My husband, Michael, remembers just two events during his youth when he was together with both parents after they divorced when he was 6. Those two events were school graduations and Christmas mornings. As a Christian convert in his early 20s, he would later find religious meaning in the celebration of Christmas. But as a child, Christmas was special because, at least for a few hours, he felt the unique happiness of being together with both parents.
It’s unlikely his parents could understand all that those hours meant to him. In fact, it’s only in recent years that there has been more understanding of the feelings children of divorce experience as they live out, daily, the conflict between the differing worlds of their parents and try to bridge those worlds. For children of divorce, to gain one parent almost always means to lose another. And that is exactly why Christmas meant so much to my husband’s boyhood heart — for a few hours, he did not have to lose one to be with the other. His divided heart could be whole.
But his experience is also instructive for those who did not experience divorce in their homes, because it highlights the power of rituals, such as Christmas, to bind hearts and homes together. And that is true for all families, whatever their unique forms.
Renowned family therapist Bill Doherty explains in his book "The Intentional Family" that for decades researchers and therapists emphasized “talk” as the key to family well-being — “how couples communicate, how parents verbally praise and discipline children.” What was missing was an understanding of how families actually “enact family relationships.” That is where family rituals come in. In everything from the daily rituals of family dinner and bedtime stories to the annual rituals of birthday traditions and holiday celebrations, we enact the family connection that binds us and the meaning that connection holds in our lives. As a result, rituals are a key component of “the glue that holds families together.”
Research findings suggest that at every life stage, rituals play a key role in individual and family well-being. For the newly married couple, rituals like praying together and going on weekly outings are key to establishing family identity and unity as a couple. For the family with young children, rituals such as roughhousing and reading stories at bedtime are associated with better social behaviors, academic achievement and self-regulation. For adolescents, rituals such as family dinner and annual vacations predict a stronger sense of identity, more closeness to parents, less anxiety and depression, fewer behavioral problems and better communication patterns.
When families face crucibles like divorce, death or the myriad other challenges inherent to life, family rituals provide protection from feelings of distress or alienation and maintain a sense of identity and cohesiveness. And for parents, single or married, rituals are not only key to feeling connected to children, they are also key to feeling good about how we are trying to parent.
It doesn’t seem to matter how “cool” our rituals are, or how long they take, just that they happen. Whether the pizza is homemade or picked up from Little Caesars, what matters is that we take a few minutes to mark that we are a family and that it means something to us. When we do that, even for just a few minutes, our hearts are more open to and bound to each other.
Bill Doherty uses a powerful metaphor to explain the significance of rituals. To him family life is like “putting a canoe into a great body of water.” If you enter the water and don’t do anything, you will drift wherever the water takes you. And “the natural drift of family life in contemporary America is toward slowly diminishing connection, meaning and community.” Family rituals protect families from that because they create “patterns of connecting” every day, every week, every year, actually increasing feelings of connection over time.
Of course, that requires a pretty significant investment. Any parent who consistently gets dinner on the table or gathers children for daily family prayer can attest to that. But the dividends are immeasurable. So this Christmas season when you wonder whether it is worth it to make the family peanut brittle recipe, gather children together to read Christmas stories or decorate another dilapidated gingerbread house, know that the effort is worth it. These rituals bind hearts together in ways that nothing else can.