I once read an article about creating traditions in your family. This woman wrote that she was making spaghetti one night and the power went out. Dinner was ready, but they had to eat by candlelight. To make it fun, she pulled out a red and white checkered tablecloth, and there, with the tablecloth and various candles and spaghetti, it was like a scene out of Lady and the Tramp…and a tradition was born. Now, anytime they have spaghetti, they pull out that tablecloth and all the candles and turn off the lights. Love it! A normal night of spaghetti suddenly becomes a fun family tradition, a memory, something everyone looks forward to, stories kids will tell their kids someday.
We had a few traditions growing up. The crepe shop in Aspen, CO started something of a crepe tradition in our family. Dad started a “grand slam” tradition where we would pick 4 things to do in a day and go do them, often with friends (because there are four runs in a grand slam). So, bowling, a movie, batting cages and an ice cream, or something like that. We, like everyone else, had a few Christmas traditions that I treasure to this day. And we have certainly had things that were traditions for a season. Like, Jesus and his disciples came to our house for Easter a couple of time to perform a sunrise service.
Funny story – someone told my Dad he needed to meet “Jesus”. Really, it was a man who played Jesus in the Passion productions in Glenrose or wherever, TX, but all Dad knew as he walked into a McDonald’s at dark-thirty one morning in a neighboring city was that he was looking for “Jesus”…and when he saw him he was like, “Yep, that’s Jesus!” And it became a life-long friendship and years of fun, creative partnerships as Dad toted Jesus around to all his projects and ministries and events…Jesus in the inter-city, Jesus at the Tuttle’s, Jesus sunrise services, etc. That was an awesome tradition for a while (all of it, but especially Easter sunrise services at the house, reenacting scenes from the Passion), but things change, Jesus got too old to be Jesus anymore, schedules and responsibilities change, people move. So many of our traditions were, in true Mike Tuttle fashion (that’s my dad), larger than life and as such, not always eternally sustainable (or affordable or reproducible). Not in that way that spaghetti by candlelight with a red-checkered tablecloth is.
I love our big traditions, but there was something in that article about the spaghetti tradition that called to me. I’ve been thinking about it fondly for years and it wasn’t even a tradition I ever got to enjoy! I think the big traditions are amazing, but by their very nature they limit themselves. Christmas only comes once a year for a reason… I mean, yes, for the reason that it’s Jesus’ birthday and that only comes once a year, of course! But even for the secular world that celebrates a commercial holiday, it’s still only once a year – it’s too big to be more than once a year. We need those big, once a year type traditions. But we also need smaller, intimate little traditions in our lives. Maybe this is why God ordained a day of rest to be weekly. It’s a tradition of rest and intimacy with Him. It’s like that spaghetti dinner, energy is off, candles are on, intimacy, good food, time to talk and enjoy a meal and not just rush through it, time to connect.
Creating these traditions make not come naturally for you, and it may even require a little effort to think through it, but it pays off. Gretchen Rubin in her book (which I loved, incidentally) The Happiness Project talks about some of those benefits in her chapter, “April: Lighten Up / Parenthood”.
Family traditions make occasions feel special and exciting. They mark the passage of time in a happy way. They provide a sense of anticipation, security, and continuity. Studies show that family traditions support children’s social development and strengthen family cohesiveness. They provide connection and predictability, which people—especially children—crave. (p102-103)
Research revealed that a key to happiness is squeezing out as much happiness as possible from a happy event. … Happiness has four stages. To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory. Any single happy experience may be amplified or minimized, depending on how much attention you give it. (p108)
Did you catch that? We can actually amplify the enjoyment and happiness we get out of our life through four things, and frankly, when something is a “tradition”, it seems to me at least, we are more likely to engage in those four happiness enhancing practices. When something becomes a tradition, it’s something we naturally anticipate. Partly because it’s a break from routine, and partly because we remember that it was special before and know that it’s coming again. The repetitive nature of traditions lends to our recalling past times. There is something about “tradition” that causes us to set that moment apart from others. We focus on it because we see it as special, a break from the norm. We instinctively savor the moment as soon as it becomes “tradition.” I would say the only one of those four things that isn’t basically automatic is expression. (Although that is somewhat inherent in the process of recalling past happy moments). That process of expression is something that can certainly be teased out just a little with a question or two, a journal and/or a commitment to take a moment to talk about the fun with someone else.
As I mentioned earlier, I recognize that creating traditions may not come easily or naturally, and/or you may not feel you have the bandwidth to add it to your plate. Sometimes we are just in survival mode and thinking of the effort it might take to make something special can be absolutely overwhelming. I get it. However, as Rubin’s book really illustrated, the more we derive happiness from something, the more energy we get from it. It pays off in the end, in other words. AND – traditions don’t have to be difficult or expensive. Here’s a simple solution from Rubin about creating a simple “new tradition:” “A ‘new tradition’ may be a bit of an oxymoron, but that shouldn’t stop me from inventing a tradition that I wished we had. Jamie came up with a great one: Polite Night. He suggested that every Sunday night, we set the table properly and have a nice meal together. (p104)
I also want to point out that this isn’t just something for families. I think it’s as important for us single people to create traditions as it is for families. In fact, it may be even more necessary. I think the very nature of children and a family unit lends itself to kind of naturally falling into some traditions (like our spaghetti dinner example). But what about as a single? How many single people do you know that create “traditions” for their life? If it’s something families struggle with, I dare say all the more so for singles. It can seem pointless when it’s “just you.” I know. I also know that without a family in your life those four things that help you increase happiness—anticipation, savor, express, recall—are harder to come by. What are you anticipating? Who do you savor it with? Who is there to “recall that funny time when…” with? We need to create traditions, too – traditions that we enjoy for ourselves, and traditions which sweetly urge us to include others.
