Why Build Catholic Family Traditions?

Why Build Catholic Family Traditions?
Paul Thigpen

© 1999 by Paul Thigpen

[This excerpt comes from my book Building Catholic Family Traditions (Our Sunday Visitor, 1999), co-authored with my wife, Leisa.]

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 ask the kids for donations from their allowance to help pay for the turkey. Nor do we offer an extra round of homemade rolls for the guests. 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.

In some circles, of course, "tradition" is a bad word. It too often refers to empty rituals or wooden habits whose meaning and purpose have long been forgotten. We're reminded, for example, of another family's Thanksgiving tradition in a home where ham, rather than turkey, was the holiday centerpiece. As the mother was preparing the ham for the oven one Thanksgiving morning, she told her daughter:

"Now don't forget — before you bake the ham, you always cut it in half and place it in two pans."

"Why?" asked the daughter.

"Oh, I'm not sure," said the mother, "but I've always done it that way because your grandmother always did it that way. She's in the living room–why don't you go ask her?"

When the little girl asked, Grandma could only respond with the observation that her own mother had always done it that way too. So when Great-Grandma came into the room, the question was repeated once more.

"Why did you always cut the Thanksgiving ham in half before you baked it?" asked the little girl, by this time with exasperation.

The elderly matriarch grinned. "Simple," she said. "We never had a pan big enough to hold the whole thing!"

No doubt some family traditions like this one can be empty habits rather than meaningful events. After all, according to the word's root meaning, a "tradition" is simply "something handed down" — and it's possible to hand down to later generations both burdens and blessings. But we've found in our home that carefully cultivated traditions can make an irreplaceable contribution to the spiritual, social and emotional strength of a family.

The Spiritual Benefits of Family Traditions

The Scripture offers us glimpses of family life in ancient Israel reflecting God's desire that we strengthen our families with meaningful customs. When the Israelites left Egypt to become a new nation, for example, God commanded their families to hold special observances in their homes so that they would remember what He had done for them. Perhaps the best known of these family traditions were the yearly Passover celebration (see Exodus 12:1-20) and the weekly Sabbath observance (Exodus 20:8-11). Other significant Israelite family customs included circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14); the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:9-17); and the placement of a representative portion of God's law on the door post of each home as a reminder of its importance (see Deuteronomy 6:9).

These and other family traditions have endured in the Jewish community throughout the generations over thousands of years, accumulating countless embellishments. We've visited several Jewish homes at Passover, and we must admit that in some families the festival customs have become empty. But in other homes where such customs are living reminders of spiritual realities, these traditions clearly serve as a source of spiritual strength and blessing.

Beginning with its birth in the ancient Jewish community, the Catholic Church has for two millennia also cultivated rich and countless spiritual traditions, many of which are centered in the home. These family-centered traditions reflect the reality that St. John Chrysostom noted many centuries ago when he referred to the home as a "little church." Pope John Paul II reaffirmed and expanded on this truth when he declared in a papal encyclical on the role of the laity that "the daily life itself of a Christian family makes up the first experience of Church. … The more that Christian spouses and parents grow in the awareness that their 'domestic Church' participates in the life and mission of the universal Church, so much the more will their sons and daughters be able to be formed in a sense of the Church and will perceive all the beauty of dedicating their energies to the service of the kingdom of God." [Christifidelis Laici, n. 62]

One important way for families to provide a rich context for such spiritual formation is to build into their home life a number of traditions that point to God and to His loving involvement in our daily living. The Holy Father explicitly noted in the same encyclical that one valuable form of family catechetical activity takes place "when, in the course of family events (such as the reception of the sacraments, the celebration of the great liturgical feasts, the birth of a child, a bereavement) care is taken to explain in the home the Christian or religious content of these events." Catholic family traditions — a daily rosary, a Christmas creche, the consecration of the home to the Sacred Heart–provide fine opportunities for such conversations. In doing so, they serve as little channels of the grace that flows from the Church's sacramental and liturgical life, its doctrinal and moral life, carrying that grace into the little nooks and crannies of everyday living.

The Social and Emotional Benefits of Family Traditions

Such are the spiritual benefits of religious family traditions. But even customs with no explicit spiritual association can add a significant dimension to home life.

Sadly enough, we live in a time when many wonderful family customs, spiritual and otherwise, have been lost. Table graces recited by the entire family before and after meals have disappeared as individual family members show up at different times, heat up a TV dinner, and watch a sitcom as they eat alone. Fourth of July family reunions have faded away as relatives move farther apart, unable to make an annual trip from California to New York. Birthday celebrations have been crowded out by late hours at the office or extracurricular events.

Nevertheless, several studies of family dynamics have concluded what our own experience of family life affirms: Life at home is enriched socially and emotionally by customs that reflect a family's unique personality and values.

No married couple who remembers well their first Christmas as a family will doubt the importance of family traditions. The most emotionally sensitive conflict for many young couples in their first year of marriage is not over money or sex, but rather over issues surrounding the celebration of Christmas.

Will gifts be opened on Christmas morning or Christmas Eve? Will the tree be real or artificial? Will we use plastic tinsel or hand-strung popcorn? Will the dinner feature turkey or ham? Each spouse has an emotional investment in maintaining his or her own traditions, and the sparks may fly because our family customs mean more to us than we realize.

But why exactly do they mean so much? What are the benefits of meaningful family traditions? Social research and practical experience both suggest that the families with the strongest ties tend to have the most traditions because such traditions create and reinforce social and emotional security in the home. Here's how:

· Traditions establish family continuity. 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. We cultivate a sense of connectedness in a time when everything else in our world, from clothing styles to landscapes, seems to be changing rapidly.

· Traditions build family stability. Consistent family customs provide regular, familiar patterns for a rhythm of life together. Whether it's bedtime stories every night or family games every Sunday afternoon, such customs add an element of predictability to the cycle of family life that is both comfortable and comforting. This is especially important in a day when most families keep hectic and erratic schedules. Not surprisingly, families who make frequent geographic moves also adjust more easily to new surroundings if they take with them a number of family traditions.

· 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. This quality is critical as a counterbalance to the intense pressure on today's youth to identify with their peers instead of with their families.

· Traditions build family unity. Who can forget the warm sense of togetherness that comes when a family gathers for a Christmas morning gift opening or a Fourth of July reunion? Meaningful customs build a sense of closeness that endures even long after children are grown and geographical distance separates family members.

· Traditions reveal the significance of our lives. When we set aside the routine for special customs, we focus on what's important to us. All too easily our days can slip by unnoticed until years have passed by before we know it. Observing special days and events gives us a chance to pause and reflect on our lives. Birthdays, for example, celebrate the uniqueness and growth of our children and ourselves; wedding anniversaries call attention to the deepening love in our marriages. And as we've already noted, religious holiday customs can give us opportunities to think about our faith and values and to share them with our children.

· Traditions symbolize how family members feel about one another. Family customs are much more than simple words or acts; they give those who take part in them a chance to say nonverbally: "I love you. I enjoy being with you. You are important to me, and we share with each other what is important in life."

In short, meaningful family traditions of all kinds make a family strong.