Exploring the Role of Ritual and Tradition in our Lives

October heralds the seasonal transition from summer to fall as the palate of our landscape changes. Lush green trees are replaced by the vibrancy of reds, oranges and yellows. Slowly our gardens lose their color and zest. Nights grow cooler, days are shorter and the growing season comes to an end. We shut our windows at night and begin to bring sweaters and jackets and extra blankets out of storage. In the hunt for the boots and gloves, you may have stumbled on a carton of holiday paraphernalia and suddenly you have tears in your eyes or feel a pain deep in your gut.

If you experienced a divorce, death or estrangement in your family during this past year, you may find your usual holiday anticipation turn to anxiety. Rituals and traditions may no longer hold their same meaning. Family members may feel adrift and alone. Grief, loss and displacement overshadow celebration.

Rituals and traditions mark the events that stand as testimony to the passages in our lives. They anchor us and support us. They are testimony to our beliefs and our relationships. Rituals and traditions seem more prevalent during this season, but, in truth, throughout the year, we have created celebration and ritual to mark passage and celebrate our lives.

  • The “Calendar Rituals” include Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, and other holidays celebrated in the culture. While each family has unique traditions, there are commonalties in the community at large.
  • The “Personal Rituals” are unique to each family’s calendar and include days such as wedding anniversaries, birthdays, engagements and graduations. Every family has these special celebrations, but the dates and traditions that surround these are unique to that family.
  • The “Private Rituals” include intimate routines, such as doing the Sunday crossword puzzle together, or eating take out Chinese food every Friday night. They are unique, private, and affect no one outside of the immediate family.

All three forms of ritual are filled with joy. However, when a family experiences loss ritual may just feel like painful reminders of what once was. During the holiday season all three expressions of ritual can overlap. No wonder we can feel so lost.

By identifying and discussing with our loved ones the three types of rituals, we become aware of the losses associated with each and the importance of creating new rituals. Visiting your in-laws for Thanksgiving dinner may feel too awkward despite the extended invitation. Taking out the ornaments that catalogue the family history may be too painful. And family members who once celebrated together may not want to be in the same room.

Sometimes, we struggle to “maintain the status quo” as if holding onto these rituals and traditions can make us feel better. Just the opposite often happens; trying to maintain the rituals and traditions exactly as they were, will feel false and painful. Going through the motions only emphasizes the loss without directly addressing it. Do not be afraid to make conscious changes to your traditions. They can honor your loss in an open way and thus reduce the tension of having to make believe everything is “just fine.” When we are grieving, everything is NOT fine. That falseness sets a tone that family members cannot be relaxed and authentic. More than anything else, rituals and traditions “work” because they are an authentic and honest expression of love and connection.

In creating new holidays traditions and rituals consider what you are grateful for. Gratitude helps us focus on our gifts and blessings. Then we can create rituals and celebrations that reflect our appreciation for what we DO have.

What do you feel grateful for this year? A new friend? Recovery from an illness or addiction? A new job? A new baby?  A new puppy?

Think about what symbolic gesture you can create to celebrate this new joy to your life. Perhaps you invite that new friend to Christmas dinner or spend a day volunteering at a homeless shelter or the human society.  Maybe you create a moveable feast or decide everyone will make their gifts. You can talk with your family and loved ones about considering new options. You may find that many (including the children) are excited about trying something new.

In reality, many of our old traditions may not have worked for years yet we may still struggle to maintain them because we are worried everyone will be disappointed. While traditions can be lovely and grounding, they can also be confining and rigid. If more and more family members become vegetarian, it does not make sense to continue to cook a gigantic turkey. If financial issues are creating stress, it would be foolish to spend a fortune on gifts. Making tons of cookies and pies makes no sense if family members are struggling with diabetes or weight issues.

This season is an opportunity to consciously create traditions that work now – that are relevant and meaningful and deeply personal. It matters less what you do as long as you do something different that acknowledges the changes that occurred during this year.

Inherent in our loss is opportunity for growth. Use your pain to fuel your imagination. You can create a holiday season of meaning and joy, not by ignoring the loss, but by allowing it to be present in the changes you make. You have the opportunity to create a celebration that honors all your feelings and encourages everyone to be authentic in both their joy and sorrow.


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  1. Laurie on the 04. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    WEll said! I love the thought and steps on how to reclaim hope in one’s life!!

  2. Donna S. on the 04. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    When my husband left four years ago, I was not only heartbroken, but fearful of what the holidays would bring. No more cozy Christmas mornings with my daughters waiting at the top of the stairs to rush down and see what Santa had brought them. It was unbearable. Yet that first Christmas morning when I woke up and found myself alone, waiting for my children to be dropped off at noon, I refused to be dictated by my unfortunate circumstances. Shortly before my girls were to arrive, I wrote a note, taped it to the front door, and ran upstairs and crawled back under the covers. When they arrived, the note (from “Santa”) said that Mommy was still sleeping, that they had to wake her up with kisses, and that Christmas morning would begin once there was a good snuggle-fest! Needless to say, it worked like a charm for all of us. And this has become our own new tradition with just the three of us, and it’s a tradition that we have all embraced and look forward to each year. I actually don’t know how the idea originally came to me. But, it did. And I’m thankful for it.

    • admin on the 04. Oct, 2010 remarked #

      What a great story! If others would like to share their special ritual or tradition, please feel free to do so! Perhaps in the sharing of our ideas, we will inspire others!

  3. Wendy on the 13. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    I love Donna S’ story. Wish I had been that creative – but here’s what I did for those of you who celebrate Christmas. I mixed up a bag of oatmeal and glitter (for the reindeer). The reindeer would see the glitter and smell the oats. My son sprinkled it on the lawn on Christmas Eve – that way Santa would know where to find him where ever he was. (Dad’s, Grandma’s, Mom’s).

  4. Wendy on the 13. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    Oh – I forgot to add, those trying Mother’s Days and Father’s Days – what to do about the step parent? My son and my husband and I celebrated Stepfather’s Day the following weekend so as not to “step” on Dad’s toes – pun intended!

    • admin on the 14. Oct, 2010 remarked #

      Thanks, Wendy. I love both of your suggestions! Hopefully the creative ideas offered here will help others and also encourage more people to share their own unique ways of celebrating!

  5. corolla on the 26. Oct, 2010 remarked #

    Nice blog. I just bookmarked you on my bloglines.

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