My family is steeped in traditions, some of them typical, many of them unique. We are hardly original for exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve or cooking out on the Fourth of July. But I have yet to find another family in which you must have atomic fireball candy in your Christmas stockings, drink cream soda during the Super Bowl, and eat corned beef on New Year’s Day.
Human beings thrive on ritual and routine. And we love to celebrate. Even families completely separated from a faith tradition practice ritual through their traditions, but Catholic families are particularly good at practicing and preserving tradition. This should come as no surprise since the Mass itself is a living tradition, which Jesus commanded us to repeat over and over in memory of him. While most of us have secular traditions in our families, it is important that we also cultivate spiritual ones.
Traditions can be big or small, yearly or daily, secular or spiritual, personal or familial. Each one of those traditions forms and changes us. There is a famous Latin phrase: lex orandi, lex credendi. As we pray, so we believe. In other words, how we pray actually informs our beliefs. I think the same way about traditions. Ultimately, the way we live (especially through those things we mark as valuable by repetition) impacts what we believe. In the case of traditions, they don’t just impact what we believe, but what the generations that follow us will believe.
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I can set a bowl of food in front of my hungry 18-month-old, and he will fold his hands in prayer before tasting it, not because I am ordering him to do so, but because we always pray before we eat. His only association with eating is to begin with prayer. If that is true of the little traditions in our lives such as grace before meals, I am convinced it is also true of the big ones. How will my kids learn to recognize the life-changing power of their baptisms when they are adults? In part, I hope it is because we celebrate their baptism dates every year by lighting a candle, renewing our baptismal promises and eating a special treat.
You see, tradition doesn’t have to be complicated; it just has to be repeated. If we humans latch on to seemingly meaningless routines because “we always do it that way,” how much more will we internalize truly meaningful things when we look forward to living them out through fun family traditions.
Here are seven practical tips to help you form your own traditions:
1) Link traditions to recurring events
Even in times when my prayer life falters, I never fully stop praying because I always attend Sunday Mass, kneel with my husband for night prayer before getting into bed, and pray the Guardian Angel prayer every time I start my car. That certainly doesn’t make for a thriving prayer life on its own, but at least it provides guaranteed moments of prayer because each of those things is linked to something I can’t avoid: Sunday, bedtime and driving my car.
2) Include food where you can and especially if the tradition is linked to a day
While most people don’t want us to explain the Catechism to them, hardly anyone doesn’t like to join a special tradition that includes food! Tradition and food naturally attract others — to our families, to our homes and to our faith.
3) Be unique
Let your traditions reflect your unique flavor, preferences and interests. On which saint’s feast day should you start a special tradition? On the one to which you have a special devotion! What sort of special food should you use to celebrate? One that you love and can’t wait to eat or make! Make sure to symbolically link the tradition to the deeper reality. Traditions should be so exciting you can’t wait to share.
4) Borrow from others
This is the opposite of my last tip — because you should do both. Create your own traditions, and also implement ones that you observe and love. My favorite resource for Catholic tradition ideas is Kendra Tierney’s “The Catholic All Year Compendium.” In fact, my description of how to commemorate a baptism day is borrowed from her. You will find a wealth of more ideas in her book.
5) Be adaptable
Remember that a tradition should bring life and joy to your family. If a tradition isn’t working or accomplishing its purpose, don’t be afraid to change it or start a new one. When I was growing up, my family read the Bible and then played a game together on Sunday nights. Somewhere over the years, it morphed from Bible reading into a family Rosary. The point still remained: family prayer followed by fun.
6) Include others
I recently stayed the night at a friend’s house out of town. In the brief hours I was there, I observed and participated in at least three family traditions: We prayed the prayer for the faithfully departed before dinner in accord with their family’s tradition for the month of November. (They even had a jar full of names of deceased loved ones in the middle of their dining room.) I later observed the father of the family give his sons a blessing before bed, and breakfast didn’t start until after the morning offering. As a guest, I was naturally incorporated into the family traditions.
7) Start now!
Whether you are single, married or consecrated, you can start a tradition for yourself, your family of origin, your own spouse and children, or your community. As we approach the Christmas season and the New Year, plan two or three things you will do this year to begin a new tradition. It may or it may not stick, but let it be a start. If something fosters joy, peace or excitement in your home, do it again next year. Before you know it, you just might be growing a tradition that your grandchildren will be explaining to their friends one day.
Passing along the tradition
Here’s a personal example to spark your own creativity: This year I’m intending to start a family tradition of eating caramel apples on the feast of the Annunciation. Why? I love caramel apples and want a good reason to eat them every year. The Annunciation also happens to be one of two solemnities that lands during the season of Lent, so it is a great way to break from the Lenten fast in honor of a solemnity. Oh, and also, there is a real spiritual point to this!
The day of the Annunciation is traditionally thought to be the anniversary of the day of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell through the forbidden fruit, but the day of the Annunciation on which we celebrate the Incarnation (God becoming man to save us) points ahead to the salvation Jesus brings. At the Easter Vigil Mass, which will follow shorty upon the Solemnity of the Annunciation, we hear proclaimed in the Exsultet prayer, “O felix culpa,” which translates to “O happy fault.” We remember that it is through the fall of Adam and Eve that we are given so great a Redeemer. Thus, the caramel apples will symbolically remind my family that Jesus brings sweetness to the Fall of man through his Incarnation. And if someone ever asks my family why we eat caramel apples on March 25, we get to share the core message of the Gospel!
When I think about the future, I realize that I am unlikely to meet most, if any, of my great-grandchildren. I will never be able to tell them individually about what Jesus means to me or how Christmas is all about his being born into the world to save us. But if I pass down to my children our family tradition that we always have birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” for Baby Jesus when we return from Christmas Eve Mass and before we open any gifts, then I think my great-grandchildren will come to know what it’s all about. In fact, my children already make the fourth generation celebrating that tradition. Perhaps more remarkable, it wasn’t even my children’s great-grandmother who started that tradition. It was their great-grandmother’s neighbor! So my prayer and my challenge for you this season is to start a tradition or two that will make it to the fourth generation … and that just might make it to your neighbors, too.