Family Traditions: Make Them Awesome

My Favorite Family Tradition

When I was a kid we didn’t have much money but my parents managed to still take us, every year, to the Alma Highland Festival in Alma, Michigan. It was the favorite of our family traditions. Every Memorial Day weekend we loaded into the car and drove across the state to what was essentially a family reunion for a whole ethnic group. My Dad wore his kilt, and my sister and I had little sashes of the family tartan. There was food, and music, and a group of folks in our clan society that became a big extended family. We shopped at the same vendor tents every year and the same Scottish folk musician watched us grow up. That festival was our family vacation, a reunion, and the start to summer for our little family.

Why Family Traditions Matter

Traditions give us structure, they are comfortable and safe. Traditions mark important moments in our lives. They give the chaotic churn of the year a rhythm that we come to rely on. I probably don’t remember a single Alma Highland Festival in it’s entirety. But over the course of twenty years the memories have layered on top of one another into a whole that is so vivid I can still hear the bagpipes and smell the meat pies. Traditions help us pass our values down to our children. They bind us together and are the pillars of our identities. They matter.

families gathered in the park picnicking

Without ever saying a word my parents taught me that family went far beyond blood. They did it by including me in the relationships we built on those summer days beneath the clan tent. Our motley crew were family, because we were bound together by something far stronger than blood: values and heritage. My definition of family was forever set by those early interactions, and I am grateful for that. We teach by what we do, over and over again, far more effectively than by what we say. We can talk about inclusion and family and being a welcoming household. But if we never actually welcome people into our lives our kids will learn our unspoken message far better than the one we speak.

And this is perhaps the most important part of family traditions. Traditions create habits in us that will shape us for years to come. For good or ill. So we should be conscious of what we do, why we do it.

What Not to Do

Family traditions are powerful things. So there’s good reason to not do the whole thing wrong.

“We’ve Always Done It This Way”

First off, don’t do something just because is the way it’s always been done. Think about it, do you enjoy this family tradition? If the answer is no, it might be time to stop doing it. I know a family that did just this. Every Christmas morning they got up before dawn to drive three hours to see the first set of Grandparents. They arrived with a car load of grumpy, sleepy children. There would be frantic present opening and shoveling of food into faces before everyone piled into the car and drove another few hours to the other set of Grandparents. There the parade of presents and food repeated itself. The day was full of toddler meltdowns, arguments, traffic, and exhaustion. They dreaded Christmas.


Finally they asked themselves why they were doing this to themselves? Fortunately, they were part of a religious tradition that celebrates 12 days of Christmas (from December 25th to Jan 6th) not just one. So one year they said “enough.” They went to the late service Christmas Eve at their church, woke up Christmas morning (still early, because children) and opened presents and had a slow breakfast. The whole family stayed in their pajamas all day and played with their kids and listened to Christmas carols, and watched movies, and took a nap in the afternoon. They visited each set of Grandparents at some point over the next 12 days without the rush or the pressure.

Neither set of grandparents was happy with this at first, but both adjusted.

summer fun summer traditions building family traditions

Reflecting Your Values

This family will tell you today that they’d been unconsciously teaching their children all sorts of things they didn’t believe with that mad rush on Christmas day. They’d been telling their kids that seeing family was an obligation, not a joy. That life was always frantic and packed, that there was never enough time, that Christmas was about driving, and getting a load of presents, and eating too much food. That holidays are stressful, and angry, and endured. When they realized that none of that was what they wanted their children to grow up believing they changed the tradition to work for them, instead of being owned by the tradition.

Components of a Good Tradition

A good family tradition serves us and our values, a bad family tradition is in charge of us.  So here’s some quick questions to ask when evaluating our family traditions and to think about when you find yourself building new ones:

  1. Does what we’re doing reflect our values?
  2. Are we doing this to make one (or a few) family members happy at the expense of the rest of the family? (If so is there a compromise that works for everyone?)
  3. Are we doing this just because it’s habit, or because it’s how we were raised, but don’t have any real reason for it now?
  4. Are we trying to hold onto something that no longer really exists?

The Steps

Most traditions start organically, we do something once, and the next year we do it again because we know the steps or it worked marginally well. By the third time it’s become a family tradition, may it never be changed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be intentional about a new family traditions! The advantage of traditions we plan and set about intentionally is we don’t end up spending 12 hours driving on Christmas Day unless we actually want to.

These steps will help with establishing any family tradition but we’ll be concentrating on summer family fun since that’s the season that the Northern hemisphere is entering.

Step One: Get clear on what you want.

Summer is generally reserved for vacations, outdoor fun, relaxed fun and finger food. Summer traditions can be simple or complicated. You might create a family tradition of taking a road trip every summer, the places will change but the tents, and car games, ice cream cones, and cooking out won’t. Or you might want to start a street party in your neighborhood to celebrate the 4th of July. You might want to find the perfect summer camp for your kids. The possibilities are endless.

