The Power of Catholic Family Traditions
© 2002 by Paul Thigpen
Somewhere between the last bite of the cornbread dressing and the first bite of the pecan pie — that's when the basket is passed around each year at our family's Thanksgiving meal. No, we don't take up a collection to pay for the turkey. Instead, we ask everyone present to drop in the basket one at a time the three small kernels of dried corn we've placed beside each dinner plate. With each kernel, we have them give one reason why they're thankful that day.
It's a small holiday habit, yet we never cease to be deeply moved by the results. Most often each speaker thanks God for someone else present while misty eyes around the table begin to glimmer in the candlelight. And when the guests go home in the evening, they inevitably comment: "I want to do that again next year."
This simple practice requires almost no preparation or expense. But its rewards continue long after the meal is over, rippling out from our table into other homes as well. Such is the power and blessing of a meaningful family tradition.
The Benefits of Family Traditions
In this grace-filled Jubilee year, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called us to make "Jubilee" a way of life through nine strategies. Strategy number six urges us to "be a domestic Church."
How do we do that? One important way is to establish in our home a number of traditions that point to God and remind us of His loving involvement in our family life. Customs such as morning prayers together, an Advent wreath, consecration to the Sacred Heart, the celebration of a saint's day, all can form part of the catechesis of the "domestic church."
At the same time, several studies of family dynamics have concluded what common experience affirms: Families with the strongest ties tend to have the most traditions because such traditions create and reinforce a sense of security in the home. Here's how:
· Traditions establish family connectedness and rootedness. When we do something again and again over the years and through the generations, we tie together our past and our present. We link year to year, childhood to adulthood, grandparent to child to grandchild, with shared experiences, values and memories.
· Traditions build family stability. Consistent family customs provide regular, familiar patterns for a rhythm of life together. They add an element of predictability to the cycle of family life that's both comfortable and comforting.
· Traditions cultivate family identity. Customs that contribute to a family's uniqueness can give its members a sense of who they are and where they belong. It gives us a chance to say, "This is the way our family does it." Thus traditions serve as a counterbalance to the intense pressure on youth to identify with their peers instead of their families.
· Traditions build family unity. Meaningful customs build a sense of closeness that endures even long after children are grown and gone.
· Traditions reveal the significance of our lives. Observing special days and events gives us a chance to pause and reflect on our lives, to think about what's most important and to share that with our children.
· Traditions symbolize how family members value one another. Family customs are much more than simple words or acts; they convey the message: "I love you. I enjoy being with you. You are important to me, and we share with each other what's important in life."
Where to Start?
Most Catholic families already practice at least a few customs: trimming a Christmas tree, dyeing Easter eggs, saying a table grace. If you want to strengthen the role of family traditions in your home, start with what you already have. Have your family answer a few questions about each custom you can identify:
· Why do we practice this tradition? Where did it come from?
· What does this particular tradition mean to our family? Why is it important to us?
· Is every family member aware of this tradition's significance, or do we need to talk more about why we observe it?
· Has this tradition lost its meaning and become an empty habit? If so, should we discontinue it, or is it worth saving? If it's worth saving, what could we do to make it more appealing and more meaningful?
· Are there any traditions we've lost or neglected that we'd like to reestablish?
Our family's daily devotional time is a good example of a custom that has sometimes lapsed for days or even weeks at a time because of difficult circumstances, such as the critical illness of a family member. Nevertheless, despite such lapses, there's always come a time when we've said to ourselves, "This habit is so critical to our family's spiritual welfare that we simply can't allow it to die." So we make whatever provisions are necessary to resuscitate it and make it healthy again.
Establishing New Traditions
Next, your family should ask, "What new traditions would we like to begin?" Query your parents or grandparents about now-forgotten customs they may have practiced as children or their ancestors may have observed in "the old country." Survey your friends and neighbors to learn about their family traditions.
Here are a few ideas, both old and new, to get you going:
Advent. An old French custom encourages family members to place a wisp of straw in the empty manger of the creche (Nativity scene) any time throughout Advent whenever they make some small sacrifice for Jesus. By the time He's placed there on Christmas Eve, He has a warm, welcome place prepared-not just in the creche, but in the hearts of each family member as well.
Christmas. Placing lit candles in the windows on Christmas Eve stems from an old custom in Ireland. In the days when the Catholic faith was outlawed there, such candles secretly signaled priests traveling in disguise that they were welcome to enter and hold Mass there. Today the candles honor the memory of those courageous believers and welcome the Lord into our homes.
To make sure Christ remains the focus of our family's celebration, each Christmas we decorate a birthday cake and sing "Happy Birthday" to Him.
New Year's Day. Instead of resolutions, urge each family member to choose a personal motto for the new year. Try a Scripture verse such as "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13 RSV).
St. Valentine's Day. Deliver valentines from your family to a shut-in who might otherwise be forgotten.
Lent. Pretzels were originally invented by German monks as a Lenten food: They contain none of the ingredients that were traditionally given up during this season, and their shape symbolizes two arms crossed in prayer. Leave a pretzel next to each dinner plate during evenings in Lent to take the place of dessert and remind the family to pray.
Easter. According to an old Slovak custom, believers greet one another on Easter day with the words, "Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!" repeated three times. Each time, the other person replies, "He has risen indeed!"
All Saints' Day. Instead of Halloween costume parties, our family attends celebrations in which each child comes dressed as a saint. Then the other children must guess who they are.
Name Days. In Catholic homes the feast of the saint for whom a child is named (or whose name a child shares) was once more important than the child's birthday. The "Name Day" can be celebrated by attending Mass together and then treating the child to gifts, congratulations, and the family's prayers.
Daily prayer. Along with bedtime prayers each night, each member of our family must tell one thing from the day for which he or she is grateful to God. Families can pray together regularly at many other times of day as well, using the Rosary, the Angelus, table graces, or prayers from the Divine Office.
Sacramentals. A holy water font beside the front door of our home allows us to bless ourselves each time we go in and out. We also have a family shrine in our home, with sacred images, candles and flowers, where we can go to take time out for prayer.
Catholic tradition is rich with family customs developed over the centuries in a variety of cultures. These are just a sampling. For more ideas, see Building Catholic Family Traditions (Our Sunday Visitor, 1999).
Finally, consider four practical tips for cultivating family traditions:
1. Keep 'em simple. The more complicated a tradition, the less likely it is to survive.
2. Traditions should focus on values and relationships rather than costly gifts or activities.
3. Don't allow yourself to become stressed out or rigid about observing traditions — it takes all the fun out!
4. Use customs as teachable moments to call attention to your Catholic faith and values. When you do, traditions in your home will serve as channels of God's grace into the little nooks and crannies of everyday family life.