By definition, traditions are handed-down customs, beliefs, and practices. Often, they are created, shaped, and passed down within a family, community, or religion.
Traditions are important for many reasons:
- They cultivate a sense of belonging.
- Traditions provide comfort and stability in an ever-changing world.
- When life gets difficult, traditions offer something to look forward to because they bring joy and laughter, peace, and harmony.
- Traditions create memories.
How Traditions Begin
Often, we do not think about the origin of our family traditions. For many of us, they are just what we have always done. Perhaps some of our family traditions go back generations. Some of our Catholic traditions go back a millennia or more.
When my husband and I were newly engaged, we spent our first Good Friday together. We attended the Church’s Veneration of the Cross, and we also ate a simple picnic-style meal together, which included bread, cheese, and grapes. Little did we know we were establishing a family tradition. Twenty-one years later, we continue to have a picnic every Good Friday. It happens to be one of our children’s favorite traditions.
Throughout the years, we have cultivated other traditions within our family, too. We hang stockings on Saint Nicholas Day. We have appetizers on Christmas Eve. We hide Easter eggs and Easter baskets. (The harder the hiding place, the better!)
Our family traditions do not just revolve around holidays. We celebrate the last day of school with ice cream. We go apple picking every fall with cousins. Over the years, we have created family T-shirts donning our catchphrase “Team D.” Favorite songs, movies, and recipes are all part of our family culture.
Most of our traditions have developed naturally but with intentionality. However, we know they have taken root when our children claim them:
- “Mom, are we going to have a picnic this Good Friday? You know, it’s our tradition.”
- “What appetizers are we having on Christmas Eve?”
- “Make sure to hide my Easter basket extra hard this year.”
How Traditions Shift and Evolve
As my six children (now 19 to 11 years old) have grown, they have naturally changed. And some of our traditions have grown up and changed right alongside them.
One example of a tradition that has changed as my children have grown is how we observe Lent.
When the children were younger, they needed us to teach them how to pray, fast, and give alms. We used a Lenten calendar to keep our prayer practices on track. As a family, we collectively fasted from candy or a favorite show. We donated clothes or collected pennies for the poor.
Now that most of my children are teenagers, we give them more responsibility to shape their own Lenten season. We still pray as a family. However, we also encourage them to develop their own prayer routine. As parents, we coach them on how to discern what to give up, and we have conversations throughout Lent to help them along. But we do not tell them what to give up; they decide that for themselves. We want them to understand that God calls each of us into the desert of Lent in a unique way. And by the time they leave the nest, we hope they will enter into all the liturgical seasons with a holy desire to draw closer to the Lord.
It’s OK to Outgrow Traditions
Over the years, we have also had traditions come and go. Some traditions the kids simply outgrow. Others become more difficult to observe because family dynamics change.
One of the traditions that has quietly remained in the past is our Jesse Tree. Another one is telling the story of Christ’s Passion using Resurrection Eggs. I look back on these traditions with fondness. They helped form my children’s faith, and I consider them to be springboards for the next step on their faith journey.
Carrying on When Children Leave the Nest
This is the first year one of my children has not been part of most of our family traditions. She has graduated high school and is currently traveling across the country as a missionary.
We missed her presence when we went apple picking this fall. Her birthday was not quite the same without her here. I watched last year’s video of all of us carving pumpkins, and I missed her in a whole new way.
When I talk to her on the phone and she updates me on missionary life, she also shares things such as how she is observing Advent, how her prayer life is growing, and what she’s doing for Lent this year. And while I don’t pat myself on the back—all the glory is God’s—I am grateful that many of our family traditions have been a foundation on which she is building her own faith life.
Now, as a mom of older children, I remember the past—those years of establishing traditions—with fondness. Yes, it’s bittersweet, and there are days when I miss them being underfoot and some of the traditions we did. But I am grateful for it all! And I focus on being present to the moment right in front of me. These teenage years are just as important as the little years. In fact, each phase of family life contributes to the constant shaping and reshaping of family traditions.
Tips for Maintaining Traditions as Families Change
As my children grow and as family dynamics change, I have realized that maintaining traditions requires more intentionality. Here are a few tips I have found helpful in preserving those favorite family customs:
- Plan ahead. // With more schedules to coordinate, it is important to set dates and communicate them clearly.
- Ask for input. // What traditions are most meaningful to each child? Why?
- Be flexible. // Focus on the traditions that are most meaningful to the family. As they get older, fewer traditions may be a reality, but those times of togetherness will be extremely important.
- Be open. // As children get older and offer more input, be open to their ideas for how to observe a tradition. This is all part of the natural, organic establishment of traditions.
Let Scripture Be Your Guide
With any aspect of family life, it is important to invite the Holy Spirit in. May His Word, His Truth be our guide. As we establish, modify, and preserve our family traditions, let us take these words from Sacred Scripture to heart:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. // Deuteronomy 6:6-7
Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. // Proverbs 22:6
Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. // Matthew 19:14
I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth. // 3 John 1:4
What are some of your favorite family traditions? How did they begin? How have they evolved over the years?