Winter traditions often focus on holidays. The annual Christmas tree hunt, decorating for Hanukkah, New Year celebrations and more. In the fall the first day of school, apple picking, and other fun family activities are all low hanging fruit for a new tradition. The key of course is to be clear about why you are doing these things.

summer fun summer traditions building family traditions

So start really think about your goals.

  • To relax and unwind.
  • To pass your cultural heritage along to your children
  • To spend time as a family
  • To give your kids an opportunity or experience
  • To build a closer relationship with your spouse
  • To help your neighborhood get to know one another
  • To create a weekly family time
  • To learn to cook
  • To teach your children the value of serving others
  • To pass on your religious traditions

Your goals are what matter. Not what you think your parents want you to do, or what you think you should do. Talk to your significant other, roommate, family members, or neighbors. Figure out what really matters to you and what doesn’t.

In the example of my friends I listed earlier they realized that what they valued was a slower life, quality time with the relatives they visited, and a greater focus on their religious traditions instead of frantic obligation. While the Grandparents in question weren’t happy about the change at first even they eventually admitted it was nice having a couple slow happy days with a family that wasn’t stressed and sleep deprived.

Step Two: Work Within Your Limits

My parents goal (though they probably never went through this process) was to pass on their cultural heritage to their children. There are many ways to do that, they could have taken us to Scotland every year for a month, except that wasn’t within the limits of their resources. There’s nothing worse than starting a family tradition you can’t maintain. Don’t go into debt for your traditions, don’t do things that will damage relationships or your own health and wellness. This might seem obvious but most families have some unexamined behaviors and traditions that do just those things.

Remember, traditions don’t need to be complicated. A weekly family dinner, or one night for games can be just as meaningful. (And hosting a dinner doesn’t have to be stressful either!)

Avoid Comparison Trap

Remember what you actual goals are. Here is where social media and places like Pinterest can be our worst enemy. You see friends or colleagues or relatives doing things you can’t afford and you get that green eyed monster.

You want to do a simple picnic for the 4th of July and before you know it your Pinterest board is so full of adoring, fiddly, impossible crafts it’ll take you two years to prep for this supposedly fun event. So this might sound weird coming from a blogger, but log out of social media, and please get off Pinterest. I’m pretty sure in the previous step what you want wasn’t “to show up Claudia’s vacation with something better” or “to do 12 Pinterest projects perfectly.”

Christmas tree with twinkle lights

Step Three: Keep It Real

I suspect what you wanted was “to actually get our butts out of the house and watch the fireworks with the kids from the park.” If so? Do that. Forget about the rest of it. If you’re a parent you probably don’t have time to be making the perfect American Flag Cake, sewing a new red white and blue quilt, and putting together the perfect wicker picnic basket. (If you do please, please reveal your secret, or share your staff with the rest of us). Do the kids like PB&J? Then make that. The last thing you want is a meltdown because you brought some fancy food that will look good in Instagram. Pack your cooler, toss a ratty old blanket on top and slather everyone with sunscreen. It’s that easy.

Know your resources and stay within them:

  • Money – How much can you spend? Obviously you can’t predict the future but be reasonable.
  • Time – We often underestimate time, or rather we overestimate how much of it we have, and overcommit it. How much time do you have to devote to prep, activity, etc. Be realistic, which leads us to…
  • Energy – This goes hand in hand with time. But be careful how you spend it. If everyone else has a grand old time and you are totally exhausted there’s a problem. Be gentle with yourself, and set expectations you can actually meet without being burned out and miserable.
  • Relationships – Often overlooked but important. What relationships are you looking to strengthen? Who can you call on to support you, who do you want to include in this tradition. Perhaps most important: how can the tradition you are looking to build strengthen and deepen the relationships you value most.

Be Flexible

Here’s where I struggle. I’m a planner, and I end up with a picture in my head. When that picture doesn’t happen the wheels can come off, my stress levels go up, I get anxious and frantic trying to put everything back where it was suppose to be. I can probably be pretty annoying to be around in those moments. Be flexible. Something won’t go the way you planned, and that’s OK. Family traditions should be flexible, if your family’s tradition is to bake a pecan pie for 4th of July every year and then one of your children turns out to have a raging nut allergy the pie can change to cherry, or apple. That’s OK. Because the people you love are far more important than any tradition.

Remember, the goal is for our traditions to serve us and our values, not the other way around. So be flexible, when things need to change know that’s OK. Keep your goals in mind and be willing to change and tweak things to meet those goals.

Enjoy The Ride

Finally, stop planning and just do it. Do it before you are ready, or everything is perfect. Give it a whirl, know that things will go wrong, and be ready to learn and make changes. The point of family traditions is enjoyment, so have fun. Relax, play, and see what happens. At worst you’ll discover that whatever it is you are trying isn’t going to be a great family tradition for your crew (ask my parents about the first and last time they took me camping…). That’s OK. You’ll have made memories, you’ll have learned something about yourselves, and you’ll have way more information going forward to build something lasting and fun.

Stay safe this summer and pop on over to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to share your family’s summer traditions and new summer adventures this summer!

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