Have you ever stopped to think about all of the funny things unique to your family? These that we do as a family are our traditions,
and are part of what define our families. Dr. Susan Coady of The Ohio
State University has recently spent much of her time studying family traditions,
and she tells us why they are so important.
Genealogy.com: Why did you decide to study family traditions?
Dr. Coady: There were really two main reasons. First, it was the
result of my teaching a class about families to college students. When
the college-aged students spoke about their families, they would always
be talking about them in terms of traditions. Over time, it became obvious
that traditions were what people carried with them and part of what people
wanted their families to become. Secondly, while researching I read quite
often that traditions were statistically linked to family strength and
family satisfaction. We wanted to take a closer look at these phenomena.
Genealogy.com: What are traditions?
Dr. Coady: Traditions are generally things that are very ritualistic.
We've defined them as activities that a family does now, has done in the
past, is likely to do in the future, and values and respects. They are
characterized by regularity, commitment, and some type of predictable
Traditions are also family-specific. It means that while a culture or
an ethnic group might influence the occasion that the family celebrates,
the family puts their own stamp on the way they celebrate it. Think about
how we all celebrate the holidays differently. People outside the family
wonder what's going on. That's why a tradition is defined as something
that is family-specific.
Dr. Coady: Traditions start easily. Once you have children and
you do something more than once, you're going to be doing it forever because
the children come to expect it. Many times traditions are started intentionally
by parents who want to create family roots or stability. They may feel
that something is missing from the family without them. For example, some
people in our studies thought that Christmas had become so commercial
and that the children didn't understand the real meaning. For this reason,
they started doing things like feeding other families and volunteering
their time as a family. This grew into a holiday tradition and gave the
holiday that meaning that they felt was missing before.
Genealogy.com: What forms do traditions take? Are they mostly centered
Dr. Coady: There's no limit to what a tradition can be, although
we did find that most traditions revolve around holidays. Families do
have everyday routines, such as who sits where at the dinner table, or
reading a bedtime story every night, but we didn't really consider those
to be traditions. Traditions are usually something that is a little more
special something that's anticipated and that you're greatly disappointed
if it doesn't happen.
Genealogy.com: Why are traditions important to individuals and families?
Dr. Coady: They are important because they provide stability,
a sense of family history, and feelings of roots. They also define the
boundaries of the family. Many people are reluctant to bring in outsiders
to be a part of their traditions, even, for example, when there is a new
engagement in the family. Traditions are also important because they keep
the generations in contact with one another.
Genealogy.com: Are traditions more important to certain groups of people?
Dr. Coady: In our study we interviewed three generations of women
grandmothers, mothers, and college students. The grandmothers described
their traditions in great detail and with a lot of thought, but the college
students tended to put the least effort into describing them usually
only a few lines. This may be an indication of how much traditions are
important to each generation.
Traditions are also very important to families with young children. They
want to establish their own traditions and perhaps break away from the
traditions established by the older generations. For example, many of
them want to start celebrating Christmas in their own homes, rather than
traveling to their parents' homes. The early marriage stage is also when
people are sorting through the traditions that each one is bringing from
their families. They are sort of negotiating their family histories and
deciding what the new traditions will be.
Interestingly, people from the middle generation generally express the
least satisfaction with their family's traditions. This generation is
usually the bridge between the youngest and oldest generations and therefore
the most active in keeping the family together. The problem is that they
most often are the ones who have to put the most effort into carrying
out the traditions. They also have to mediate between the younger and
older generations. The younger ones may not want to take part in a tradition
and this can make the older ones feel hurt, so the middle generation has
to be the compromiser.
In cases of divorce and remarriage, traditions also play a special role.
It can be very important to honor the traditions of both families, or
perhaps adapt them to the new situation.
Genealogy.com: Are traditions more important now that families tend
to have busier schedules? What about the fact that different branches
of the family may be living thousands of miles apart?
Dr. Coady: Traditions are important, because they are built-in
family time. Especially in families with young children. Kids need a lot
of time so the family traditions become especially important.
The mobility of the family does change things. It's important for people
not to hang onto traditions that cause them more grief than it's worth.
Sometimes you have to let traditions go and then make new ones, or at
least adapt the old ones to the new situations.
Genealogy.com: Why is it that women are more likely to carry out the
Dr. Coady: Women are the kin keepers they send the cards
and buy the presents. Also, we've found that most traditions revolve around
food, so that may be why they are the ones who are keeping these traditions
Genealogy.com: Is it important that people work to preserve their family
traditions, or perhaps start new ones? How can they go about that?
Dr. Coady: Traditions are worth preserving. It's easy to let go
when you are busy, but they are worth it. People should at least try to
preserve some aspects of their traditions if it's not possible to go through
the entire ritual.
If people start new traditions, they should start out slowly with a simple
kind of activity. Then perhaps each year they can embellish it. It will
become something that everyone looks forward to.