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."

 

Bob, age 37

Grays Harbor, Washington

 


 

"We have a family meeting every Sunday evening. After dinner we gather and each share three things we liked about the week and one thing we wish had gone differently. We usually have a treat, too. I love this, because the look on my five-year-old son Morgan's face is priceless as he recounts his favorite stuff of the week. I think it will also lay the groundwork for talking about problems as he gets older. We also plan to start talking about budgeting and other family stuff as well. We had tried making a list of what he's interested in learning/exploring that week, but that sort of flopped. We also discuss potential uses for our forty-dollar monthly 'homeschool' budget."

 

Sheri, age 30

Texas

 


 

"Like most parents, I suspect, I think ritual is very important, particularly for kids. The consistency, knowing what to expect, what to look forward to, and the fact that rituals create such wonderful memories, are a few of the reasons.

Our family is very "casual," in that our rituals are more along the lines of having fun as opposed to religious or "rules"-oriented. I'll share one of our fun rituals: The birthday person gets to decorate their own cake! Whoever's birthday it is (child or parent) gets to pick what kind of cake they want. In our family, this inevitably means chocolate cake with either white or chocolate frosting. The kids and I make and frost it together. Then with homemade decorating frosting (or sometimes the store-bought kind in the tubes) the birthday person gets to make whatever kind of cake creation they want. Of course, with the kids, it usually ends up being a big mess of scribbles and blobs!

We had a party for our son Aaron's fourth birthday and gave each guest a tube of frosting. Aaron started the decorating, then we passed the cake around the table and let each child add their own decorating touch. It was such fun!"

 

Angie

Rogers, Minnesota

 


 

"We try to observe all of what we call the "moon days"--the solstices and equinoxes. For winter solstice, we spent a lot of energy building it up to help downplay Christmas. We made ornaments and decorations dealing with light, and on the actual night we celebrated, we had a special meal with symbolic foods and lit 365 candles in our tiny apartment and then our two boys went out and banged noisemakers in the darkness. They ended up dancing around a light post, since they thought that it was nicely symbolic. Then we gifted them in the morning.

We also gift them on the spring equinox. For this ritual, we did lots of paganish stuff and "coming back to life" and fertility symbolism, including special foods. In their baskets, we had some neat Playmobil toys but no candy because we couldn't figure out a reason to include it.

We have a special family night each Saturday, too--often just pizza and movies, sometimes board games by candlelight. Every Saturday evening we spend together as a family, no exceptions. We plan to continue this tradition until the boys move out, although we realize we will have to probably change the evening when they get older. They both look forward to this night more than they do birthdays and Christmas.

We also have very serious small rituals, such as bedtime reading--usually a half-hour of picture books and then a half hour to an hour of chapter books, and we read a family "big" novel each winter. This year we started The Tempest but never finished because of a lack of interest. We have plans to read a version of the Iliad and the Odyssey this summer."

 

Dawn

Bowling Green, Ohio

 


 

"We feel that rituals really bring us closer together as a family. On Friday nights, at the dinner table, we all (and any guests we have) go around in a circle and answer this question: "What's the best thing that happened to me this week?" We all really look forward to this time. And we take special care not to interrupt the person speaking. Our guests always enjoy being included in this, too."

 

Wendey

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 


 

"I'm a scholar of ritual and culture, so I know they are important, especially in the alienated culture of postmodern life, where no one lives anywhere for long, grandparents and cousins are far away, etc. So we need rituals to give structure to our lives, to give us a sense of longevity and existence that goes beyond the immediate circumstances. It's especially important to me as a single parent, because a strong sense of family, created by a web of rituals, gives my son stability and support, and creates a sanctuary of our home.

We have a bimonthly "family night," which will probably become every Friday night as my son gets older. I usually fix something really fun to eat, we watch a special video or movie, or we do something fun, like go to the park after dark, go to a free concert, go to friends' houses for dinner and wild playing with other kids. We are Unitarians, so lighting candles is very important to us. My son Charlie is still interested in blowing them out, so we don't do it a lot, but we will begin to light a chalice on family night and when we sit down to dinner together at the table.

We also light candles of joys and sorrows at church when big things come up. We have special little songs we sing for completely mundane events, like "the banana song," when I'm peeling a banana. When we went to Australia, on the plane, I made a little chalice from two Dixie cups and some tape. I covered it with foil and tied a red ribbon around the middle. We drank from both ends of it, toasting each other as we crossed the equator together for the first time. I wrote about that in our journal, so he'll be able to read it someday.

We go to the library once a week, and I'd call this a ritual because it, too, provides structure to his life, promotes the kind of values I hold dear, and because he always gets the same thing! Dr. Seuss and Dorling-Kindersley "Amazing Animals" videos! And we also have a giving ritual at holiday time--not just the usual stuff to the thrift store, but as a family, we take clothes, money, and food to the crisis nursery, on a special afternoon close to Christmas. The amount of money has to hurt a little (something like a week's worth of groceries), and the clothes have to be really nice ones.

And the two big rituals: When Charlie was six months old, I planned and held a naming ceremony in my church for him. It was a regular service with songs, candles, readings, and prayers. All the children who were his friends were invited. His grandparents were in attendance, and beamed proudly. My mother gave him a silver spoon that day. I wrote a poem for the occasion. When he is 13 years old, I'll have a special ceremony for him--a transition ceremony. A gateway to serious learning and responsibility as he becomes an adult and to affirm his place in the community and in the family."

 

Jay

Arizona

 


 

"We have had beautiful christenings for each of our children. We chose special godparents, and the babies wore hundred-year-old family christening gowns. After the service we have a big semiformal luncheon at my parents' house. The children were all christened in the same small country Episcopal church where I was confirmed and married."

 

Katie

Tennessee

 


 

"We have "hop on pop" after supper each evening, where I lie down on the floor in our living room and the kids proceed to crawl and jump all over me. All I have to say is 'hop on pop!' and they all come running!"

 

Mark

Pennsylvania

 


 

"We never miss a football game at my husband's alma mater. Now that the kids are older, these football weekends involve special rituals of packing, traveling, and eating at the same fast-food restaurants along the way, wearing the same "lucky" sweatshirts to the game, etc. Fall football is definitely a ritual for our family."

 

Merri

Nebraska

 


 

"We keep the Sabbath holy. On Sundays we enjoy a terrific breakfast as a family and then we all go to church. Afterwards, we spend the day together at home. When we started doing this, it was very difficult not to want to mow the lawn or clean the gutters, but now we are all adjusted to the fact that Sundays are for rest, reflection, and family bonding. You can usually find us sprawled all over the house reading or snacking or just talking. The TV, radio, and computer stay off on Sundays. A quiet, reflective day really gets our whole family focused on how we can better serve God the rest of the week. The kids complained a lot at first, but now they sing the praises about our Sunday ritual to other overly busy families."

 

Janet

California

 


 

"We go out to a big breakfast on the first and last school days of the year."

Lori

Georgia

 


 

"We take our dairy cattle to the State Fair every fall. The kids enjoy a week of sleeping in haylofts, grooming their livestock, eating cotton candy and hot dogs and playing with other 4-H kids from all over the state. They even get to miss a few days of school. I remember enjoying the same thing when I was a teenager. To me and to my kids, the State Fair marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall."

 

Whit

Iowa

 

 

Katie Allison Granju lives in Tennessee with her husband and three young children. She is the author of Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child (Pocket/August, 1999). For more information, visit www.attachmentparent.com.

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