In 2002, Barbara Fiese and colleagues published a review of 50 years of research on family routines and rituals, exploring whether there is sufficient scientific evidence that routines and rituals form a significant vehicle for promoting healthy families in the 21st century. They found that meaningful rituals contribute to marital cohesion during the transition to parenthood, encourage involvement of older family members with children, and contribute to the sense of identity of adolescents. Meaningful rituals are highly symbolic, creating a sense of “This is who we are and will continue to be across generations.” There is also an element of emotional imprint, with members replaying rituals in their minds to recapture some of the past positive emotion.
Cultural anthropologist Andrew Buckser describes ritual as “how we tell our story. Holiday rituals are really a kind of play, and everyone is always rewriting the script. Each of us is our own character, and we each have something we want to say.” The rituals around holidays like Christmas are how we create the symbolism about who we are as families. Putting up a Christmas tree is a way of assembling a family’s past.
I went hunting for research about family rituals right after we finished putting away the Christmas ornaments today. Putting up and taking down the Christmas tree bookend the holiday with memories from Christmas past. These memories are links in a chain of gratitude.
There are the shiny flat ornaments – a rabbit and a tree — that our preschool children made out of gilt foil years ago. I’m grateful to the nursery school teachers with their expert understanding of small children. I am also glad they didn’t have the children form ornaments by pasting forms of pasta to old high heel shoes and spraying them with gold paint — I still remember my mother’s expression when she opened that gift from my youngest sibling.
There are the ornaments my mother-in-law gave us for various firsts – first Christmas as a married couple, first Christmas for each child. She never forgot a birthday… or a Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Halloween, or Thanksgiving either. Decorating the tree always reminds me of the big switch – when we stopped packing up children and gifts and driving 300 miles to her house for Christmas and she started coming to us.
There is the Christmas tree skirt that my mother brought back from Peru, handmade with little raised figures. My mother has been a world traveler and has always brought us lovely handcrafts from around the world. There are also the ornaments she started sending me every year when I was in graduate school, including some originals by her colleague — a tiny wooden crab pot and a bear in a skirt holding out a tea tray.
There are the ornaments I embroidered right before my daughter was born. I was under doctor’s orders to stay in bed lying on my left side for the health of the baby. Whenever I put them up, I remember the transition from worry at Christmas to joy after her New Year’s Eve birth.
Putting up and taking down the ornaments are family rituals full of memory and gratitude that form bookends for the holiday. We put our Christmas tree in the dining room, and we turn on the tree lights and talk about our favorite ornaments during dinner. These rituals reinforce a sense of family history and continuity. They encompass times when we were all different from the way we are now — children at home, young adults setting out on our own, newlyweds, young parents and small children, parents and teenagers, and now parents and young adults setting out on their own.
When we first married, my husband wanted to go home for Christmas because of the rituals of his childhood. My mother’s home was too far away. Then one day we realized we needed to start forming rituals in our own home so that our children would want to come home for Christmas. Maybe one of these days, the next big switch will occur and we’ll be packing up to go to their homes.
Fiese, B., Tomcho, T., Douglas, M, Josephs, K., Poltrock, S., & Baker, T. (2002). A review of 50 years of research on naturally occurring family routines and rituals: Cause for celebration? Journal of Family Psychology, 16, 381-390. Retrieved January 6, 2008 from http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/fam164381.pdf.
Fiese, B. (2006). Family Routines and Rituals (Current Perspectives in Psychology). Yale University Press.
Buckser, A. (2004). Holiday traditions recall family history, values. Purdue University article.