Rituals and traditions

‘Everyday of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children.’ (The Strong Family, Charles R. Swindoll)

Why are rituals and traditions important?

  • 23-year-old Kat insists on leaving out a mince pie for Santa.
  • 20-year-old Jen likes her mum to kiss her goodnight and pray if ever she is in bed before her mum is (which isn’t often!).
  • 19-year-old Sam’s wisdom tooth was pulled out at the dentist’s and he had to take it home for the tooth fairy!

Whether they are good or bad, rituals and traditions make special memories and bind families together. They are with us for ever, long after early childhood.

  1. Positive family rituals and traditions celebrate everyday family life. They reinforce the distinct identity of any one family. ‘This is what we do as a family.’
  2. They create a unique sense of belonging.
  3. They enable shared values and beliefs to be passed on to the next generation.
  4. Used intentionally, they can help your family to survive, and indeed thrive!

Parents’ questions

Q What’s the difference between a routine and a ritual?

A Routine is a necessary everyday/weekly task that is necessary to keep going. Most families will do the same sort of thing. A ritual is a task that has an additional meaning attached to it, which can be personal or shared.

Q What sort of ordinary, daily routines could we use as family rituals?

A Bedtime preparations, sharing reports of each other’s day, holding hands while saying prayers around the dinner table and doing chores together can all become family rituals that demonstrate the shared beliefs of our family that have meaning and significance.

Q How can we grow meaningful memories when we’re all so busy?

A Maybe choose one special night a week or month that will be your family’s night, and think of ways to make the time special. Don’t lose sight of why you are doing this!

Q Christmas seems an obvious time to make family rituals and traditions, but there are so many other events and activities such as nativity plays, church services, parties and shopping. How can we fit in more?

A Fitting in more is not necessarily the answer. You may have to choose to do less. Here are some suggestions:

  • Buy a specifically Christian Advent calendar to explore the Christmas story.
  • Buy and decorate Christmas trees on a particular date or weekday every December.
  • Choose, make and wrap up presents together as a special time of sharing and laughter.
  • If you are involved in leading or preparing services, encourage the whole family to be involved – chat through ideas which can often spark creative thinking and be a real joint effort.
  • The Christmas meal is a wonderful opportunity to create tradition and ritual for your family, however big your family gathering.

Teach spiritual truths

Q How will our traditions help our children understand our Christian faith?

A Grace before meals, a family night or devotion time, acts of service such as helping a neighbour, worshipping God together on a Sunday, celebrating the festivals of the church year...? Rituals such as these mark us out as different from those around us. They identify us as a family committed to honouring Christ. They also communicate Christian truths and values to our children in clear and non-verbal ways.

Faith is not just a set of propositions that we believe. Our lifestyle and behaviour are totally affected by what we believe. Our family rituals express that. The meaning behind our rituals can pass on the basics of our faith – the importance we place on Easter and Christmas, the value of prayer and the Bible, our expectation of and dependence on God, and the memories and experiences of God that are shared within the family. These all create memories that endure – and help our families endure – for a lifetime.

Q Does the responsibility to grow children’s faith rest more with our church’s children’s workers than with us? After all, they’re the experts...

A They do have some responsibility in nurturing the faith of children, but the ultimate joy of that role lies with the parents. Deuteronomy 6:4–7 clearly places the handing on of the faith story to those in the home – usually parents but sometimes other carers. Who else can ‘talk about them (God’s laws) all the time; whether you’re at home or … going to bed…’? Of course, this passage assumes that those parents and children will in turn be nurtured by the community of God’s people.

What can we do as a family?

  1. Seasons and festivals

Festivals throughout the year offer parents opportunities to explore spiritual truth. Christmas and Easter are especially significant. For example:

  • Nativity scenes: Our family used them as soon as our children were old enough to play with them safely. The children handled and played with the figures while we told the story of the birth of the Christ-child.
  • Advent calendars: Buy one that tells the Christmas story. Let the children open one window each day, at a time when you can talk about the story. Scripture Union produces one each year. For more details look at the end of this article.
  • Christmas presents: Encourage family members to make gifts that communicate real thoughtfulness and love. Be creative!
  • The ‘Jesus box’: During Advent, each family member puts in loose change. On Christmas Eve, the money is donated to a good cause. One Christmas our family bought vouchers to use at the local grocery store for a family in need.
  • Coloured Easter Eggs: One family coloured hard-boiled eggs in bright colours in celebration of the joy and new life of Easter.
  • Maundy Thursday: Re-enact the Last Supper as part of the evening meal. You may include foot-washing!
  1. Family milestones

Celebrate family milestones where you consciously include God in the event/celebration:

  • the baptismal anniversary, a confirmation date or the date of profession of faith;
  • passing the driving test;
  • marking transitional milestones such as starting school for the first time or moving to high school;
  • graduations of all types.
  1. Bedtime

Reports abound saying that children aren’t getting enough sleep – or enough bedtime stories. If you have younger children, create the bedtime ritual of a bath with all the chatter that can go with it, a warm drink, a story, then prayers. Even older children appreciate this time of attention from a parent and a time of less manic activity replaced with a calm approach to sleep.

  1. Leaving children in childcare/school

Many parents have found that rituals help smooth this transition.

  • Discuss the child’s activities in the day ahead: ‘Tell me what you think you’ll do today.’ or ‘Let’s see if I can guess what you’ll do today. I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you today.’
  • A hug and a kiss mark the end of the ‘ritual’.
  1. Weekly family time

Create a regular time each week  when you read the Bible, talk about God and pray. One family had a family celebration each Friday, marked by having a dessert other than fruit or yogurt. They read the Bible, talked about God, prayed for one another and shared any new jokes!

Adapted from Scripture Union Family Ministry Web pages and based on Families with Faith by Richard Patterson (Scripture Union, 2007).