Family traditions are experiences or activities that are passed down between generations. These traditions can be as unique and special as the family itself. In addition to being something to look forward to, traditions also establish a foundation for family values and serve as special bonding experiences.
Traditions can provide families with a sense of identity and belonging. They can inspire positive feelings and memories upon which family members can reminisce.2 Family traditions also provide a sense of continuity across generations. In other words, they are a way of transferring the family's values, history, and culture from one generation to the next.3
Family Routines vs. Traditions
Family traditions differ from everyday family routines, which also occur repeatedly, but lack the symbolic meaning that family rituals hold.3 While family traditions carry a special significance for all family members involved, family routines are often basic activities that are necessary to keep the family unit functioning. A family dinner on Friday night may be part of the family routine whereas a family dinner at a favorite restaurant for Mom's birthday may be a tradition.
Many families have traditions that last for generations. These special activities or events often generate fond memories that everyone cherishes and attempts to carry on.
Some traditions are related to the family's heritage, like going to a cultural festival or cooking a meal from the "old country" on a certain day each year.4
Others may have to do with special events, such as a pearl necklace that is passed down at each wedding.5 Still others are simply fun activities that family members enjoy repeating.
For instance, a family full of baseball fans may make it a tradition to go to the stadium on opening day. This tradition may have started with great-grandpa and continues to involve the youngest members of the family and is something they look forward to every year.
Why Traditions Are Important
People create and maintain family traditions because they bring meaning to celebrations and foster special bonds. More importantly, traditions create positive experiences and memories for everyone by nurturing a family's connection and giving them a sense of belonging.
Family traditions also help children understand who they are and what is important to the family to which they belong. Traditions create a connection for children that comes from feeling like they are part of something that is unique and extraordinary. Family traditions can even contribute to a child's self-esteem and enhance their well-being. After all, children find comfort and security when things are predictable and consistent.
Benefits of Family Traditions
- Make memories for families that last a lifetime
- Provide children a sense of security by providing continuity
- Give family members a strong sense of belonging
- Help pass on family values including cultural and religious heritage
- Keep generations connected and give them a family history to share
How to Keep Traditions Going
Establishing and maintaining family traditions is a way for families to bond over shared experiences—a way for them to connect to one another and to their past. But keeping family traditions going takes some commitment and planning. While most people look forward to the stability and predictability that comes with repeating the same activities each year, it also can be tiring if the family traditions are highly involved or require a lot of planning.
When you are creating your own family traditions, try to keep them simple. Think in terms of playing games, sharing special recipes, going on a hike, seeing a performance, and so on. The simpler traditions are more likely to be repeated and carried on. Likewise, your traditions do not need to cost a lot of money. There are plenty of ways for families to bond without spending money.
When creating new family traditions for your family, it's also important to be willing to try things out and then scrap them if they don't work. For instance, if you schedule a visit to see the lights display at the zoo thinking it could become a fun tradition but it turns out to be a miserable experience because the weather doesn't cooperate or your child's allergies kick in, it's OK to scrap the idea and think of something else next year.
You don't want to repeat an activity over and over just because it sounds good. The goal of a family tradition is that everyone has fun and looks forward to repeating it year after year.
How to Create Traditions
When most people think of family traditions, they naturally think of holiday traditions first, such as those surrounding Kwanzaa, Christmas, Hanukkah, or Ramadan. Events surrounding these holidays like picking out a Christmas tree, lighting the candles on the menorah or kinara, and gathering for dinner with extended family can become regular traditions.
But families can also have non-holiday rituals that are unique to them. Apple picking every fall or renting a vacation home every summer are two good examples. Some families also may have family traditions for every member's birthday.
Family traditions may even be as ordinary as baking a special cake that is the birthday celebrant's personal favorite or going to dinner at their favorite restaurant. It may also be something funny or an inside family joke that becomes a tradition on everyone's birthday.
To create traditions for your family, think about things that your family enjoys doing and build upon those things.
Keep in mind, too, that family traditions sometimes just form on their own. Some of the best family traditions happen by accident—you do something on a whim and the entire family loves it and wants to repeat it again. Before you know it, you have created a family tradition.
Traditions that are formed by accident are often the easiest to repeat year after year because the family looks forward to it. But if you're looking for ideas on family traditions that you can incorporate into your family's life, here are some additional ideas.
If you're looking for some non-holiday traditions, there are a lot of opportunities out there. Here are just a few that you can adapt for your family or use as fodder for developing your own unique ideas:
- Volunteer each spring in the annual community cleanup.
- Cook hamburgers on the grill on Saturdays during the summer.
- Take a silly family selfie during summer vacation each year.
- Buy food for the local food pantry once a month and deliver it together.
- Have a bonfire to celebrate the last day of school.
- Serve in a local soup kitchen together once a month.
- Go apple picking or visit a pumpkin patch each fall.
- Have a particular food on a set day each week such as brunch on Sunday, breakfast for dinner on Friday, or tacos on Tuesday.
- Build a fire and make hot chocolate on the first day of winter.
- Go on a maple syrup hike each winter.
- Organize a family book club.
- Participate in an annual fitness challenge as a family.
- Go on a family walk or bike ride every Sunday afternoon.
- Watch the sunrise together on the first day of summer and the sunset on the last day of summer break.
- Plan an annual family game night and play board games together.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have made it hard to honor some of your family traditions—especially with extended family—but it's also a good time to start new ones. For instance, you might organize a virtual family game night twice a month with extended family or have your child's grandparents read them a bedtime story over video chat every Sunday.
If you're looking to create new winter holiday traditions, here are some ideas that will get your creative juices flowing. Choose or adapt the ideas from this list or use them to create your own unique holiday traditions.
- Give everyone a new set of pajamas and take a family photo in your matching PJs.
- Gift each child a board game or puzzle and play the games or assembling the puzzles together as a family.
- Watch a seasonal movie each Thanksgiving like "Home Alone," "Die Hard," "Elf," or "The Grinch."
- Cook a meal together as a family on your family's special holiday.
- Get hot chocolate and watch a community tree lighting ceremony.
- Tour your community to look at the light displays on homes or businesses.
- Host a family or neighborhood cookie exchange.
- Assemble care packages for family members who are away during the holidays.
- Write heartfelt letters to family members you can't spend time with during the holidays.
- Host a white elephant gift exchange.
- Attend a holiday performance or concert each year as a family such as the "Nutcracker," the local symphony, or Trans Siberian Orchestra.
- Get a new piece of holiday-related decor like a new Christmas ornament each year or make an ornament to commemorate the past year.
Even if you're not planning to go home for the holidays this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, this doesn't mean that you cannot still participate in some family holiday traditions. For instance, you can still have a family cookie exchange from a distance or buy and mail each family member matching pajamas to wear. You can even FaceTime and make your family's favorite holiday recipes together.