The Bink family holiday season would not be complete without the eggnog, the tinsel, and of course, the black velvet dress. Over the years, the dress became part of a ritual. Mary Pat, the youngest of the four daughters, inaugurated the tradition when she donned the same high school homecoming gown to four family holiday celebrations in a row. Her family came to expect the black dress every year after.
And when Mary Pat couldn't spend Christmas with her family, the dress remained a staple—one of her sisters wore it instead. For years, the dress worked its way into holiday festivities as predictably as the eggnog. It symbolized not only a long, cheerful string of Christmases past, but also missing family members. It was a quirky ritual that accumulated more power than anyone would have predicted.
"If you look at the way rituals developed, they really served to protect the family from the forces of the outside industrial world that was pulling them apart," says Barbara Fiese, chair of psychology at the University of Syracuse and author of the book Family Routines and Rituals. Holiday traditions can serve as a unifying crest. "Rituals that are most meaningful are those that are unique to each individual family."
While rituals do indeed create holiday harmony, they can deplete it as well. Don't forget that these traditions involve work and complexity—usually more work than the guest appearance of a black dress. And work and complexity cause stress. People come to traditional family gatherings with a great deal of expectation. But things change. What if a routine goes awry? Or family members no longer agree on its significance? Or maybe the ritual has become downright idealized and unattainable. The potential for pandemonium is real.
Your holiday routine should never feel like a walk through a minefield. In fact, if family tradition brings havoc, or if its preparation zaps joy, perhaps your ritual has officially gone stiff. "If rituals get too rigid, there's typically a cost: They bring a sense of burden and personal distress rather than comfort and refuge," says Fiese. "It's no longer a ritual; it's a routine without meaning."
Sound familiar? If so, you may need to rewrite the rules of your holiday rituals:
Sit down with your family. Ask each member, "What is most meaningful about our holiday ritual?" Says Fiese: "You'll be surprised by the things people look forward to. They're often not elaborate." Instead, people focus on the subtle and simple: like Grandma's mashed potatoes or sitting around the fireplace. And they won't even notice the silverware you spent four hours polishing.
Pay attention to change. The key to the holiday ritual is flexibility; families are forever changing. They change through birth, death, and just plain growing up. This may mean merging dinner tables among adults and children, sharing memories of a member no longer present—anything that will keep the family connected. Otherwise, routine may only highlight disjointedness.
Redefine the meaning of rituals. Look within your family for what makes a holiday significant. "Tension arises from responding to idealized images of what a ritual should be," says Fiese. "Instead, you must attend to what's most meaningful to your family." If an atypical holiday ritual draws you together, then embrace it.
Don't allow a ritual to divide your family. Instead, harness its power to do the opposite. "At its core, a ritual is simply a way to set aside some time to bring a family together," says Fiese. "And I can't think of anything more valuable in today's environment." So instead of basing your idea of a perfect holiday on Miracle on 34th Street, try looking for the miracle on your own street, even if it's a simple black dress.