December 1999

B Y   L L O Y D   D.   N E W E L L

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and the other villagers of Anatevka sing about traditions at a place and time when every person's role in life was dictated by tradition. 1 In Tevye's world, as in ours, traditions served families as a source of strength; they gave families a sense of identity and of faith. Now when so much is changing, traditions still give family members strength and stability, as well as a sense of certainty in family love when life may seem full of uncertainty.

"Traditions give you a sense of family and they give you a sense of belonging to a group of people, not being alone in the world," a thoughful mother explained.

While researchers have studied the effects of family traditions on family life for many years, this article describes the results of a recent qualitative study of 28 families. During 1998-99, I conducted interviews with one-, two-, and three-generation families about their experiences with tradition in family life. The families were interviewed in their homes in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Baton Rouge. Family members were African-American, white, Hispanic, Cajun, Israeli, and Pakistani. They came from many faiths-Roman Catholicism, Islam, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Judaism, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. The real-life experiences of these families confirmed in a multi-dimensional way what scientists had already documented in other, more quantitative studies and shed new light on the interplay of faith and tradition.

Family traditions and rituals* are powerful, significant aspects of family life. Each in their own way, families from the different geographic locations, religions, and ethnic traditions represented in this research, said something similar to what one mother put so well: "Traditions are the cement that keeps the family together . . . and help you withstand the storms that come."

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The most frequent comment about traditions, from every family interviewed, was that they strengthen and sustain the family. In a related study, researchers studying North Dakota and Nebraska families also found the strongest families have the highest frequency of family rituals, or traditions.2 Families in the current study had independently discovered what the scholars had learned 3 when they described how eating dinner together, praying together, observing holidays, and holding family celebrations for birthdays, anniversaries, and accomplishments bring closeness and unity to the family.

Even-and sometimes especially-under difficult circumstances, traditions can have a positive effect. Family members who were interviewed for this study spoke of their traditions as an anchor in hard times, as another mother explained: "At the time of a huge event, like a death, or a birth, traditions can carry you through. When your body goes on autopilot, as it does when there's a death or any other tragedy, the traditions that you have are just like a wonderful cocoon that you feel wrapped up in and comforted by. . . . Traditions help you know that life goes on."

Similarly, another study found that families of alcoholics are less likely to transmit alcoholism to the next generation if they maintain the family dinnertime ritual and do not allow a parent's alcoholism to interfere with this time together. 4 In the same way, diabetic children whose families maintained regular routines and had regular traditions in which they participated had fewer behavioral problems than diabetic children who lacked those benefits. 5

The ability of traditions to bring peace to the family was emphasized by another mother, who spoke of their Jewish Sabbath, "We feel very close whenever we do these things because it makes me feel like we've brought a moment of peace, a moment of difference into our busy weekly, daily lives. I think that helps us weave our lives together."

Families also reported that traditions helped them feel safe and secure, as a mother pointed out: "They give us something that we can rely on, that we know. Feelings that everybody goes through during difficult periods in our lives cause confusion or feelings of isolation, but they always know, they [the children] can act like they don't like them, but deep inside they may be comforted by knowing that we're doing it the same as we always did, and we're always here doing the ritual and we're going to do it together."

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"We're always here and we're going to do it together." "This is what our family does"-traditions give families and family members a sense of identity as values are shared and a sense of belonging is established. This mother continued: "Without these rituals, we would not be Jewish. I can tell you that right now. . . . They connect me essentially; they connect me to people around me, my family, my community, my beliefs. . . . Even though we are scattered all over the world, I can go anywhere and observe Sabbath and it will be pretty much the same. . . . Our rituals give us an identity. They give us a sense of who we are and how we're different from other people."

Family scientists seem to agree that traditions help give families and family members a sense of identity. 6 The continuity of this process was a source of fulfillment to a father who said: "One of the things that gives me a lot of joy is to hear [my children] reminisce and think back to things we've done as a family and the memories they have. Those memories are a part of what makes them who they are and what will shape them for the future and for their family."

The sense of family identity and unity fostered by traditions has been found by other researchers, as well: "Rituals also protect [family] members against a sense of loneliness and uncertainty in daily living encountered outside the home . . . ." 7 A study of the development of a "Family Ritual Questionnaire" found that the highest level of family cohesion, or sense of togetherness, was related to nothing more complicated than family dinnertime-sitting down to a meal together. 8

Traditions also help to preserve the family's "story." Families are eager to share their memories and experiences; the process of telling their stories seems to bring them together as they laugh and remember. Sharing the story of a child's birth or even a trip to the emergency room reinforces the sense of family, even though some family stories are more sober than others.

