The Ties that Bind

American families talk about their rituals and the meaning they bring to their lives

From birthday parties to annual mother-daughter fishing trips...from pancakes every Saturday morning to conscientiously keeping the Sabbath, the observance of selected rituals provides perhaps the most potent glue in a family's shared existence. According to experts, chosen rituals, be they momentous or frivolous, are an important window into the inner life of a family. And without shared rituals, many parents flounder trying to define the context in which they are raising their children.

Speaking to the importance of family rituals, author and psychologist Mary Pipher writes in her book, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (Ballantine Books, 1997) that "In some ways [rituals are] the most important protectors of families. When all else fails, there are always memories, stories and totemic objects. They can transcend time and distance, poverty and ill health. These metaphors of food, places, trips, beloved objects and beloved people become the connecting tissue of the family.

They give family members' lives a context and a meaning, a history and philosophy. The protective walls of a family are not made of stone, but of love."

Today, many families have lost touch with the importance of ritual in their daily lives, believing that creating meaningful family rituals involves extensive expense, hassle, religious background, or pomp. In fact, family rituals can be as simple as lighting candles at mealtime or as elaborate as throwing a huge summer solstice party each year. The choices of when and how to create ritual are as varied as families themselves.

Minnesota Parent talked with dozens of families all over the country to discover how and why they are incorporating ritual into the fabric of their life together. The answers to the question What are your family's rituals and what do they mean to you? are both illuminating and inspiring. In this delightful smorgasbord of rituals from American families on the eve of the millennium, perhaps you will recognize some commonality or shared values. Or maybe you'll discover some great ideas for beginning the process of bringing ritual into your own family life.

 


 

"My husband and I have started a ritual of having a candle burning each night when we sit down to eat. I use what are called 'cake candles,' which have a variety of fragrances and which last for months. This candle is an excellent accompaniment to any dinner--fast food to mac and cheese and beans to your elegant whatever. We have also started the tradition of a silent prayer before meals (a Quaker tradition, I think) and it has been a nice change from no prayer at all or the feeling that someone must verbalize."

 

Julie

Melbourne, Kentucky

 


 

"As fairly disorganized young parents who didn't attend church regularly, I worried that we weren't providing enough family ritual for our children. I wanted them to remember some of the regular events that I remembered from my own childhood, such as big Christmases and family dinners. After a while, however, I realized that were were falling into our own enjoyable family rituals without even trying. Today we have lots of family events that take place regularly that the kids look forward to and which I would define as our meaningful times together. Some are 'big events,' but many more are seemingly inconsequential. These include my husband going out every weekend to get doughnuts for all of us, watching The Brady Bunch before bedtime with my seven-year-old son, hosting bonfire get-togethers with neighbors and friends in our back yard, spending weekends in the country with my family, and Sunday dinner at my in-laws' house."

 

Katie, age 31

Knoxville, Tennessee

 


 

"We join several other families with children the same age as our own (four and one) each Friday evening at an outdoor café offering great pizza. We all met in our childbirth prep class and have been getting together Friday nights ever since. The restaurant saves us an outdoor table, and the kids run around after dinner and chase the pigeons. Not everyone comes every week, but we all know that someone from the group will always be there."

 

Buck, age 39

Naples, Florida

 


 

"We light candles and bless Challah and grape juice/wine on Friday night, even if we're having takeout pizza for dinner. We have pancakes for breakfast at least one weekend day and we go to the farmers' market every Saturday from June to October."

 

Rose

Chicago

 


 

"We have several family rituals. Some favorites include having my seven-year-old, Cody, coming into our bed after he wakes up, joining me, my husband, Jim, and baby Lilly. We spend at least fifteen minutes (more if we're not running behind) just hanging out and planning the day in the king-size bed. Additionally, Cody and I go to the farmers' market every Saturday and we all enjoy eating pizza and watching The Wild Thornberrys on Nickelodeon on Thursday nights. It has been interesting trying to develop new rituals since Lilly's arrival last November. A new family ritual is that we all help give Lilly a bath. Jim washes her body, Cody washes her hair, and we all splash."

 

Lisa, age 30

 


 

"I take my sons fishing early Saturday morning every summer weekend. We get up very early and are on the water by se ven a.m. We are done by ten a.m., which leaves the rest of the weekend free for other stuff. My father did this with me, and it has been the best thing for my relationship with the boys."

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