by Ronica A. O’Hara
Celebrating classic holiday traditions the same way we always have—and maybe the way our parents and grandparents did—is part of the rich family heritage we pass on to our children. These family rituals are binding, grounding, memorable and much more, says Saul Levine, M.D., professor emeritus in psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.
A survey of 50 years of family research published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Family Psychology found that family holiday rituals, as well as everyday routines like family dinners and bedtime stories, build stronger family relationships, enhance children’s health and academic achievement, help teenagers’ sense of personal identity and even boost marital satisfaction.
It’s also natural and perhaps inevitable that these traditions undergo changes over the years. “If people from only five or six generations ago could see our modern Christmas, they’d barely recognize it,” says Brian Earl, host of the popular Christmas Past podcast that chronicles holiday traditions. “New trends and customs become traditions in time; every generation has its opportunity to add new chapters to the narrative and continue the story.”
For Elizabeth Newcamp, Christmas festivities took an eco-turn for her military family of five when they were living for a few years in the Netherlands, where “Sinterklaas” traditionally delivers gifts in reusable burlap bags. “In an effort to reduce wrapping paper, we now use the sacks on Christmas,” says Newcamp, who blogs about family travel at Dutch, Dutch, Goose
She and her husband Jeff also ask for and give experiences as gifts whenever possible; their 7-year-old son asked if he could organize a little library for their Navarre, Florida, neighborhood. Anyone that wants to send gifts to their sons is asked to find them used. “I don’t think we’ve lessened any of the fun of the holidays, but hopefully we are eliminating some of the waste,” she says.
For many years, Ginny Underwood’s family in Bluffton, South Carolina, would dress up and go to a restaurant on Christmas Eve, exchange gifts and then return home to watch a movie or play board games. Last year, they tried something new: staying home, putting on pajamas, eating cottage pie and playing handmade “Minute to Win It” games that Underwood, a professional organizer who blogs at Virginia's Easy Living Solutions
, created. “We had a blast; we didn’t stop laughing all night,” she says. “We saved hundreds of dollars and we had a lovely time.”
Lighting red, green and black candles while focusing on principles like unity, self-determination or purpose are key in the seven-day Kwanzaa celebrations; but, “Instead of just lighting the candle amongst friends and family and discussing, I want my family to spend that day exemplifying the principle,” says Vanessa Davis, executive director of the nonprofit African Village International, in Jacksonville, Florida. Now her children meditate, journal and practice mindfulness to learn about self-determination; volunteer or pick up trash outdoors to learn about collective work and responsibilities; and buy something at a locally-owned store and discuss future finances for cooperative economics. “I was inspired to change because Kwanzaa isn’t really a religious holiday, but it is a darn good way to reflect on the past year and goal-set for the future,” she says.
“Giving children more hands-on experiences for Hanukkah and taking the emphasis off of ‘What am I going to get?’ makes the holiday more meaningful for the kids,” concurs Pamela Morris, early childhood education director at the East Valley Jewish Community Center, in Chandler, Arizona. Each Hanukkah evening, her family of five lights a menorah and says traditional prayers while also volunteering to wrap food packages at a local Feed My Starving Children event, crafting personal menorahs at a pottery studio, going to see Phoenix ZooLights and gathering to make the traditional potato latkes or jelly donuts. “Each night is a focus on family time and welcoming friends to join us,” she says.
By observing and evolving traditions, family bonds can strengthen through time, relates Earl: “By participating in holiday rituals, children are learning about who they are. And by passing them down, parents reaffirm what’s important to them and keep the connection to the past intact.” Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based natural-health writer. Connect at [email protected]
Updating Favorite Traditions
- Instead of buying a Christmas tree or Hanukkah bush in a store lot, get one in a pot that can be replanted later.
- Take a family holiday photo, either serious or wacky, and recreate it every year with members in the same poses and expressions.
- Invite someone to a holiday dinner that’s not part of the family, such as an international student or newcomer in town.
- Cook up a batch of healthy, vegan cookies with the kids and organize a neighborhood cookie swap.
- Have a $10 or $20 gift exchange challenge in which everyone competes to come up with the most useful, creative or eco-clever use of the money.
- String together popcorn and cranberries to make a tree garland or door decoration, and later drape it on outdoor trees to feed birds and wildlife.
- Give kids $10 to donate to a carefully selected charity of their choice.
- Take a favorite holiday story, parable or song and have the kids (and adults) act it out with costumes and all.