Why we all love tradition The comfort of rituals and why they’re important
christmas wouldn’t be the same without carols and stockings. fiona Wright explores why rituals are important – and how to create your own…
The time is 9.50pm on christmas eve. i am placing carrots and a small brandy by the fireplace next to the stockings, ready for you-know-who and his reindeer, despite the fact that my children are well into their teens.
candles glow on tables and carols are playing softly on the radio. monopoly and scrabble tournaments are underway, and we’re tucking into cinnamon eggnog and mince pies.
the truth is, we could enjoy spicy milk drinks, play board games and listen to little donkey any time of the year. but we don’t.
and why, despite the fact that my children have known for nearly a decade that no one is coming down the chimney, do they insist on the stockings and carrot ritual?
according to research, there are huge benefits to recreating the same experiences year in, year out, especially during winter months.
a study from the university of connecticut in the us says christmas rituals and traditions give a sense of belonging, helping us reconnect with close family, relatives and friends. they even have an impact on mental health, giving us a feeling of deep calm and contentment. Repeating age-old customs makes us feel secure, and gives us a sense of continuity and control over our lives.
“everyday life can be stressful and chaotic,” says life coach and therapist Rachel martin. “having a special time of year, when we know exactly what to do, the way we’ve always done it, provides a sense of structure, comfort and rhythm that isn’t always present in our work and home lives. our brains love patterns, so our subconscious laps this up.”
anything, says Rachel, that is well-practised, easy and familiar can relieve stress and anxiety, making us take a break from the daily grind.
“historically, winter has always been tough in terms of survival. Rituals created purpose and brought people together to share resources, keep warm and stave off hunger, cold and boredom. even now, many of us dip and feel low in the winter months.
“Rituals are very powerful and humans have created ceremonies, customs and practices for thousands of years. it’s a way of imposing order, sharing common ground and bonding with those around us.”
holiday traditions are especially important for children, even older ones. as well as being lots of fun, taking part in old rituals that are passed down from generation to generation, such as dressing the tree, lighting candles, writing to santa and eating delicious, familiar food, signals to children that they are an important part of family and community – and it makes them feel safe. the more rehearsed and familiar these are, the better.
“Reliving our own childhood christmases – for example, taking part in nativity plays, midnight mass or carol singing – gives us much more than a Proustian rush,” says tiu de haan, a ritual designer and celebrant who creates rituals, experiences and workshops for people and organisations.
“the more positive our experiences of family christmas when we are young, the better our interaction tends to be with our own children. traditions are the strings that connect our past with our future. children sense this and want to continue it. it’s very grounding and joyful.”
Practising rituals also strengthens family ties and can be the glue that holds families together, especially for those who live some distance from each other, according to studies at sheffield hallam university. they bring different groups of people together and encourage goodwill and generosity. that could be why spending christmas with the in-laws for the first time is often seen as a rite of passage – a sign that you’ve really joined the clan.
it might not always feel very bonding when, 30 years later, your mother-in-law is still telling you your turkey is a bit dry or uncle arthur is drunkenly snoring through the Queen’s speech (again) but, according to nobel prize-winning psychologist daniel Kahneman, it will never spoil the overall experience. Kahneman’s research shows that when we think about past experiences, we tend to remember the best moments and the last moments, paying little attention to everything else.
in other words, our memory of the family christmas will mostly consist of all the lovely traditions, glowing happy faces, pulling crackers at the table, the (delicious, moist) turkey, opening presents and playing charades, and then hugging everyone goodbye. and when everyone’s gone, the tree’s come down and you flop exhausted onto the sofa, you know you’ll want to do it all again, next year, in exactly the same way…
“rituals strengthen ties and can be the glue that holds families together, encouraging goodwill”