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The Secret to Raising Resilient Kids who Grow Up to be Good Parents: 
The Holiday Rituals 

Traditions can provide families with a sense of identity and belonging. They can inspire positive feelings and memories that family members can share. Family traditions also provide a sense of continuity across generations. They are a way of transferring the family's values, history, and culture from one generation to the next. 

Holiday rituals are bursting with sensory pageantry. These (often quite literal) bells and whistles signal to all of our senses that this is no common occasion – it is one full of significance and meaning. Such sensory exuberance helps create lasting recollections of those occasions and marks them in our memory as special events worth cherishing. From reciting blessings to raising a glass to make a toast, holiday traditions are replete with rituals. Laboratory experiments and field studies show that the structured and repetitive actions involved in such rituals can act as a buffer against anxiety by making our world a more predictable place.

Matthew Killingsworth, a Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar and happiness researcher, has collected data from over 20,000 people who report how happy they feel at randomly selected moments during daily life. He noted that the data reveals people are actually happier than usual on holidays. Killingsworth says, “Spending time with our friends and family turns out to be a robustly positive predictor of our happiness.”


What families look like is changing dramatically. Given such change, family members often have no road maps for what family life should be like. Rituals can provide us with such road maps. Whether they involve the way meals are shared or how major events are marked, rituals are a central part of life. They are a lens through which we can see our emotional connections to our parents, siblings, spouse, children, and dear friends. By acting as condensed expressions of family interaction, rituals give us places to explore the meaning of our lives and to rework and rebuild family relationships. They connect us with our past, define our present, and show us a path to our future as we pass on ceremonies, traditions, objects, and ways of being with each other.

Holiday traditions are particularly important for children. Research shows that children who participate in group rituals become more strongly affiliated with their peers. In addition, having more positive memories of family rituals seems to be associated with more positive interactions with one’s own children.

In a series of studies published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, hundreds of online subjects described rituals they performed with their families during Christmas and New Year's Day from tree decoration to baking cookies. Those who said they performed collective rituals, compared with those who said they did not, felt closer to their families, which made the holidays more interesting, which in turn made them more enjoyable. Most surprising, the types of rituals they described—family dinners with special foods, religious ceremonies, watching the ball drop in Times Square—did not have a direct bearing on enjoyment. But the number of rituals did. Apparently having family rituals makes the holidays better and the more the merrier.

“Whatever the ritual is, and however small it may seem, it helps people to really get closer to one another,” says Ovul Sezer, a researcher at Harvard Business School and the paper's primary author. “[With] some rituals we don't even know why we do them, but they still work,” she says. It could be that rituals offer “small, non obvious ways' to get people to share an experience without feeling awkward or forced, suggests Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and one of Sezer's co-authors. 


Holiday rituals are the perfect recipe for family harmony. Sure, you might need to take three flights to get there, and they will almost certainly be delayed. And your uncle is bound to get drunk and start a political argument with his son-in-law again. But according to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, this is unlikely to spoil the overall experience. Kahneman’s research shows that when we evaluate past experiences, we tend to remember the best moments and the last moments, paying little attention to everything else. This is known as the “peak-end rule.”

In other words, our memory of the family holiday will mostly consist of all the rituals (both joyful and silly), the good food, the presents and then hugging everyone goodbye at the end of the night (after your uncle made up with his son-in-law). And by the time you get back home, you’ll have something to look forward to for next year.

Once you get started making traditions during the holidays you can start branching out to make new traditions throughout the year. Start a pizza night, a movie night, or even board game night. According to author and social psychologist Fred Bryant, when we stop to savor the good stuff, we build resilience which helps us to manage stress and the daily challenges that can cause it. His research, along with research from Victoria University in New Zealand, savoring the little things, like family holiday celebrations, can lead to stronger relationships and improved mental and physical well-being.

If there is a simple take away message here, it's that traditions nurture our spirit and are an important part of family bonding. They can be anything fun you and your family already enjoy doing, or you can have fun starting your own.

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