Family Traditions: Making Them Work For You

— Written By Cathy Graham and last updated by

By: Cathy L. Graham
County Extension Director
N.C. Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.  Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. Jane Howard

Family traditions are universally found in families of all types.  They contain the values, myths, history, and identity of the family; connect the generations; and are a source of strength, stability, roots, and pride.  Traditions may also foster feelings of obligation and responsibility.  They can be a source of hassles as special preparations (family get-togethers, planning and preparing meals) are frequently required.  Elements from more than one family may need to be incorporated while maintaining the meanings of traditions.  Middle generation members of families may be responsible for much of this work as they assume roles and responsibilities from older family members who can no longer fulfill them.  Women, the “kin keepers,” tend to be the most affected.  Understanding one’s traditions and being intentional about them keeps them as a source of joy and comfort rather than a burden and obligation.

In the book, Rituals for Our Times, five purposes of rituals/traditions are discussed:

  1. Relating:  Shaping, Expressing, and Maintaining Relationships.  Traditions can help you understand various aspects of your relationships (Who has power?  What is expected of individuals?) and help you to rework relationship patterns, rules, roles, and opportunities.
  2. Changing:  Making and Marking Transitions for Others and Ourselves.  Traditions have the capacity to announce and create changes while making them safe and manageable.  Traditions often have to be modified to reflect the change and growth of individuals.
  3. Healing:  Recovering from Relationship Betrayal, Trauma, or Loss.  Everyone has times when personal and relationship healing is needed (in the event of a death or divorce).  For traditions to help with healing, individuals must make changes allowing them to hold on (to memories and symbols that are comforting, precious, and healthy) and let go (of what is painful, unhealthy, and out of your  control) at the same time.  The intent is not to remain stuck in the past or unable to move forward in meaningful ways.
  4. Believing:  Voicing Beliefs and Making Meaning. Every time you participate in a ritual or tradition, you are expressing your beliefs.  For example:  Thanksgiving is a time many families use to express what they are thankful for and sharing beliefs about what is most important.  The fact that Thanksgiving is the most traveled of all American holidays expresses a value about connecting with others face-to-face despite long distances that may separate people.  Birthdays and anniversary celebrations express our ideas about the passage of time in our lives.
  5. Celebrating:  Affirming Deep Joy and Honoring Life with Festivity.  Most life cycle rituals (weddings, funerals, graduations), religious and cultural holiday traditions, birthdays, and anniversaries involve celebrating.  Traditions containing celebration express warmth, comfort, support, affirmation of life, and a sense of being connected to others.

Source:  Family Information Services

For more information, please contact Cathy L. Graham, County Extension Director with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 671-3276, by E-mail at, or visit our website at // North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status, or disability.  In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

Written By

Photo of Dr. Cathy GrahamDr. Cathy GrahamCounty Extension Director (910) 671-3276 (Office) cathy_graham@ncsu.eduRobeson County, North Carolina
Updated on Nov 8, 2012
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