To help get you thinking of some traditions you might want to create in your family, here are some ideas. (The ones with page numbers are suggestions from Rubins’ book. The others are my own.)
- As a micro family—single mom of one kid—the little traditions are extra important to us because a lot of “normal” falls between the cracks. We have “adventures” regularly—it started off when my daughter was very small and it was to glamourize our errands. Now, we plan it out a bit—a map or agenda to pick the route, bring along the camera, “adventure” clothes (my daughter loves hats), and a snack or dish we haven’t had before. (p105)
- [On bringing home presents for kids from their travels:] I make sure to pick the presents early in the trip, then allow my children to ask for clues. Each child gets one clue per day, and they have tremendous fun coming up with the questions, coordinating with each other about who will ask what, keeping a list of the clues that have been revealed, debating amongst themselves, etc. The gift itself brings them much less fun than the guessing game. (p106)
- “Pirate Dinner.” They cover the table entirely in newspaper and eat with no plates, napkins, or utensils—just hands! … Kids have to follow rules and proper table etiquette all the time, so why not give them a break every now and then? (p106)
- My New Year’s tradition is a bit different. I don’t like to stay up till midnight at a party like most people do. I don’t like starting off my New Year’s tired. Instead, I go to bed early and wake up early and get a thermos of coffee, a new journal and a pen, and grab my camera and head out to watch the sunrise. In Texas, I drove out to an old, old cemetery (largely because it was on the closest thing to a hill in the area and it was in the country). It was all very symbolic there. I would go with a girlfriend and there, we would sit with our backs to the cemetery and our faces to the dawn. We would snuggle under blankets and about freeze to death as we talked about our past year, hopes for the New Year, things we wanted to change, etc. We would, in theory, start our new journals, but really, it was cold and we were talking… so we would leave there and hit up a coffee shop for a while longer and there we would write in our new journals. In Colorado, the location has changed, and sometimes I go alone, but the tradition still stands.
- For Easter, years ago, when I was working corporate America, what I most needed was a day alone out in nature to refresh. So, I started going to a sunrise service nearby and then hitting the road. I would drive about 4 hours all the way to Arkansas, usually, hike for a couple hours, and drive home. I loved it. It was time to pray. Time to get quiet. Time to detox from all the craziness and truly focus on the Lord. And time to remember that there was adventure and beauty to be had in the world…I just had to get out of my bubble once in a while.
- For Christmas, my wonderful mom started a tradition that impacted my life and the lives of my classmates. She put on a “Christmas Craft Creation Time” (catchy, huh?). You can read more about that here. (It was so special, it deserves its own post!) In a nutshell though, all my classmates were invited to come over for a time of crafting and making Christmas gifts, but it was so much more than that, too!
- A friend of mine dresses up for school in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, her favorite author, on his birthday.
- Did you know that there are all kinds of national holidays? Random ones that make it really easy to create some traditions around. Like, February 6th is “Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day.” And August 10th is S’mores day. February 7 is “Send a card to a friend day.” I’ve included links to two lists of odd holidays (there’s some overlap, between the two, but they aren’t the same) and another to a list of national candy holidays…because traditions don’t care about New Year’s resolutions!
- Make up your own holidays. Instead of a “national” spaghetti by candlelight day, it’s a “(your last name)” spaghetti by candlelight day…simply because there isn’t a national version of it! You could have your own calendar of fun “holidays” your family finds reason to celebrate. Aka, you create a calendar of family traditions for the kids to look forward to. In fact, there is even a day dedicated to just this! March 26 is “Make your own holiday day.”
- Some traditions are scheduled, like the fun holidays we’ve been talking about. Others are less rigid. Like, I once had to drop someone off at the airport early in the morning, and was starving for breakfast on the way home, so I grabbed an egg-soufflé from Panera on the way home. That started a tradition. I automatically crave egg-soufflés any time I’m coming back from the airport in the mornings. It’s not often, but now it’s something that makes an early morning airport run something I look forward to, rather than a chore.
- Creating traditions doesn’t have to fall solely on your shoulders. Let your family get involved and make each member responsible for creating one family tradition.
Two final thoughts. First, (in line with that final bullet point above) if you have a family, you might ask your family what they think are your family traditions. It might surprise you. They may see a tradition that you haven’t recognized as such. And they may have missed what to you was obviously a tradition you were trying to instill. It’s a good discussion to have as it gets you all on the same page, gives everyone some ownership and creates greater anticipation about your intention to create traditions in your family, together.
Second, don’t overwhelm yourself with this! You don’t have to do them all. Try just adding one or two and see how it goes. You can add another next year if you want! This year, my cousin and I have decided to add “King Tut” day to our calendars. Not that we plan to celebrate some ancient Egyptian, but we thought we’d send a card to the “King Tut” in our lives, my Dad. But shhh!—don’t say anything; it’s a surprise!