Come Together: The Emotional Impact of Rituals and Traditions

Come Together: The Emotional Impact of Rituals and Traditions

It’s that time of year again when families and friends come together to celebrate through rituals and traditions. The holiday season is marked by many of these such as hanging lights, wrapping gifts, parades, concerts, services, and more.

Here in south Louisiana, my family celebrates by having get-togethers, which usually include a seafood dinner, a football game on TV, fishing, and enjoying the outdoors. It’s so important to not take these activities for granted because they create memories, remind us of our heritage, and — most importantly — bring people closer.


Ritual and Tradition: What’s the Difference?

Rituals tend to be formal, rehearsed, symbolic, and often religious; weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs are ritualistic. You may think rituals are for the superstitious. Think about how some athletes participate in pre-game rituals like eating specific foods, doing a certain cheer with the team, or rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot. But research has shown that rituals like this can actually reduce anxiety and help people cope with negative emotions.

Rituals are also beneficial to families because they bring about a sense of comfort; kids can count on the fact that every night they will get a bedtime story, no matter how hectic the day was. A ritual I always look forward to is going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve (although I usually fall asleep before the end). I love how the choir sings carols, the congregation holds candles to light up the church, and there is a warm bonfire waiting outside after mass. This ritual brings me those feelings of comfort and joy that the holidays are all about.

Traditions tend to have more historical significance than rituals. Traditions are passed down from former generations. If a custom has been performed over multiple generations, it can be considered tradition.

Traditions vary among different cultures, but they can also be surprisingly similar. A friend of mine who lives in El Salvador was telling me about how Christmas is celebrated in her country. The family eats a special turkey dinner on Christmas Eve and stays up until midnight, at which point they have fireworks shows, wish each other Merry Christmas, and exchange gifts. Holiday traditions can unite people from different cultures and backgrounds by showing that we’re not so different after all.


Honor the Old, Start the New

Old traditions are important because they give us something to look forward to every year. Simply knowing that you can count on that family time, those fun activities, or that favorite meal brings a sense of comfort and stability.

Sometimes we continue to follow traditions even after they become outdated or no longer enjoyable. Decorating the tree together is a wonderful tradition for a family with young children, but as the kids get older it may seem like a chore to them. They might even complain about it.

While it’s important to honor old traditions, we should think about which ones we should keep and which ones no longer hold meaning. Traditions should bring people together, so if tensions arise because no one feels like decorating the tree, it’s best to let it be and just decorate it later.

Ever notice how as you grow older and have family of your own, some traditions get lost? Perhaps the relatives become too busy, move away, or stop keeping in touch. If this is the case, it may be time to establish some new traditions or re-adopt old ones to bring everyone back together.


Starting new traditions is as simple as trying something different. If it works, keep it. Last year, my family made a trip to Tennessee the week after Christmas to visit relatives. We had a great time and saw sights that we wouldn’t have seen back home (like mountains, snow, and the Grand Ole Opry Hotel). In fact, it worked out so well we’re making plans to go back this year. Who knows, this could be a Christmas tradition in the making.

When establishing new traditions, you must first think about what is meaningful to your family and friends. Volunteering? Try to organize for the group to serve dinner at a local shelter. Music? Include lots of singing at your next get-together. Food? Have everyone make their favorite recipe for a potluck dinner. Fitness? Sign everyone up for a holiday-themed 5K (some of my friends raced in the “Turkey Trot 5K” on Thanksgiving morning).

Make sure that the activity you choose is fun, meaningful, and allows everyone to be included. And don’t forget to take plenty of photos to commemorate the experience and pass on to future generations.

Photo credits: DarrenHester, Christbaumschmuck der Firma Inge-Glas,and author.

Come Together: The Emotional Impact of Rituals and Traditions

A Guest Writer

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