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Family holiday rituals: continuity and gratitude

written by Kathryn Britton 7 January 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

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.

Christmas Tree Skirt from PeruThere 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.

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Senia 7 January 2008 - 12:21 pm

Beautiful sentiments and beautiful tree skirt image.

Very interesting – although once said, it makes quite a bit of sense – that family rituals contribute to marital cohesion.

Kathryn Britton 7 January 2008 - 6:03 pm

Thanks, Senia.

Your comment about the point making a lot of sense reminds me of something I’ve been considering lately.

Many things about positive psychology seem obvious once said.

But then, some things that seem obvious turn out to be mistaken.

So I’ve decided there’s information — surprise value — even in common sense confirmed. What do you think?

Barbara Fiese and crew write about the limitations of their review — which is why they put a question mark after Cause for Celebration. I just didn’t think a short article like this could hold up that level of detail.


Jeff Dustin 8 January 2008 - 1:52 am


Common sense is not common practice. What is obvious doesn’t translate into concrete actions, otherwise, why would there be such a craving for positive psychology? If people were doing the required work of happiness, then why is our nation less happy than it was in the 1940s?

Yeah, Grandma may have rambled on about the good life, but so what? Granny might have been auguring the future with her dissected chicken livers, too. Does that make her prophecies true? I’m glad there is a developing science about well-being.

I find some of PP surprising and enlightening. (though I rarely practice the interventions…must be that motivation thing again 😉

Jeff Dustin 8 January 2008 - 1:54 am


Here’s a quizzicle for you. Just how many people in your opinion has positivepsychologynews.com helped become actually happier? How could you measure that, if at all? Do you think that happiness lends itself to precise measurement like inches on a ruler or is too subjective?

I’m extremely interested in your ideas.

Senia 8 January 2008 - 11:31 pm

Kathryn and Jeff –

Kathryn, “surprise value” – I kind of like the ring of that. It’s concise and clear. And actually, I wasn’t even going to write that down – I was just about to write that marital cohesion and family rituals correlating is interesting, and as I was writing that, I thought – well, if I just told that to someone, he/she would say, “Well, yes, that makes sense.”

Jeff – what a cool idea! Yes, precise self-measurement. Totally interesting! Must think of how to implement…
* could be a section on the website with a mini-questionnaire
* could be the first email they get when subscribing to the PPND daily email
* could be a question at the end of each article – “Did this article make you happier? More productive? More successful? Wiser?”


Jeff Dustin 9 January 2008 - 12:33 pm

I know you’ve mentioned that you’re skeptical of self-reporting measures, but I still think they must have some moderate level of correlation with a person’s happiness, despite socially valued responding.

…and who knows, maybe just pretending to be happier for social approval by responding overly positive to the surveys might have a sleeper effect.

While I’m thinking of it…have you read Sonja Lyubomirsky’s 2008 book “The How of Happiness”. To date, this is the best book on the subject I’ve read and the most practical manual for self-betterment. I asked her to write a guest piece for positivepsychologynews.com but I suspect she’s extremely busy.

PLUG PLUG, buy the book.

Kathryn Britton 9 January 2008 - 4:18 pm


Just curious – do you practice what Sonja suggests? If so, what about the book makes the actions / interventions easier for you to carry out? I’m curious about what turns research into effective practice.

“Required work of happiness” – interesting turn of phrase.


Jeff Dustin 9 January 2008 - 10:52 pm

I’ve had the book for about 2 weeks and have not completed any of the exercises suggested, even the ones that are good fits for me. Sonja’s book is definitely not to blame, I love it. I want the benefits of regular practice, but I find myself shying away from it as I do the stuff on this site.

Why? Doing the exercises feel so corny & awkward, especially the gratitude-based ones. Gratitude smacks of Jimmy Stewart in “Its a Wonderful Life”. I understand that the exercises are powerful & effective, but they make me feel extremely weak, unmanly, and sappy. When the elephant fights the rider, elephant trumps rider every time.

