Teaching Values Through Family Traditions

Doniese's daughter still hangs the fox ornament on her tree that she picked out as a child.

As we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, we are thinking about what makes this time of year special for families. If you are newly married or have added a new little person to your family, you may be starting to develop some family traditions. Other families may be enjoying the traditions they have already established, or they may be adding some new ones. Some of your traditions may have been in your family for generations.

Traditions are customs or beliefs that are often long-standing and have been handed down from one generation to another. Families and cultures value these behaviors, practices and beliefs.

Traditions can be centered on holidays and seasons, but they can also be used for important events, such as birthdays or the first days of school. They can be time-oriented, as in bedtime, or they could be daily, weekly, or yearly traditions. Sometimes you may not even be aware that a new tradition has sprung up!

One time when Doniese’s girls were young, the family was returning from a vacation…

“As we drove into the driveway, one of them said, ‘Mom, don’t forget that thing you always say.’ I said, ‘What thing?’ They all replied, ‘Home again, home again, jiggety jog.’ I hadn’t even realized that I said that, but it became a tradition in our family! It seemed to help the children begin to transition back to life after vacation.”


Why are traditions important?

  • Traditions bind families together and make them feel close.

Doniese: Our kids got to choose a small, inexpensive ornament for the tree each year. Their ornaments went into a special box, which they were given when they had their own first Christmas tree. One year, one of my daughters chose a plastic fox with a fuzzy tail. I resisted the temptation to tell her it really didn’t have anything to do with Christmas. I think she still puts it on her tree

Betty: Every Christmas Eve morning, my family sits together at the kitchen table and stuffs grape leaves to make Yubra, our traditional Christmas Eve meal. It cooks all day in the crockpot and is served after Midnight Mass.


  • Traditions create a feeling of warmth, closeness and connection.

Doniese: My mother used to squeeze our hands three times, which meant “I-Love-You.” I did the same with my children, and now my grandchildren share this tradition.

Betty: Our family never ends a conversation without saying “I love you.”


  • Traditions also bind groups or communities together, such as neighborhoods, clubs or church families.

Betty: My family has hosted a holiday party the weekend before Christmas for 22 years. We invite friends and family and have a great night of food and fellowship.


  • Traditions give us a sense of identity and belonging, and they make us feel secure and special.

Doniese: When my oldest daughter celebrated her first Christmas, I traced her handprint on a piece of felt and embroidered it onto a tree skirt. I did this every year with my three children. The kids loved to compare their handprints each year. I still bring that tree skirt out every year, even though my youngest is now 24 years old!

Betty: Every member of our family has a homemade Christmas stocking. Part of this tradition is that each of us adds something to every stocking. We think about each family member individually and choose a gift that would be special for him or her.


  • Traditions provide excitement and anticipation.

Many families celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 by putting their shoes out the night before. In the morning, the shoes contain candy, coins and a holiday craft that helps pass the days until Christmas.


  • Traditions teach values.

Doniese: We always left the manger in our nativity scene empty until Christmas Eve. I put out a small basket of straw pieces or strips of yellow paper and whenever one of the children did a good deed, they could put a piece of straw in the manger. When they were little, they loved to tell about their good deeds. As they got older, the good deeds had to be done anonymously to teach about giving without reward.

Betty: Our family lights candles on an advent wreath during mealtime. We use prayer and a devotion to call to mind the meaning of the Christmas season and inspire us to act on our Christian values.


Things to keep in mind when considering traditions:

  • For the most part, traditions should be relaxing and simple enough to avoid causing stress and overload. Sometimes we have to give up traditions because they involve more money, time or effort than we have available. That is OK!
  • Allow everyone to participate. If adults are doing all the work involved in the tradition, they might be trying to GIVE their family the perfect holiday rather than developing traditions that belong to everyone. One mom told us that every year she decorated the house beautifully, wrapped the gifts in color-coordinated paper and tried to make the perfect holiday. She realized that her young children really didn’t care. When she let the children help make simple decorations and use paints and markers to make wrapping paper, the kids were happy and excited.
  • Focus sometimes on individuals and sometimes on all family members. Birthdays are a time when the traditions are focused on one person. Some families have a “you are special today” plate, or they allow the family member whose birthday it is to choose a meal or activity. Sometimes all family members are involved. The trick is to strive for fairness.
  • Sometimes focus on others. Teaching children compassion and respect for others can be done through traditions. You could clean out toy closets once a year and donate unneeded items, participate in a food drive, or help a neighbor.
  • Sometimes honor family members who are no longer with us. Valuable lessons about handling grief and loss can come through traditions. Many families visit the cemetery on Memorial Day.

We hope you enjoy establishing and celebrating your own special holiday traditions. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

By Betty and Doniese

Family Life Instructors at Avera McKennan

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