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Holiday Traditions

    “But we always have mixed nuts at Thanksgiving!”
    “But we always have turkey for Christmas dinner!”
    “But we always have the youngest child open the first Hanukkah present (this protested by the youngest)!”
    “But we always go to grandma’s for New Year’s Day!”

Any parent who has ever tried to change anything on a holiday will hear a chorus of “always”. Do something two years in a row on a given holiday and you’re doomed to do it forever, or so it seems. If, like me, you thrive on novelty and change, the insistence of kids that you make every holiday a rerun can be exasperating. (I sometimes feel like I’m in that movie “Groundhog Day”, where the main character has to do the same day over and over until he gets it right.)

Oh, all right, I have to admit it… This is an overstatement. The truth is that I enjoy certain rituals as much as the next person. But the kids’ demands for continuity and sameness got me to thinking about what traditions associated with holidays are all about.

There seems to be something very basic in the human soul that craves some predictability and some recognition that we move in concert with the seasons. Name me a culture where there aren’t markers for the passing of time. I can’t think of any. We may do it differently — family to family, country to country, (planet to planet for all I know) – but, where there are people, there seems to be annual feast days, holidays, holy days, rest days. The need to ritualize them with predictable activities, foods, and/or objects seems to be universal.

My theory is that these markers of time are a fundamental way that we all have to make the unpredictability and stress of daily life bearable. At the most basic level, holidays give us some comfort and strength from the simple observance that we’ve ma de it once more around the calendar. On a more complex level, they provide a culturally sanctioned reason for everyone to stop, to take stock of ourselves, to acknowledge who we’ve chosen to be in our families and communities, to underline for ourselves how we are doing, to make new promises to self and others. There is no way for even the most jaded person to avoid it. To be cranky about a holiday and to decide not to observe it still observes it and brings to awareness ones relationship to others.

Kids intuitively understand all this complicated stuff. Sometimes what they latch on to as recognition of the event can be a little weird (like the mixed nuts) but the impulse to mark the passing of time with some kind of gathering and observance is a healthy one. Anything positive, done regularly, puts something important in the child’s internal “security bank”; emotional steadiness that can be drawn on in more difficult times. Kids may not be able to explain it but they do know they need it. It’s important that we understand that their requests for sameness aren’t just inconvenient foibles but are a reflection of kids’ legitimate needs for security.

As parents, we can do a great deal to make sure that that inner bank of love and security has a healthy balance by the time they leave our care. Family traditions around holidays are one of the means we have for letting children know that they are embedded in community, for witnessing their growth over time, and for passing on important cultural and family values.

I wish I had thought more about this when my kids were younger. As in most families, our rituals and yearly observances have evolved over the years into what they are and we certainly do repeat them, and, mostly, enjoy them. But if I had it to do over again, I might more consciously think about just what it is that I want my children to carry with them into adulthood as a statement of their family’s love and allegiances. My husband and I talk about it more. Gradually, we’re introducing some new things into our yearly rhythm: less reliance on gifts and a perfectly clean house, more time with the people who matter, more attention to each individual child’s development. If we do it gradually enough, and keep to some of our more obvious routines, perhaps the kids won’t notice that we’re trying to slip in some new rituals. If we get away with it two years in a row, we’ll have a new tradition.

P.S. And, yes, we’ll have mixed nuts every Thanksgiving.

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Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Dr. Marie advises:

  • Holidays are not an “extra”. They are essential markers in the rhythm of life.
  • Embrace holidays. There are never enough reasons to celebrate life.
  • If you don’t like the commercialism that’s come to surround some holidays, make up your own traditions.
  • Be thoughtful about the values and traditions that you want to pass on to your children through your holiday activities.
  • Include your children in the planning, creating, cooking, story telling, gifting, visiting, etc. Kids who are part of it all will know how to carry it on when it is their turn.
Holiday Traditions

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Holiday Traditions. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.