The traditions that create individual and family identity need not have cosmic scope. One woman's happiest childhood memory was her annual trip with her father to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. She and her husband, their children, and her mother were going back for the first time since her father's death soon after the interview. "I'll probably cry more . . . . But that's okay," the 67-year-old widowed grandmother said. "For years we sat through the rain and the cold and the heat and the everything; oh but it was fun. It was really fun." The return to the beloved tradition makes a memory for a new generation and solidifies the family's identity.

Similarly, another family has invited family and friends over for ice cream every Sunday evening for many years. The mother says this tradition gives the family "that belonging feeling, which is part of being safe and secure." In addition to connecting themselves to the larger community of friends and family (whether the actual number in attendance is five or twenty-five), this family has created an identity for itself and others as a hospitable family that welcomes others into the immediate family circle for conversation and fun. It's no surprise that the children in the family intend to continue the "Sunday evening ice cream" tradition when they establish homes of their own. Other families mentioned homemade Easter egg dyes, hand-cranked ice cream freezers, a set of family rules for opening and appreciating gifts, and even a mother's nightly rounds to check on and cover her sleeping children. These small traditions are remembered with love and repeated-"this is what our family does; this is who we are."

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Like treasured family heirlooms, family traditions help beliefs and practices span generations, as a father relates: "Traditions are a perpetuation of what we believe to be good and wholesome and worthwhile and necessary. It's keeping a good thing going." The idea of "keeping a good thing going" across the generations has been supported by experts who study family life and family traditions. 9

Something that seems insignificant or begins as a simple routine can become an intergenerational tradition, as a mother noted: "We sing a bedtime song every night that my dad sang to me and his parents sang to him. . . . It was one of the first songs my kids learned how to sing." These traditions can increase the feeling of belonging for children who understand they are doing what a parent and grandparent and even great-grandparent did. They also give great satisfaction to parents who teach and tell about the tradition. One father said: "Traditions are family things that can go many generations. . . . That's the highest praise for anyone who is a parent. I think as we all go through life, some of the greatest testimony we can have of the job we did would be daughters or sons or somewhere down the line, they're doing something because, hey, my mom [did it]."

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A father emphasized the teaching function of traditions, saying: "Traditions are times when we can learn more about life, what I can improve on. It's not just how the kids can improve, but how I as a parent can improve. . . . I see the things that I am doing. My behavior is seen in my children's behavior; all of a sudden I can see it because of our traditions and interactions." Perhaps the repetitive nature of some traditions allows family members to chart and evaluate their behavior over time.

Traditions surrounding important holidays or rare but important occasions, such as weddings and funerals, are especially memorable and, perhaps, especially difficult to change, even when circumstances or common sense requires change. Generations of children and teenagers have experienced heart-quakes when, instead of going "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house," Grandma's health, Grandma's new apartment, or a cross-country move requires Grandma to come to their house-or perhaps Thanksgiving happens without Grandmother or Grandfather at all. Similarly, many parents have been forced to adjust their expectations when a child decides to forego college in pursuit of some other dream or doesn't want to enter the family business. These occasions may give family members the chance to examine themselves and their relationships as well as evaluate a possible need for change.

For example, a mother whose 12-year-old son decided he's an atheist hopes that as he "goes through the various stages of life, even though he doesn't believe right now, hopefully, as he grows, if he decides he does believe, he'll have rituals to come back to. But if we never expose him to these rituals now, whether he believes or not, he won't feel a sense of connection to them as he grows older." She also insists that her sons become b'nai mitzvah. "That's something they don't have a choice in. They are too young to make that decision, so we're making it. . . . That's one ritual that's really important to us." There are times when family traditions must continue for the sake of the family, even-or especially-for the sake of family members who refuse to participate.

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In nearly every interview, a connection between faith and traditions became apparent. Scholars have noticed the sacred or "transcendent" meaning of family rituals and traditions. 10 Interviewed families saw their faith as an important element in why they had traditions, how they structured them, or what they expected to derive from keeping most traditions.

An insightful mother said: "I think my life would be empty without rituals and traditions . . . they're very enriching for the soul . . . I want my grandchildren to have these values . . . [your] soul needs to be filled up, and in your rituals I think you fill the soul."

Traditions may be a reflection of the family's faith and an integral part of a religious holiday or service. Many Christian families have traditions concerning the Nativity scene, the Christmas tree, and special church services at Christmas and Easter. Hanukkah and Passover include ancient traditions cherished along with more modern family traditions in Jewish families. Islamic families may have special family funds and traditions concerning the need for family members to participate in the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. Buddhist families honor the dead through the beautiful rituals of Obon.

