Holly Richardson: Bring on the family traditions!

It’s the time of year when most of us focus on family traditions, those things we do that bind us together with a shared history and a sense of belonging.

The first frost hit this week, the garden has been put to bed, the harvest tablecloth and fall-colored candles have been brought out and today, a momentous milestone occurred: I started playing Christmas music.

It’s the time of year when most of us focus on family traditions, those things we do that bind us together with a shared history and a sense of belonging.

Meg Cox, author of “The Book of New Family Traditions” describes traditions as “any activity you purposefully repeat together as a family that includes heightened attentiveness and something extra that lifts it above the ordinary ruts.” Traditions, therefore, are not just repeated routines or habits, but are done intentionally. (Although it might be nice if washing dishes or folding laundry became a tradition.)

I think too often we take traditions for granted or dismiss them too easily, but they are a fundamental part of a strong family life. Traditions provide a source of shared identity, something that is especially important in “non-traditional” families like ours. Telling and re-telling family lore, like the one about the “macaroni and cheese sandwich” or the vacation from you-know-where that is now funny in the re-telling serve as a way to see yourself as part of a bigger whole. Psychologist Dr. Marshal Duke has found children who typically have the most self-confidence are the ones who know their family stories.

Of course, healthy traditions and rituals also strengthen family ties, offer comfort and security in times of distress, teach and reinforce values, share heritage and create lasting memories. Many traditions in our family revolve around food. We love injera and doro wat from Ethiopia and lagman and rice pilau from Kazakhstan. We cook an extra turkey at Thanksgiving just for sandwiches. And Christmas food? Well, that pretty much starts Dec. 1 and lasts all month.

Speaking of food, family dinner together each evening brings numerous benefits to children and parents alike. Anne Fishel, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Home for Dinner” listed a few: increased vocabulary, higher achievement scores, better grades, healthier kids and parents, a lowering of high-risk teenage behaviors, increased resilience, increased optimism and better parent-child relationships.

I didn’t know about all the research when we started our family over 30 years ago, but I have loved the many years of dinners together. Our table, which is really four standard kitchen tables pushed together, seats 20 comfortably. I’ll admit, it does get a bit noisy when all seats are filled (OK, a lot noisy), but I love it.

Traditions can be created intentionally, or sometimes they are stumbled upon and then repeated. Eight years ago, one of our boys needed an Eagle Scout project. He ended up choosing the Santa Project at the State Developmental Center, headed by John and Sandy Dougall. We spent Christmas morning with the residents of the center, then came home to have our family Christmas. We enjoyed it so much, we haven’t missed a year since. Sadly, however, bureaucracy has put an end to the Santa Project and this year, it won’t be happening. Our Christmas won’t be the same without it.

Whether external forces end a tradition — a project ends, kids grow up — or you decide you don’t want to continue a particular tradition, it’s OK! No guilt on evaluating traditions and tossing the ones you don’t want to keep — or the ones you don’t want to start. Elf on the Shelf? No thanks! That’s way too much work. Advent stockings knit by my grandmother that elves fill on Nov. 30? You bet. If you hate yams, you really don’t have to serve them every Thanksgiving. Or find a different recipe you like more. I don’t like making pies so I buy my pies and make the carrot cake from scratch. Why continue a tradition you don’t enjoy and that increases your stress?

Don’t be afraid to try new things too. You might find some new traditions your family will love. Last year, at the suggestion of one of our sons and his wife, we did a “themed” Christmas Eve dinner and went all out. We chose Harry Potter and had lots of fun with it, including wands made by another son and serving “butter beer” and “basilisk” (aka a Costco-sized pork loin). This year, it’s Star Wars, complete with Jedi robes. On a related note, my Christmas sewing starts next week.

Here’s to a season of happy traditions and less stress!

Holly Richardson has lots of traditions that she loves but one of her favorites is the Christmas morning picture of all the kids (and now grandkids) lined up on the stairs in their Christmas jammies, ready to go see what Santa brought.