Happiness exercises feel like tedious work, like a vigorous workout. You might feel that runner’s high after 5 miles, but you’ve got to suffer those miles to get there. The exercises often seem boring, tedious and unworkable. I can’t identify with them.

Maybe others can use our conversations to learn from my reluctance?

Kathryn Britton 10 January 2008 - 2:23 pm


Your comment gives a new spin to the fascinating question of right-fit between person & positive intervention. Maybe reading and commenting on positive psychology articles is a better fit for your personality than any of these exercises. You seem drawn to do read and comment without forcing yourself. I suspect that the contemplation is constructive for you. Reading and understanding why gratitude is valuable could be a far more effective positive intervention for YOU than keeping a gratitude journal.

So … the question is how to get benefit from positive psychology without having to have a personality transplant.

I am certainly grateful that you are drawn to participate so actively in our discussions.


Senia 10 January 2008 - 11:00 pm

Hey guys,

Jeff, actually, I’m a big fan of self-reports. You can see my thoughts on self-reports here: “When To Use Self-Reports and When Not To.”

I think it’s very real and very genuine to ask a person to self-rate his beliefs. It will be great to get some of that going here on the site. Thanks for that thought.

I am really looking forward to reading Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book!

Kathryn and Jeff, am interested in your conversation above about motivation and person-exercise fit.

Best to you,

Timothy 11 January 2008 - 5:01 am

Thanks Jeff, Kathryn and Senia, very interesting conversation above. And you made me buy a book written by Sonja Lyubomirsky from internet yesterday!! I am looking forward to it!

About ‘common sense is not common practice’, it’s so true!! It’s mentioned in a book by Robert Fulghum, ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten’, that we have learnt all ‘common senses’ from kindergarten when we were very young, about how to live, what to do, and how to be… I wonder how many of us can really practice all of them…


ps, it is my first time translating your article Kathryn, for chinese PPND…it is beautifully written. Thanks!

Jeff Dustin 11 January 2008 - 6:35 am


Awesome! I wish I underdstood Chinese…it has been one of my major goals in life.

Sonja’s book is highly practical. I just attempted the Best Possible Self exercise. Like many of the PP interventions, this was a journal entry. You write about your potential, what you could be or do if you stretched your limits to their heights. I found the exercise helpful and could see that over time, the BPS could make a profoundly important impact on a person’s life while keeping what is most important on center stage.

As for common practice, I think the best practices are invisible and automatic, habitual. Carrying on the kindergarten metaphor, don’t we wash our hands, push in our chairs and wait our turn in line most of the time? Are these on your to-do list? They’re not on mine. Achieving happiness is putting away your crayons.

Jeff Dustin 11 January 2008 - 6:41 am


If I were to ask you right now, this very moment, how happy are you? What would you say?

Do you believe that what you reported would fairly accurately reflect the truth of the matter or a emotion/mood that you are experiencing?

So, how happy are you?

Barbara 16 January 2008 - 10:15 pm

Hello Everyone
I just caught this thread of conversation and much appreciate the careful thinking behind it. While the practice of routines and rituals may be something that our grandmothers may have taught us as way to be more balanced and connected in our lives these simple lessons often need to be re-visited. Not to make a shameless plug but I have recently published a book on Family Routines and Rituals (Yale Univeristy Press) that offers some distinctions between habits and rituals and tries to provoke the reader to think of positive ways to deliberately organize their daily routines.

Barbara Fiese

Kathryn Britton 18 January 2008 - 10:57 pm


Thanks for joining the discussion. I am glad you appreciated the way your message was incorporated in our discussion.

Why not contact our editor, Senia Maymin, about getting a review of your book posted on this site? It seems like a good topic for the positive psychology community to consider. There is information about submitting a book for review here:



Jeff Dustin 23 January 2008 - 12:25 am

Has anyone else seen Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness website? Here’s the link:

Check it out!

Kathryn Britton 23 January 2008 - 6:18 pm

Thanks for the pointer, Jeff. You’ll see I used it in the book review I just published. Your enthusiasm was a major draw for me to review the book.


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