However, some family traditions that create memories and strengthen families are not connected to religious observances. One family regularly helps at a local soup kitchen, together with any of the children's friends who are willing to join in. The family's belief that its members have an obligation to help those less fortunate and that friends are welcome to participate could not be better conveyed.

Another family has a 20-year tradition of gathering every spring to list each person's favorite things-favorite book, favorite song, favorite food, etc. The lists are carefully preserved and the now-college-age children look forward to each year's creation of new lists and the review of lists from previous years. Their mother says, "This simple activity has a lot of meaning for our family. . . . It gives us an insight into each other, a way to get to know each family member better, as well as ourselves. . . . This has done more than anything else to build unity and family ties." The lists began as an activity for young children and have become a cherished springtime tradition for a family that emphasizes the importance of knowing oneself and other family members.

This research provided further evidence that family traditions are beneficial as they give families strength, identity, and generational continuity. Traditions strengthen and support families and strong families tend to create more traditions. These traditions allow the family to evaluate itself and make necessary adjustments, while faith and values energize the process and give traditions additional meaning. Healthy traditions create a winning situation for families-a situation worth planning for and well worth implementing. They bring the rewards of love and closeness to family members across the generations. As one Chicago mother said, "Traditions display what's in your heart, where do you put your time and your energy. They show us where our heart is."

Lloyd D. Newell, Ph.D., is an associated faculty member of the School of Family Life, is on the faculty of Religious Education at Brigham Young University, and is the commentator of the weekly broadcast, Music and the Spoken Word. This article is based on his Ph.D. dissertation titled "A Qualitative Analysis of Family Rituals and Traditions" (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1999).


* While scholars tend to use the word rituals in their work, the families in this study almost exclusively used the word traditions to describe the same activities, so we will use the term most common to families.
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1. Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, "Tradition!" in Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof (Miami: Warner Brothers Publications, 1993), 6.
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2. W. H. Meredith, D. A. Abbott, M. A. Lamanna, and G. Sanders, "Rituals and Family Strengths: A Three-Generation Study," Family Perspective 23(2) (1989): 75-83.
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3. E.g., R. R. Kobak and D. B. Waters, "Family Therapy as a Rite of Passage: Play's the Thing," Family Process 23 (1984): 89-100, 99; J. D. Schanaveldt and T. R. Lee, "The Emergence and Practice of Ritual in the American Family," Family Perspective 17(3) (1983): 137-143, 142.
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4. L. A. Bennett, S. J. Wolin, D. Reiss, and M. A. Teitelbaum, "Couples at Risk for Transmission of Alcoholism: Protective Influences," Family Process 26 (1987): 111-129; cited in B. H. Fiese and A. J. Sameroff, "Family Context in Pediatric Psychology: A Transactional Perspective," Journal of Pediatric Psychology 14(2) (1989): 293-314.
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5. D. Wertlieb, S. T. Hauser, and A. M. Jacobson, "Adaptation to Diabetes: Behavior Symptoms and Family Context," Journal of Pediatric Psychology 11(1986): 463-479; cited in B. H. Fiese and A. J. Sameroff, "Family Context in Pediatric Psychology: A Transactional Perspective," Journal of Pediatric Psychology 14(2) (1989): 293-314.
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6. E.g., B. H. Fiese and A. J. Sameroff, "Family Context in Pediatric Psychology: A Transactional Perspective," Journal of Pediatric Psychology 14(2) (1989): 293-314; S. J. Wolin and L. A. Bennett, "Family Rituals," Family Process 23 (1984): 401-420.
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7. S. J. Wolin and L. A. Bennett, "Family Rituals," Family Process 23 (1984): 401-420, 419.
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8. B. H. Fiese and C. A. Kline, "Development of the Family Ritual Questionnaire: Initial Reliability and Validation Studies, Journal of Family Psychology 6(3) (1993): 290-99.
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9. C. J. Rosenthal and V. W. Marshall, "Generational Transmission of Family Ritual," American Behavioral Scientist 31(6) (1988): 669-684; J. D. Schanaveldt and T. R. Lee, "The Emergence and Practice of Ritual in the American Family," Family Perspective 17(3) (1983): 137-143, 142.
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10. Emile Durkheim, Durkheim on Religion, W. S. F. Pickering, trans. (1893-1912; reprint, Atlanta: Scholar Press), 88; W. H. Meredith, D. A. Abbott, M. A. Lamanna, and G. Sanders, "Rituals and Family Strengths: A Three-Generation Study," Family Perspective 23(2) (1989): 75-83.
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