“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
-William Somerset Maugham
The holidays are often ripe with family rituals and traditions, no matter where your family is from. Rituals are one way for a family to create a sense of a stable environment and convey identity while including all of the members.
Rituals are things that families do together and are symbolic communication that influence the creation of the identity of the individuals that make up that family, whether the individuals are conscious of it or not. Even when a member is intentionally excluded, that exclusion is necessary for the family to maintain a level of homeostasis, which means they are included just not in a way that feels good. There are many ways for rituals to come about, from a repeated activity that takes on symbolic meaning, something that has been passed done from generation to generation, to something that is consciously created. They come from family traditions, family celebrations of patterned family interactions.
Some examples of the happy rituals include: the family that, for generations, has allowed the children to open one present on Christmas Eve; the family that always cuts the turkey in half before putting it in the oven; a few times a month waking up early and sipping coffee together while reconnecting; celebrating a new year; going to the restaurant of your first date with your current partner every anniversary; every odd Friday, hosting a gathering of close friends and family.
Some rituals can make us feel less than, or diminished. For example, the mother who quizzes her child on what he ate everytime she does not see him eat and chastises him; or the father who always calls his wife whenever she goes out with friends to say that he’s started drinking and she has to come home to care for the children.
That father is creating a ritual that identifies him as the one that holds the power in that family, that says that his wifes needs are unimportant and that it is okay to disconnect from his child and put his child’s safety at risk because mom will be there to “take care of it.” It is a ritual that shows his wife her place in the family: at home with the sole identity of home-body mother. It is a ritual, though dreaded, that let’s her know she is a necessary part of that family. It is a ritual that quells his anxiety.
If he stopped drinking when she left, there would be no need to call her. She might feel less important. If he stopped drinking while she was gone, he might have a lot of anxiety come up over not knowing how to be a dad, or over what she is doing. If she stops coming home, she runs the very real risk of failing to protect her child from harm.
Changing a ritual has the power to change the dynamics of a family or group. For example, if a family always gets together at a certain time of year, and then suddenly they stop for a long time, it can change how the family member relate to each other. It may loosen family ties so much so that family members loose touch, or the members who value the ritual of gathering may create something else to maintain the benefits of the previous ritual. On the other hand changing a ritual or creating one can bring a family closer together or maintain a level of closeness. Rituals can instruct behavior, for example the ritual of a parent singing to his young child a song about washing ones hand before eating.
A rich example of a healthy co-created ritual, and how it developed comes from my friend Jonathan, over at The Soul of Biotech. I love to hear Jonathan’s stories, so I asked him if he could tell a story of his favorite family ritual for Sophisticated Relationships. Jonathan writes:
In the Jewish tradition, after a boy is Bar Mitzvah’ed, he’s expected to participate in the ritual Yom Kippur fast. The fast lasts 25 hours, from sundown to one hour past sundown. It seemed impossible at 13, but after years of practice, it’s no big deal.
The first year that my father and I were going to go together, my mom dropped us off for Kol Nidre (the most important part). Once we’d had our fill of prayers, my father and I took a walk. That year, I asked him a simple question: “What was your life like before I was born?” And over the next 2-3 hours, we walked through the neighborhoods of Newton while he told me the autobiography of his life. Stories of almost drowning his little brother in the swamp near his house in Jerusalem. Almost taking his neighbor’s eye out with a little gun made out of wood and rubber bands. His other girlfriend before Mom. Everything.
Each year after that ended up being similar: Mom dropped us off. We’d pray for the most important parts, then look at each other, say ready?” and leave. We’d walk around and have a long deep heart-to-heart about everything. What I wanted to do when I “grew up,” whether or not I should break up with girlfriend, et cetera.
We missed a year or two recently with me now living on the West Coast, and we realized last year how much we enjoy them and miss them. So now, we “officially” decided to make sure to spend every Yom Kippur together, flying to the same city if necessary, to make sure that we still go together, and still take a walk together, no matter what.
I love Jonathan’s ritual with his father because it has many elements of what make a healthy, life-enhancing ritual. It is a ritual that affirms a close relationship between family members. There is a sense of encouragement for curiosity and openness about each others lives. A sense of belonging is fostered by this ritual. This is something they both enjoy and co-created together, indicating a sense of mutual respect. It has a consistent time that it happens. For Jonathan, this ritual represents a part of him that loves and admires his father, that is willing to be influenced by his father, and who finds it more important to be close with his family than it is to be Jewish.
How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays & Everydays
That is one of many wonderful rituals that exist. What are some of the rituals in your family or close relationships that you would like to continue? What do they mean for you? What are some rituals that you’d like to start in your family or close relationships? How would you hope they change your relationship and sense of self?