My extended family is as dysfunctional as they come. I come from a long line of homes that aren’t just “broken,” but shattered into fragments too distant to reassemble. My parents and grandparents on both sides of the family are thrice divorced, I have nine siblings scattered across the country, and many of my relatives have never once spoken to one another. Suffice it to say: there are no ancient family traditions in my bloodline. We’re simply too fragmented to hold any traditions between generations.
Despite the lack of long-standing traditions in my childhood-family, I feel a need to have traditions in the little family I’ve made myself. I think that my daughter deserves a strong sense of family and continuity, and I can provide the foundation for those traditions myself– hopefully to be passed on to my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Building tradition from scratch isn’t easy, but here are a few pointers I’ve learned for making new family traditions.
1. Make it annual. One of the only traditions we grew up practicing in my family was going to the county fair every year. My grandfather took my mother, my mother took me, and now I try to take my daughter to the fair each year. Other annual traditions can include a specific vacation destination every summer, a certain ritual each spring, or– of course– family-specific celebrations of winter holidays. Annual rituals are a great foundation for forming new traditions, because they are predictable in their repetition.
2. Be part of a larger community. Although we are non-religious, we are members of our local Unitarian Universalist church. This gives us an opportunity to experience spiritual tradition and seasonal celebration in the context of an older and larger community. I recommend that parents join religious congregations and other community organizations in order to gain a framework for building new traditions. The people in your community are likely to have established traditions that you can adopt into your own family rituals.
3. Make traditions important and sentimental. Some family traditions are simply fun and silly, and don’t have strong sentimental feelings attached to them. However, your family’s far more likely to remember and appreciate your newfangled traditions if they are strongly emotional. Maintain traditions that have deep meanings behind them– “I love you” reminders, annual messages of support and solidarity, and meaningful heirlooms help to keep families united in love.
4. Borrow from other branches of the family tree. If you don’t have many traditions in your direct nuclear family, steal a few traditions from your extended family (or your children’s). I found out that my significant other’s family has a wealth of meaningful traditions associated with the Christmas season. Even though they don’t come from the family of my childhood, they can be integrated into the life I am creating with (and for) my daughter and partner. A tradition doesn’t have to come directly through my childhood to be a meaningful tradition in my home.
5. Make sure everyone is included. When you’re making new traditions in your family, make sure that they don’t apply to just one or two family members. Keep the entire family happily united in their enjoyment of the ritual. If only one member of your family likes plays, don’t drag the whole family along. If only one member likes the zoo, don’t go to the zoo every weekend. Instead, make a point of creating traditions that your entire family can enjoy together.