Family traditions bring the generations together and give us the chance to build lasting memories – and they don’t need to exhaust you, your family or your budget to be worthwhile. The holiday season is rapidly approaching, and with it the expectation of family celebrations stamped with the Martha Stewart seal of approval. But manifesting these wildly unrealistic presentations is no easy feat. If the thought I just can’t wait for the holidays to end so we can all go back to our lives has ever crossed your mind, know that you are not alone.
What if I told you that you can build great everyday traditions that don’t have to wait for the holidays and won’t fill you with dread? It’s time to relax your expectations, log off Instagram and invent some easy, breezy traditions that will still have an impact.
What are traditions?
Traditions help define our families’ shared identity. In the opening number of the Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye remarks, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many years.”
Anthropologists have yet to discover a human culture without tradition, and it’s something we intuitively strive to pass down from generation to generation. Rituals and traditions play a significant role in providing comfort, consistency and security to children, in addition to teaching them values and generating joyful memories. Yet tradition does not need to be religious, large or complex to have value.
Any activity can be a family tradition – as long as the experience is infused with some joie de vivre that elevates it above commonplace routines. If you sometimes walk around the park with your kids, that’s just something you do. But if you do it every Saturday, pack a picnic and name it your “Saturdays in the Park,” or if you celebrate the end of each work week by playing Frisbee together and naming it “Frisbee Fridays,” it can become a wonderful family tradition.
“Any simple ritual or tradition, such as caring for a garden together, washing cars on Saturdays, celebrating birthdays in a consistent way, gives a child a sense of security, identity and belonging and has value to the family unit,” says Beverly Hills family therapist Susan Ricker. “Children really like to know they can count on some things and thrive with a sense of security at a young age. Small traditions definitely provide comfort for kids.”
The gift of simplicity
The best way to incorporate traditions into modern family life is to keep them simple and set a playful tone so everyone will be more willing to participate. Even with simple traditions, you are strengthening your family’s sense of connection. Two of my family’s simplest traditions – Taco Tuesdays and Sunday Sundaes – have paid off wonderfully.
Taco Tuesdays started years ago as a way to filter social time with family friends into a casual, uplifting weekly activity. Since my son is now in middle school and life gets busy, we try to make sure we have Taco Tuesday at least once a month. We might be with the same friends in the same place or with different friends in different places, but no matter what – we’re eating tacos on a Tuesday. This tradition has proven to be a superb way for our family to organize visitors, meal preparation, consistency – and sometimes a welcome midweek restaurant visit.
When our son was younger, we would eat ice cream with another family down the block who eventually started introducing us to new ice creams. One day, we added sprinkles into the mix, put a cherry on top, and Sunday Sundaes was born! Since the kids were still little, Sunday Sundaes became one of the more consistent and fun ways to enjoy easy dessert. To this day, everyone still looks forward to this fun act of creativity and tradition. And if you’re coming to our house for dinner on a Sunday, you’ll be invited to join in the fun.
Morty Coyle, vocalist in the local band All Day Sucker and head writer for the music-centered podcast “The 500,” has been doing weekly car karaoke with his daughter, Beatrix, for two years. They post each performance on Instagram as @beaanddaddycartunes.
“The old tradition of once a year sending out a long family update note in people’s mailboxes is antiquated now with social media,” Coyle says. “With our songs, family members can see what’s going on from week to week. Beatrix has learned so much about music, harmonies and bands from doing this together. And at some point, she will have an anthology of a very specific time in her life to look back on.”
Coyle and Beatrix are also continuing a musical tradition from previous generations. “My mother sings and she sang with her family. I sing, and now singing with my daughter is just an extraordinary joy,” Coyle says. “It all started because we would get to school early and have fun singing a song to each other in the car before school started. It kind of snow-balled into a quirky and personal tradition for us from there.”
Sometimes, they’re free
While creating and maintaining traditions may require effort, it doesn’t have to be expensive. One affordable and fulfilling tradition my family enjoys is singing to each other whenever we’re near a clock and we notice their birthday date come up (9:26 for a Sept. 26 birthday, for instance). We all take a minute to pause and sing to them. It’s that simple, and I hope my son continues to sing me birthday songs (even if it’s in his head) when he’s in college.
It was my husband’s idea to start reading together as a family every night at bedtime. We’ve enjoyed every Harry Potter book, every Ranger’s Apprentice book and every Percy Jackson book, and have read through every country and every time zone, every trial, tribulation and celebration. The books we’ve been reading out loud have even influenced some of our Halloween costumes.
Speaking of Halloween, some traditions may require slightly more time and cash, such as my family’s delightful decree to go all out on our group Halloween costumes every year. I hope my middle-schooler isn’t too cool this year to dress up with Mom and Dad!
Teen therapist Elizabeth Kromhout, MFT, suggests we’ve at least laid the groundwork. “If you don’t have a solid base of a few traditions during the teen years, it will be even harder to keep the kids included in your family activities,” she says. “They might rebel for a bit in their teens and not want to participate, but eventually they usually swing back.”
When you do get the kids to participate, make sure you give them your complete attention. “A very common complaint I hear from teens in my office is that their parents won’t get off their phones,” says Kromhout. “When it’s time to be with your family and experience the traditions and time together, get off your phones and be fully present with your kids.”
Personal, practical and possible
When starting a new family tradition, it’s best to announce your plans beforehand so that everybody anticipates what’s coming and when. Children are big fans of routine, so they may require some time to warm up to a new tradition, and you might need to adjust some details accordingly.
The most important part is that the traditions you choose are personal to you, practical to execute and that you’re somewhat consistent with them so that you feel like it’s always possible to follow through.
Try generating a new weekly, monthly and yearly tradition to help you get started. You could even try something that helps your kids build a useful life habit, such as planning all the food for the week together on a Sunday, or anything that imparts life skills and values.
The traditions that are really simple and filled with love are the most powerful ones, and these usually don’t make anyone feel weighed down. Choosing and sticking with these simple, everyday traditions will pay off in the long run. If the holidays or life milestones come around and you’re not up to the challenge of a big production, you won’t feel that you’re shortchanging anyone if you’ve provided your family with consistency, comfort and security through small traditions all year around.
Margot Black is a storyteller with more than 15 years of experience, an L.A.-based traveler, wife and mom.