Traditions give holidays their true significance
December 13, 2005
I love it all – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years and the knowledge that Chinese New Year is just around the corner. The excitement and electricity in the air put a spring in my step.
Sure, some of the holiday cheer is being driven by marketing and materialism, but I don’t care. The big shopping crowds make me feel part of something that is being celebrated many places in the world. Trying to pick out something for my loved ones that I know they will enjoy feels meaningful. Parties, presents and the desserts to come are worth every ounce of the five pounds I am going to gain in this next month.
There is so much focus about the stress of the holidays: the pressure to buy presents, to travel during winter months, and to spend extra time with friends and family. Consumer debt is a real stress to many people. Yet, we often overlook the wonderful times that the holidays bring us and the fact that, despite the stress, traditional celebrations are good for us.
A week-and-a-half from now when I can’t bear to wrap another present, when I’ve decided that my sisters are undoubtedly the most annoying people on the planet, and when my jeans won’t zip up, I may have difficulty focusing on all the joy. But for now I decided to investigate the good that the holidays bring.
Family routines and rituals are important to the physical and mental health of all family members. They are associated with marital satisfaction, children’s health, the strength of family relationships, educational achievement in children, and adolescents’ sense of personal identity.
Barbara Fiese, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Syracuse University completed a review of 50 years of research exploring the importance of rituals and routines to family health. Dr. Fiese notes, “Rituals involve symbolic communication and convey ‘this is who we are’ as a group and provide continuity in meaning across generations. Also, there is often an emotional imprint where once the act is completed, the individual may replay it in his or her memory to recapture some of the positive experience.” This explains why most of us won’t remember the presents we receive from year to year but can recall with detail our family rituals growing up during family holidays.
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Other research has shown that the desire to establish and maintain satisfying relationships with others, called “belonging,” is one of the strongest needs of human beings. It is believed that holiday traditions make us feel that we “belong” to the important friends and family that we celebrate holidays with. It has been shown that this need to belong leads us to experience many of our strongest emotions, both positive and negative. When moments happen that reinforce our sense of belonging, we tend to feel overwhelmed with comfort and happiness. When moments threaten our sense of belonging, we tend to feel anxious and agitated. This is why during family holiday celebrations, our family members can “push” our buttons so easily.
One of the reasons the holidays can be so painful and lonely for people with strained relationships is that the holidays remind the person of what they lack. People who lack a sense of belonging suffer more mental and physical illnesses, including behavioral problems like having more car accidents, criminal behavior and suicide.
Studies have examined the relationship between religious holidays and marital satisfaction. The mere practice of religion isn’t nearly as important to marital satisfaction as is the couple’s emotional ties and intimacy that they feel are expressed through their mutual sharing of religious rituals.
Family rituals tend to be passed down from one generation to the next making individuals feel “rooted” or “grounded” in who they are. Women tend to be the “keepers” of the traditions in a family, making sure that each year the family rituals are repeated and women tend to convey the importance of ongoing traditions to family members.
In two weeks time there will be loud footsteps heard on my parents’ roof, my dad will become Santa shouting “ho ho hos,” and I will watch my daughter run out to the Christmas tree to see what Santa brought her. It wasn’t long ago that it was me running down the same hall with glee. I never thought I could feel more excitement than I did on those old Christmas eves, but watching the awe on my daughter’s face is the best Christmas present I’ve ever received.
n Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.