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Take Action to Keep Your Family Rituals Fresh

Don’t let your holiday routines and tradition go sour.

Key points

  • To cope with change, families need a periodic check on their routines and traditions.
  • Rituals honoring both the old (past) family and the new (present) family were most valued by more or all of family members.
  • Families need to explore which rituals to keep, dump, adapt, and create anew, now and in the future.

Holidays and other celebrations, such as weddings, the Superbowl, or family reunions bring a natural opportunity to think through family rituals—our routines and traditions. For example, one of my friends, a stepmother, just posted this very warm description on social media:

My absolute favorite family tradition that we have! The day after Thanksgiving we always go…and pick out our Christmas tree! Then we go to Wendy's to eat and the Hallmark store for the kids to pick out an ornament of their choice. We are accumulating quite the interesting collection of ornaments.

I have witnessed this friend’s stepfamily come together and thrive. In particular, I am interested in how they handled their family rituals as the new family took shape.

Routines and traditions can be joyous and one of the best things about being a family. However, without a periodic gut check and work to keep rituals fresh and relevant, they can become flat, difficult, or even painful.

Your own family will undoubtedly experience changes and challenges. Especially at these times, the family will need to examine routines and traditions and consider adjustments. For example, the family may need to change how it celebrates birthdays as children age, or the family may need to develop new rules about the use of posting photos on social media.

For all of us, the central question is: How can we help keep our family routines and traditions meaningful and from going sour?

Change and Family Rituals

Significant change affects all members of the family, including what it means to be a family and what the family is expected to do or say. My research teams and I have studied communication and rituals in stepfamilies (Braithwaite, Baxter & Harper, 1998; Braithwaite & Hall, 2020). We know rituals can be important turning points in closeness and feeling like a family.

All families will experience change. Some changes are ones you’d expect to happen, for example, children growing up and moving away in adulthood, the death of a parent or grandparent, or having new members join your family. Other changes are unexpected, for example, financial challenges, differences in political values that crop up, and physical or mental illness. Both expected and unexpected changes will necessitate considering the relevance and contributions of family rituals, especially trying to keep routines and traditions relevant and as positive as possible (Rothenbuhler, 1998).

Rituals may be relevant to whole families or a subset of the family. In the case of stepfamilies, for instance, while the parent and stepparent are happily focused on their marriage and creating the new family, they may not realize that the children are mourning the loss of their old family and their family rituals. Changes in families often play out in rituals, for instance, how they celebrate weddings, what they eat and do on Thanksgiving, or children’s bedtime rituals.

All families would be wise to pay attention to their rituals. Families should take a periodic inventory of their routines and traditions. Pay attention to how well family rituals are working. Talk with different family members about their thinking and feelings about their current rituals, asking their opinion about how and when rituals might be adapted or replaced. It may be hard to get full consensus on rituals, so listen and observe carefully.

Rituals Honoring Old and New

Rituals help families connect to their past and present, and look to the future. We have come to understand (a) old family rituals that were kept and imported into the current family unchanged, (b) old family rituals that were discontinued and dumped in the current family, (c) family rituals that were adapted in the current family, and (d) family rituals that were created anew.

Rituals that helped honor both the old family (past) and the new family (present) were those that were valued, especially when we believe rituals will create positive experiences or memories in the future. Hopefully, this principle will help you consider how ritual adaptations take might play out in your own family.

  • Keep! Some of our family rituals function well for the family and stand the test of time. For example, one family created a Thanksgiving Day ritual of inviting new family members to add food from their own family celebration or culture. This family enjoyed incorporating tamales from the González family and collard greens and cornbread from their son-in-law’s Mississippi-based family.
  • Dump! Some old family rituals are irrelevant or harmful and will be dropped. For instance, one family gathered for Friday night dinner at the grandparents’ home. As the children have grown and developed their own relational and political values, Friday night dinner became fraught with pressure to attend, and loud, alcohol-fueled disagreements over political positions emerged. Different family members came to the realization that this weekly dinner ritual was not healthy and attendance fell until the dinner fizzled out.
  • Adapt! Some family rituals will need to be adapted to meet the needs of the current family. For instance, the family who dropped Friday dinner now meets in smaller groups over the year, keeping in touch via social media. They have now shifted gathering as a whole family to just two or three times per year, limited drinking, and agreed to keep political discussions to a minimum
  • New! Sometimes families will create new rituals that honor their relationship in the present and anticipated future. For example, the stepfamily represented in the opening quote created this new Christmas tree and ornament ritual, building a ritual to solidify the new family now and over the years to come. In addition, they freed up dates closer to Christmas for the children to see their other parent and extended family.

How can you use this information to check up on and adapt your family routines and traditions?

  • Rather than acting out of habit or obligation, make an effort to carefully think through your family routines and tradition.
  • Talk with family members about their experiences and emotions surrounding various rituals.
  • Think creatively and carefully about how your different routines and traditions can help your family appreciate and honor the family’s past, present, and help you grow toward the most positive and healthy future possible.


Braithwaite, D. O., Baxter, L. A. & Harper, A. (1998). The role of rituals in the management of dialectical tensions of "old" and "new" in blended families.

Braithwaite, D. O., & Hall R. D. (2020, Spring). Navigating family rituals and family change for stepfamilies. Family Focus.

Rothenbuhler, E. W. (1998). Ritual communication: From everyday conversation to mediated ceremony. Sage.

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