The Importance of Traditions

Tips for Beginning New Traditions

From marking birthdays, to Sunday dinners, to Fourth of July picnics, to any of the other ways we mark milestones, events or simply being together – our cultures are full of traditions. While these can be found in daily life or on special occasions, they’re extremely important during the holidays. Some of these traditions have a religious foundation, while others are centered around simply sharing a common experience that unifies and brings us together. Either way, they help to center and ground us and help to add meaning to the ordinary and the extraordinary. That’s why we’re going to explore why traditions are so important, as well as how to start new ones for you and your family.

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What are Traditions?

In an article for the University of Illinois, Amy Griswold says that “Traditions are stories, rituals and customs that are passed from one generation to the next.” They may be elaborate, or they may be subtle. We may look forward to them with great anticipation, or we may not even recognize how important they are to us until we don’t do them, and something just feels off. Dr. Susan Coady of The Ohio State University defines traditions for genealogy.com as “activities that a family does now, has done in the past, is likely to do in the future, and values and respects.” She also says they are characterized by regularity, commitment, and some type of predictability. In other words, they are part of the fabric of our lives.

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Sarah Ban Breathnach

Bestselling author Sarah Ban Breathnach ( Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, Something More: Excavating Your Authentic Self and The Simple Abundance Journal of Gratitude) has researched traditions and rituals extensively, especially from the Victorian period, and wrote Mrs. Sharp’s Traditions based on what she learned. She told me that traditions are just as much a rhythm in our lives as the changing of the seasons and the passing of the days from dark to light.

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Why Are Traditions Important?

That’s one of the reasons why they’re so important. They help to set our cadence through life. As Sarah’s daughter was growing up, their family did a seasonal table to mark the changing of the seasons. When her daughter had gone off to college and Sarah was divorced, she realized she missed doing the seasonal table. “We say we do these traditions for our families, but we really do them for ourselves.”

They’re so important and mean so much to us, writer Katharine Rose says, because they’re a way to pass on values, customs and morals from one generation to the next. They also teach us “something about life, where we came from and who we are as people.” No wonder Sarah’s seasonal table was a tradition she missed dearly. It had to do as much with her and her love and respect for the changing of the seasons as it did with her daughter.

In Mrs. Sharpe’s Traditions, Sarah has Mrs. Sharpe explain that “Strong, close-knit families share traits that set them apart from troubled ones. One trait is the realization that family traditions strengthen ties within the family. Another is a continuing commitment on the part of parents to use traditions – from treasured holiday rituals to everyday customs – as a unifying thread.”  They help bind us together. Sarah points to opening the ornament box during the holidays as one example of this. “We pick out an ornament, and we tell each other, ‘Oh, the story of this ornament…’ We have our stories together, and that’s a very healing recognition.”

Amy Griswold agrees. In her article, she says, “Research shows us that routines and traditions are part of healthy families. Traditions give security to young people, providing a sense of continuity and routine that they can depend on year after year. Such activities help promote healthy relationships between the generations when they are enjoyed and anticipated by everyone.” Of course, the key word there is “enjoyed.” If traditions regularly spark fights or disagreements, the memories they leave imprinted on us aren’t going to be as fond.

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Knowing When and How to Start New Traditions

If families have those kinds of traditions, it’s best for everyone’s overall wellbeing to either stop doing them or adjust them so that they fit better for everyone involved. But those are the easy ones to recognize that need to be changed. Sometimes traditions become so engrained in us that it’s hard to tell when it’s time to move on. Whether it’s because children are getting older, people are further away, or a tradition simply doesn’t “fit” anymore, Susan Coady says, “It’s important for people not to hang onto traditions that cause them more grief than it’s worth. Sometimes you have to let traditions go and then make new ones, or at least adapt the old ones to the new situations.”

Sarah recognizes that when many people hear the word “tradition,” they think “Oh God, it’s chiseled in stone.” But she says that’s not true. “Traditions are like recipes that have been handed down. Your mother might’ve put a pinch of this in it, and then you customize it, but it’s still a tradition.”

That means that as our children get older and our phases of life change, it’s important to recognize that we still need traditions, but maybe it’s time to try something new. If you decide to do something entirely different, it’s generally agreed upon that starting small and simple and growing from there is the way to go.

Sarah offers a couple of suggestions to get started.

  • Create a seasonal table. Start with one small area that you designate as the place where you’re only going to put reminders of the season. If you have children at home, they can help decorate it with inexpensive or no cost items like pine cones, autumn leaves or holly berries. If there aren’t any children involved, you can let your creative juices take over and do it as simply or elaborately as you want. Sarah does suggest starting with something small and see how it feels.
  • Have a tradition of the month. Do something special that marks each month. Sarah says her family marked winter in January, Valentine’s in February, a living Easter basket in March or April, May baskets in May, and in June it was always a blue check tablecloth over the table because summer was coming. It doesn’t have to be huge, just something to recognize the rhythm of what is going on around you.

Traditions aren’t meant to overwhelm. If they do, then those particular ones might not be a good fit for you or where you are in life. As we’ve seen here, they are meant to bring joy for the present and memories of the past. These memories are significant because they help to shape who we are, what we hold as important and what we will pass on to our children. At the same time though, there’s no pressure to get traditions exactly right. The main thing is that the experience that goes into doing them is just as important and meaningful as the end result. It’s not that the Christmas meal is gourmet or that the seasonal table is perfect, it’s the love and laughter and togetherness that go into the traditions that make them so special and so uniquely yours.

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