What our family holiday traditions say about us

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Many families have unique holiday traditions:

  • The family that fills each other�s Christmas stockings exclusively with giveaway stuff from work1
  • The grandmother who organizes an annual Hanukkah talent show featuring all of the children among her relatives and friends1
  • The husband and wife who prepare for New Years by donning yellow underwear2

Annual rituals like these provide more than in-the-moment fun. They also give us something to look forward to, and remind us there�s more to the holidays than just presents. Their comforting familiarity is something we can rely on, year after year.

The best family traditions are often the most off-the-wall. While standard traditions, like watching a classic holiday movie, may be nice and cozy, it�s the unusual traditions that inspire raw devotion.

Why? Because they are steeped in family narrative.

The roots of many traditions lie in amusing, inspiring, or moving family stories. One family enjoys plain pizza on the night before Christmas, but only after pausing to remember the great-grandfather who started the tradition when he became too sick to cook.

The stories behind cherished traditions, funny or sobering, keep family history alive that otherwise may be forgotten. Details such as ancestors� birthplaces, how couples met, harrowing tales, and the childish escapades of wistful older relatives can be relived and shared with new generations3,4.

Prized traditions can also explain why a family holds certain values dear:

  • The family tradition of free stocking-stuffers began during a period of financial struggle. They continued the tradition for the reminder that, hard times or not, one needn�t spend big to make an occasion joyful1.
  • The Hanukkah cabaret speaks to the grandmother�s conviction that everyone has gifts and something to contribute to the family, from the oldest down to the youngest1.
  • The yellow underwear worn by the married couple honors the wife’s ancestors in Venezuela, where the tradition of wearing sunny undergarments is meant to bring good luck for the new year2.

Having a rich understanding of your family narrative is closely related to psychological well-being.

Individuals who can answer questions like �Do you know where some of your grandparents met?� or �Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?� demonstrate lower anxiety, higher self-esteem, and greater resilience in the face of trauma3,4.

In addition, family narrative gives us a larger context for our personal life stories, reminding us of where we come from, and the many people that have shaped us.  These feelings of belonging promote confidence in our core identity, which helps us manage our emotions and form healthy relationships with others3-6.

Quality time around the holidays is a perfect opportunity to paint a rich narrative portrait alongside your own loved ones. Your oldest and most venerable rituals have a deep connection to your family story.  And as marriage and childbirth introduce new characters, and fresh traditions emerge, the narrative expands and becomes ever more colorful.

So grab some free stocking-stuffers from work and hit the underwear aisle� or, rather, don�t. Do whatever captures the essence of your family, in all its joyous, somber, oddball glory.


1Dawn, R. (2016). Love Festivus? Here are 7 fun-usual holiday traditions for the rest of us. Today

2Real Simple staff. (2017). What is your most unique holiday tradition? realsimple.com

3Duke, M.P., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45, 268.

4Failer, B. (2013). The family stories that bind us. The New York Times.

5Bohanek, J.G., Marin, K.A., Fivush, R., & Duke, M.P. (2006). Family narrative interaction and children’s sense of self. Family process, 45, 39-54.

6Bohanek, J.G., Fivush, R., Zaman, W., Lepore, C.E., Merchant, S., & Duke, M.P. (2009). Narrative interaction in family dinnertime conversations. Merrill-Palmer quarterly (Wayne State University. Press), 55, 488.