The Power of Holiday Tradition

Sure, we believe in happy, healthy holidays. Why else would we (in the good company of other blogs, magazines, and newspapers) serve up “healthy” holiday tips: recipes, activities, etc. to make your Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, etc. more health conscious? We absolutely think that it’s worth offering healthy ideas that may spark a desired change for those who are looking for it. (The intent, at least in our suggestions, isn’t a full revision of holiday celebration but a presentation of possible options that may catch our readers’ interest. In other words: a bit of integration perhaps, but not a full out substitution. )

The fact is, we also recognize (and personally relish) that comforting, soothing, centering “other” element that keeps us returning to the same holiday practices every year (getting a tree on a particular day, preparing a specific meal, baking an old family recipe, attending a particular service or festival, watching a certain old movie). Sure, the repetition for some might signify stagnation, dogma or lack of creativity. But for most of us, our holiday rituals offer tremendous meaning – for us individually and for our families and social/spiritual circles. Holidays, we think, give us the opportunity to feed parts of ourselves that tend to get short shrift in this fast-paced modern society – our social health, our spiritual well-being.

What would Grok have to say about the power of ritual and tradition? A lot, we think. Anthropologists and cultural historians are in pretty good agreement that common community practices and celebrations went a long way to solidifying families, tribes and eventually larger societies. Communal tradition helped solidify members’ commitment to the group and encouraged the survival-enhancing instincts toward alliance-building. (Grok and his family had a better chance of lasting through famine if they had “people,” you know.) As human societies evolved and larger regional cultures developed, communal traditions took on more advanced spiritual and emotional resonance.

In more modern times, experts say, celebratory customs preserve elements of family and community strained by other societal developments (long work hours, farther distances between family members). “If you look at the way [holiday] rituals developed, they really served to protect the family from the forces of the outside industrial world that was pulling them apart,” explains Barbara Fiese, Professor of Psychology at the University of Syracuse and author of Family Routines and Rituals. In a review of 50 years’ worth of research on modern family ritual, Dr. Fiese and her colleagues found that “family routines and rituals are powerful organizers of family life that offer stability during times of stress and transition.” Re-centering around the traditions that define our family and cultural history or our spiritual sense of the sacred can ground us when so much else in life (finances, work, etc.) seems volatile.

Even the act of remembering the traditions and meaningful times we’ve spent with our loved ones research suggests, can boost our mental health. In a recent study examining the therapeutic elements of nostalgia, researchers found that wistful reminiscence “increases self-esteem [and] fosters social connectedness.” It can also, the researchers comment, “give us a greater sense of continuity and meaning to our lives” by encouraging a “positive view” of the past and an emotional coherence between our past and present life. Whether it’s telling old stories around the dinner table or observing long-lived family/cultural customs, this emotional coherence has the power to anchor our sense of self as well as strengthen familial/social ties.

The great thing about the power of tradition is that it doesn’t take much: a taste, a whiff, a glimpse, a touch, a day. Sure, some of us may come out of the holiday season feeling temporarily laden with a sense of over-indulgence, but there’s plenty of precedent for occasional intemperance. Grok, for his part, had his festival (and likely post-hunt) days of outright gorging and unapologetic sloth. A day here and there of extravagance and relative inactivity has its definite pluses. Brief celebrations of excess can leave us more resolved and patient for the inevitable return to leaner times, so to speak. Long after the leftovers have been eaten, the holidays can leave us satiated in more significant, lingering ways – refreshed by respite, revived by togetherness and gratitude, re-centered by meaningful custom. Come January, we’re ready to get back in the saddle and meet our mundane, “everyday” lives with a renewed vigor and sense of purpose. In the meantime, Apples, enjoy yourselves over these holidays!

Have certain traditions that you can’t celebrate without? Rituals that feed the soul? Share your favorite customary activities and delights.

kadesoto Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Savoring the Holidays

You vs. The Mob: Mob Eating Mentality

Dear Mark: Family Dinners

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