“Traditions Worth Keeping,” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 37
Our clearest memories of childhood are often those that contain some mixed emotions. We can laugh now about the cake we burned when trying to surprise Mom for her birthday, but it was far from funny then. Nor can we forget the Christmas Eve when 3-year-old Jim was trying to put one last ornament on the tree and the whole tree and Jim went down together. Dad was sad when it happened, after all the time spent to decorate it. But he, too, laughs at the memory now.
Family traditions are like spiritual and emotional cement in the foundation of a happy home. They create fond memories, and these memories bond us together as nothing else can.
Traditions influence the way we live and the way we look at life. They may be practices or beliefs handed down from generation to generation, or new habits or patterns we establish in our own families. Some will be based on commandments and righteous principles, others may evolve from our cultural or national heritage.
Family traditions may be quite personal practices, as simple as reading stories at bedtime, kissing the children goodnight at their bedside, or singing or playing games while traveling. Or they may be more elaborate events like serving special foods on certain days, decorating the dinner table in a festive way, or taking a child on a weekend outing with one or both parents when he reaches a certain age.
Among the most important habits and customs we establish should be some that are clearly gospel oriented. For example, besides praying together as a family and blessing food at mealtime, we ought to observe the fast, attend meetings together on the Sabbath, study the scriptures, hold family home evenings, write in journals, and participate in missionary and service projects.
Giving a book of remembrance when a child is baptized can add a tangible memory to a most important day. Some families have the child record the date of his baptism or priesthood advancement in a family record.
A father’s blessing is a tradition that brings a tender spirit of unity into many homes at the beginning of each school year, or at other times of change or challenge.
Traditions like these give children a sense of identity and of belonging.
Cultural traditions can enrich family life too. Some families inherit unique national traditions and customs from their parents or grandparents. Other families adopt customs because of an interest in other cultures of the world. On May Day in France, for example, it is traditional to exchange flowers—lilies of the valley—as a symbol of friendship. In Mexico, the breaking of the pinata—a decorated container filled with gifts and candies—is a highlight of family fun on special occasions. Colorful traditions like these are to be found in all cultures.
Children want to keep everything, and hold on to it forever. They prefer their oldest, most disgraceful clothes and toys, especially when you want them to look their best. It is a fondness for the familiar. Of such are our best-loved traditions made and preserved.
Like habits, traditions are formed intentionally. They are not automatic, but require preparation, planning, and a combined effort.
To establish a successful family tradition, you must first choose a time for it. Activities must fit in around the family’s busy schedule, predictably, regular enough to become a part of family life from then on. Special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays are usually good times to begin.
Next, choose an activity. Decide together on activities that appeal to all, if possible. Part of the choice should be helping each member of the family understand the significance of the new tradition. In this respect, every member of the family needs to feel included—not only in the activity, but in the planning as well. Children enjoy special occasions more when they can be part of the preparation, even if they complain a bit at first.
If a family chooses a project such as a missionary effort, or giving to a needy family at Christmas or time of hardship, each individual should be allowed to contribute. Working together becomes a tradition, too, when repeated on a regular basis.
Whatever the tradition may be, parents need to expect that few activities will go exactly as planned, particularly when children are involved. This element of risk is likely one of the appealing reasons for wanting to keep traditions. As delightful and fun and meaningful as they are, at least in memory, keeping traditions regularly can sometimes put us to the test. As one mother put it when asked how she could keep her sanity during birthday parties for the children in her large family, “Well, if you really concentrate on it, it only takes a little less effort than putting a satellite into orbit.”
As we try to launch our own little satellites, we would do well to recognize the energy and preparation it will take—realistically considering just how much we can commit ourselves to.
But don’t let the effort dissuade you from creating any traditions at all. Elder Richard L. Evans counseled, “Oh, parents, we would plead, give good and happy memories to your children—not pampering or overindulging, not satisfying everything they take a fancy to—but memories of love, encouragement, of peace and harmony and happiness at home—memories that will bless and lift their lives wherever they are, always and forever.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 128.)
As important as the establishing of any tradition, no matter how creative or enlightening the event itself is supposed to be, parents must never lose sight of the spirit in which the activity is conducted. How easily we overshadow the beauty of any special occasion when we allow force, anger, or impatience to intrude. If the children are not perfect, the food cooked just so, or the decorations quite what you had imagined them to be, remember how much more important it is that you are all together sharing this sweet tradition. And prepare a little better next time.
Examples of Family Traditions
Let each person choose the dinner menu for his or her birthday.
Celebrate birthdays of famous people or the days of their discoveries in history: Pizza for dinner on Columbus Day (round pizza to signify the earth) while discussing the voyage; cherry pie for Washington’s birthday; German chocolate cake for Beethoven’s birthday while listening to one of his symphonies (most children will choose the Fifth).
Assign someone to choose a topic of conversation for the dinner meal.
Give a Bible or Book of Mormon to each child on his or her eighth birthday.
Have a family reunion on a great-grandparent’s birthday each year.
Assign each family member to take notes when listening to general conference, then discuss them in family home evening.
Run, jog, bike ride, or walk regularly as a family.
Read aloud to your children, regardless of their age, and have them read to you.
Celebrate the birthday of an ancestor.
Attend tithing settlement together as a family.
Hold individual interviews with children on Fast Sunday afternoon.
Play soft music nightly (especially classical or semi-classical) to set a tone of serenity in the home.
Hold family home evenings in different rooms of the house. Have each child serve as host or hostess in turn, arranging for seating and treats.
Support each family member participating in athletic events, musical performances, or other productions.
As a family, cut firewood and then have a picnic.
Discuss Sunday School or Primary lessons at dinner time.
Keep a family journal, letting children write in it too.
Visit grandparents on Sundays.
Tell a bedtime story each night.
Always have children report in after an evening activity, at the parents’ bedside.
Kiss each other good night.
Set family goals on New Year’s Eve, or let each plan an adventure he hopes to have (individually and together) during the coming year.
Make items for family members on special occasions.
Collect in a binder songs that the family can learn and sing together in the car or at home.
Write a family letter and circulate it among relatives, each adding something to it. Save the letters to make a book for family reunions.
Allow each child a regular time to stay up fifteen minutes longer than the other children to spend time alone with parents, or plan a “night out” with each child.
Establish your own holidays, for your own reasons.
Make a flag for each family member, possibly designed by each, to be flown at your house on special occasions.
Have a special plate, glass, or cup that is used at dinner by a family member who has an event or reason to celebrate.
Let Dad and children cook breakfast on Saturday mornings, allowing Mother to rest.
Establish one night a week as “Oral Reading Night.” Select an appropriate book and read it aloud, as a family, for a predetermined period of time.
Set a time for family testimonies or gospel study.