Strengthening Family with Holiday Rituals

My family and I had no travel plans for Thanksgiving this year – which I believe is a first! The preceding weeks have been super busy and I found myself approaching the day thinking that un-rushed time at home and some reheated leftovers would be holiday enough for us. I wasn’t planning to do anything special.

Luckily, I have a well-formed family vision and some knowledge about the characteristics of strong families in my back pocket. When I heard myself explaining to a friend that we weren’t going to do anything for Thanksgiving this year, I had a moment of clarity realizing that my plans weren’t aligned with my vision. We needed some kind of family ritual on Thanksgiving to mark the passing holiday. This wasn’t a fireworks and rockets moment, just a simple, “Oh, we really should do something” thought.

Being committed to wellbeing and knowing that I have enough on my plate, the thought on the heels of that was “keep it simple!” Luckily, by the time I drove my minivan from point A to point B I had an idea.

Our “Fuzzy-Ball Bowl of Blessings” Family Ritual

This bowl of fuzzy balls became part of a new family ritual.
This bowl of fuzzy balls became part of a new family ritual.

I stopped by JoAnn Fabrics with my girls on our way home from school on Wednesday and picked up a $3 bag of 100 brightly-colored and multi-sized fuzzy-balls. The next day, my husband-dear cooked a chicken, mashed potatoes, Brussel sprouts, asparagus, and a pumpkin pie while I had some lovely girl time. When the plates were cleared, I simply put a big bowl in the middle of the table and told the family that they could put a fuzzy ball in the bowl for each thing they were thankful for. They could do as many as they wanted as long as they said something they were thankful for with each one.

The bag of balls circled our table again and again. What ensued was a simply profound and wonderful sharing of MANY things for which each person in our family is grateful. My children are 9, 6, and 18 months, and each one of them were able to fully participate. The littlest delightedly squealed each time she got to pick a ball out of the bag, throw it (or several!) in the bowl with gusto, and then clap her little hands – which the rest of us found adorable. Everyone else actually mentioned something they are grateful for with each ball. Their answers captured beautifully the magic of childhood and the unique and blossoming people they are becoming. We ran out of balls long before gratitudes, though any longer probably would been too long. (We were just starting to lose the attention of the 6 year old.)

Everyone moved to the open carpet in our living room and by tossing the whole bowl in the air at once we were showered with our blessings! Laughter, fuzzy ball fights, funny faces with balls in our ears, and many giggles and general rolling about ensued for a good time after. This went on until we were starting to lose the parent’s attention and then we gathered them all back up in the bowl and placed them on our family’s “altar” – just a book shelf where we place special things we find or objects signifying something/someone special in our hearts.

Sometimes, the best holiday rituals are stumbled upon. When one happens, I grab hold of it and plan to make it a tradition. This was one of those times. A simple little bag of fuzzy balls and about 30 minutes of time turned into a significant and joyful ritual we can repeat year after year. The idea itself came from a memory of my oldest playing with a bag of fuzzy balls when she was a toddler. I still remember the sheer delight she found in scattering those balls all over the house, transforming rooms into colorful playgrounds of chaos.

How Rituals Strengthen Family Identity

One of the research-based strengths of strong families is a sense of rhythmicity around the year. Events that mark the seasons or highlight the passage of time create expectations and memories and a sense of identity and being from somewhere. The seasonal flow of the year becomes predictable when you develop certain traditions that are carried out year after year at the same point in the cycle. The impact of traditions is remarkable in its ability to help humans develop a sense of belonging, place, security, and acceptance. They become a way that we mark time and our experience of life together. Rituals which share or pass down our values have even greater significance.

Rituals need not be complex or somber, and they can be borrowed or original. Some are specific, such as the fuzzy ball ritual, and others are general, such as always visiting a pumpkin patch in the fall. Here are few characteristics of successful family rituals:

  • They are seasonal and happen around the same time each year.
  • They are age-appropriate and kid-centric, while also being authentic for the adults.
  • The amount of work, time, and resources required for the ritual are a match to what you can comfortably give.
  • They are flexible and can change spontaneously as needed to work for all involved.
  • They grow and change as your family grows. While they are tradition and become repetitive, they are also living – maturing and shifting for new situations and to fit your maturing family.
  • They make sense with your values or are an explicit sharing of your values.

Creating family rituals is something I had to work hard for when I first began. For me, it was a mental exercise in listing what values, beliefs, and joys I wanted to pass on to my children. There was a measure of trial and error, as some of the ideas I tried where not fun for everyone and many of my ideas where too complex to be recreated (or even remembered!) the following year. Pulling ideas out of books was also not effective for me.

Despite my clumsy start, we now enjoy rich rhythmicity to our year. Most of our favorite traditions happened pretty spontaneously the first time, but because of the intentional thought with which I began, I now recognize when significance and fun click. Year by year I’ve gathered these experiences, and I now plan to repeat the activities that we love. They are eagerly anticipated by my kids. I am quite certain that the homemade pasta at Christmas, the fancy birthday picnics, the V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N song, the pumpkin patch visits, and now the fuzzy-ball thanks, are memories that my kids will hold in their heart throughout their lifetime when they think of home. Some of our traditions are ones I grew up with and some of ours will someday be shared with my own grandchildren.

Rhythmicity is within the reach of all families. It doesn’t take wealth or brilliance or a stay-at home parent to pull off family rituals or traditions. Vision, spontaneity, and intentionality go a long way in welcoming rhythmicity into your pattern of life. Coupled by being fully present in the moments you spend in traditional ritual, these simple acts will confer great gifts for everyone.

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