Monday, November 30, 2015
Serious or silly — traditions matter
Every year at Hanukkah, we light the traditional menorah candles and share our thoughts about the deeper meanings behind the holiday. We also hide a fresh batch of Shrinky Dinks — a popular 1970s craft with plastic shapes you paint and shrink in the oven — in our kids’ gifts and make them together.
Whether serious or silly, simple or involved, traditions create significant and lasting memories and make the holidays special for kids and families. At this time of year, with celebrations surrounding Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Yule/Winter Solstice and New Year’s, among others, traditions take the center stage for many families.
Traditions bring families closer together by celebrating the things we value and creating memories that are particularly important in “a society that doesn’t place a strong value on the past and has a preference for tomorrow,” says Volker Frank, UNC Asheville sociology professor.
Even remembering “dad ruining the turkey” one year can become a tradition as a legend the family talks about every Thanksgiving — it “adds to the good feelings” associated with the holiday, Frank adds.
In our family, we enjoy so many of Hanukkah’s commonly held traditions, that eight days is barely enough to contain them, including making and eating traditional foods like latkes (potato pancakes), playing the dreidel (a spinning top) game, giving and donating gelt (money) and gifts, and remembering light in the face of past and present adversity.
Frank keeps the European tradition of St. Nicholas Day alive in his family, leaving shoes outside for “Santa” to fill with either coal or candy, he says. He and his two daughters, Sophia, 12 and Orquidea, 9, each choose and clean a shoe to put out and “luckily so far, I have always put chocolate into them,” he says. “However, I do remember that my shoes, one Christmas, did not have any chocolate in it and instead I found coals.”
The Frank family also enjoys stollen, a German sweet bread with dried fruit, typically eaten during the Christmas season, he adds.
“Family traditions help members find belonging and connectedness, promote communication and quality time together, and reinforce commitment to the family and its values and beliefs,” says Melodie H. Frick, LPC, assistant professor of counseling at Western Carolina University. Also, by giving kids more responsibility in organizing meals and customs, “traditions teach things like cooking, time management, inclusion, and empathy by taking other family members’ needs into consideration.”
Frick’s family, in addition to attending a candlelight Christmas church service to “enjoy the quiet reflection of why we celebrate this holiday,” added playing charades of popular Christmas songs or movies, “to take more time to laugh with each other.”
“My memories of how my father acts out certain songs will be cherished forever,” she says.
“Traditions are particularly relevant if they give individuals the feeling that they are a part of it,” Frank says. It doesn’t matter what it is, only that it “contributes to the longevity of the family, and promotes a family feeling or identification with the unit as a family.”
“This could mean spending time shopping for loved ones, preparing favorite meals for family members, picking out a Christmas tree together, making the home more festive with decorations, or simply being physically present with one another by limiting outside distractions,” Frick adds.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas for her family without hours spent in the kitchen, baking, says Valerie Ross, of North Asheville. Her kids Ben, 16; Lucas, 11; and Stella, 8, have always helped bake, “but the older they get, the less they bake and the more they eat.”
At the Ross house, 12 to 15 tins of her mother’s recipes, including cookies, candies and other desserts, sit on a table, “to be enjoyed by family and friends throughout the holiday season,” she says. As a “true southern Georgia girl, food was the bedrock of my family,” she says, and on Christmas Day the family always makes her great grandmother’s recipe for ambrosia, featuring cut up oranges, coconut and cherries with vanilla custard on top.
The family also makes gingerbread houses every year, covering a shoebox base with white icing and decorations using candy, sprinkles, cereal and other things, she says.
Ongoing family traditions can help alleviate stress, promote a feeling of security and build “resiliency against depression, substance use, school problems, eating disorders, and other negative or high-risk behaviors, as well as fostering positive identity development, self-worth, and overall well-being,” Frick says.
Meanwhile, traditions should be flexible and organic, says Frick. Decide “what provides the most positive connections and do more of these, rather than sticking with a tradition that no one understands or enjoys but does it because they think feel obligated to do so,” she says.
Maryella Cooper’s family blends Christmas with pagan traditions, celebrating Yule and the Winter Solstice with five days of fun honoring the elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit.
Cooper, of Alexander, says that when her five kids, ages 4 to 14, were younger, they only celebrated Christmas, but “that was bothering me because I wasn’t Christian and the holiday is so commercial.”
Later, they switched to celebrating only Yule, but it “sort of ended up like Christmas with the gifts and the junk food, so I thought about and decided to weave it our own way with our own choices,” she says. “I want the children to understand how different values are important and have an appreciation for what we have.”
The Coopers invite friends over to cook and make crafts related to each element, such as cooking over a campfire, pottery for earth day, pine cones with peanut butter and birdseed for air day, and painting grocery bags with water colors to use as gift wrap for water day.
They also deliver gifts to others together and receive gifts that fit in with the element they are honoring, such as bath toys for water.
“The basic tradition of honoring the elements stays the same, but each year we add some new and exciting ways to do it,” says Cooper. “They’ll have experiences and memories of the joy of the holidays that they’ll remember for years.”