions from your childhood so that they get some buy-in too. You love the traditions for a reason. Share your stories with your children so that they know what you are trying to recreate. 

Fourth, get input from the family about traditions too. Be sure to be open enough with your holiday tradition schedule to allow for time to try new foods and experiences. Maybe try one new thing each year and see if it turns into a tradition. If it doesn’t, no worries, you still have all those other wonderful traditions, like the fruit cake that everyone loves and the family Christmas Eve talent show. 

We all know people who struggle at Christmas time because they either don’t have anyone to relive family Christmas traditions with anymore, or they had such bad experiences with toxic family traditions, like family aggression, that they dread this time of year. This is very unfortunate since traditions are so foundational to each one of us and contribute to our vision of ourselves.  Perhaps this year is a great year to start a new tradition by inviting someone outside the family group to be part of a special family tradition. Maybe opening our arms and sharing our treasured traditions could be just the thing someone needs to have hope for family traditions again. 

Merry Christmas! 

Video by Nicholeen called Creating Family Traditions That Last