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Creating Memorable Holiday Rituals

QUESTION: I have two young children, ages two and five. Neither my partner nor I have fond memories of holiday celebrations to bring to our new family. We have decided that we want to make our holidays memorable. How can we begin to establish family rituals surrounding the holidays?

ANSWER: Enjoyable family rituals are crucial to family health and well being. What makes family rituals a positive experience is the meaning created in the family, and the bonding that occurs between family members.

The fact that neither of you have fond memories of family rituals may be due to the unconscious manner in which they were carried out. Without consciously shaping our family rituals, they can develop into unsatisfying interactions, spawning disengagement rather than connection. In his book, "The Intentional Family", (Addison-Wesley, 1997) William Doherty warns us that family rituals must be done intentionally. Bringing the family together for evening dinners for example, is not enough, by itself, to create a positive result.

Parents need to take an active role in sharing leadership of the ritual and be conscious of creating a positive outcome. The following guidelines can help you develop your own successful family rituals whether they are daily practices or holiday ceremonies.

Establish the emotional tone you want to achieve. For Thanksgiving, you may want to establish a theme of "thanks." Telling a story about the pilgrims may easily spark the interest of your children at this age. You may want to expand this theme to your own family members, asking each of them to name what they are grateful for in their lives. Lighting candles as dinner is served before telling the story sets the tone for a meaningful discussion. Passing a candle around the table as each person speaks can ritualize and focus attention on the individual. Appropriate music may also serve to impart special meaning and spirit to your family atmosphere.

Coordinate the making of the ritual so that all family members are participants. Shopping for the food, making the holiday dinner, setting the table and cleanup should be shared responsibilities. A special shopping trip to gather the food and assigning responsibilities can help make your holiday a family affair. Feeling responsible for the creation of the ritual, strengthens each individual member's bond to the family group.

Consider the role of extended family, friends and community in your family ritual. Connection to community is one of the key elements of a successful family ritual. The holidays are an excellent opportunity to invite special friends and relatives to contribute to your family's event. Other activities, such as helping at a soup kitchen, or donating food to others in need can also reinforce your family's connection to a greater whole.

Repetition and flexibility: Remember that rituals are defined by repetition. It takes three times for a family event to become a ritual with a spirit of its own in your family. When a ritual is truly established, all members take ownership for its continuation. This ensures that even when a family ritual is missed in one year, another family member insists on it the next. Not only do these rituals have to be repeated, but they must also reflect the needs of your growing family. Responsibilities may shift over the years. It is possible that your teenagers will do the cooking in years ahead. The key to maintaining the active and positive participation of all members is to strike a healthy balance which allows all individuals to experience meaning and connection. Willingness to be flexible assures that the ritual remains intact and meaningful to all of its members throughout the years.

Trouble shoot problem areas in your family's rituals. If your family event is dull, filled with negative tension or does not impart the positive experience you desire, do not despair. Simply ask yourselves what is missing or what changes are needed to create meaning and connection. If your children are bored by the length of time the turkey takes to cook, what about initiating a change, like a nature walk or family game as a part of the holiday festivities? If conflict arises between family members, can an agreement be made to save the discussion for after the family ritual?

The making of your family rituals are a work in progress. Consciously protect your family celebrations from divisive tensions. Stresses will naturally occur. Keep in mind that your overall goal is to experience enough warmth and enjoyment that the end result is that family members want to spend time together. Satisfying family rituals are not just a good idea. They help ensure that your family relationships endure throughout the life cycle.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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