The Service will be broadcast over Zoom.
The Zoom Link will be posted in the weekly email and in the Sunshine Room on Facebook

Selected Presentations

Karen McKay (November 6, 2011)

Rituals and Traditions

Rituals and traditions connect us to each other and to our broader community.  They also help us define ourselves and our families, and communicate our values to our children. A s we move towards the holiday season many of  us wonder how we can create and sustain family traditions that honour our 7 principles.  Karen McKay will speak about some of her family's traditions and her attempts to incorporate traditions of the dominant culture while creating meaningful new ones.

Creating Meaningful Family Traditions 

In doing research for this service today, I came across a story about an African people who believe that we are each created with our own song. Their tradition as a community is to honour that song by singing it as welcome when a child is born, as comfort when the child is ill, in celebration when the child marries, and in affirmation and love when death comes

Isn’t that beautiful?

I think that family rituals and traditions are like a family version of that song – the song we sing to connect, to find each other, to define ourselves, to carry us through transitions, to support, to celebrate.

But what if the song we want to sing to our families is overshadowed by the hymns of a religion we can no longer believe in, or the popular culture marches to a drum whose beat does not match the one we feel in our hearts. What if we have never heard our own family’s song?

How can we find our own song, one that rings true for us?

Why do we need them?

When I was pregnant with my Ryan, my oldest, I knew I wanted to have lots of family traditions. I grew up with parents who did their best, given their circumstances, but who weren’t able to put much energy into creating or sustaining traditions or building family connections. My family of origin has few traditions or rituals, and perhaps as a result has relatively weak connections and little that draws us back together as adults. To my younger pregnant self, family traditions signified a type of connection I longed for as a kid and as a parent. They seemed to be the best sort of gift I could bring my children. Little did I know they would also be a gift to me. I began collecting rituals and traditions, in the same way other mums may have collected onesies and cute little socks. I have no less than a dozen books about family traditions on my bookshelf. Interestingly, many of them are written by Unitarians, a link I didn’t discover for quite some time. I kept a notebook of ideas I heard or read, and pulled pages about celebrations out of magazines. Many of them didn’t fit our family, or my energy level, by the time our kids were old enough for us to implement them. But all that thinking about making meaningful connections did start me down a path towards what I hope is a way of thinking about what we as a family need to stay connected. Like most families we have collected an odd assortment of rituals. Over the years we have made green eggs and ham cake for Dr. Seuss’s birthday, celebrated Valentine’s Day with strings of tiny love letters written on construction paper hearts and hung from the kids’ doorways, and a gift of homemade baking to someone we want to express appreciation for. We invite in Leprechauns on St Patrick’s Day and always make a trip down to the dock to say goodbye and thanks to the lake before we leave the cottage. We have family movie nights on Fridays, a silly answer to the question “do you know how much I love you” and a family whistle passed down through the generations. We make birthday crowns and homemade birthday banners, and the same chocolate cake recipe for all our birthdays, even the one that falls on Christmas day.

Family rituals are any repeated acts that are done with intention and meaning and they have always been a part of human life. For generations, traditions and rituals were a matter of survival, the primary way to pass on skills and create a cohesive society.
For today’s families, traditions ground us in the present, connect us to the sacred and meaningful in our lives, help us pause and pay attention, call us back to mindfulness. They help us mark time in a world that seems increasingly disconnected from natural rhythms and from a shared culture.

Meg Cox in her book Heart of a family lists Ten Good Things Rituals Do for Children. Some of the things rituals do are the sorts of things sociologists and anthropologists love to talk about: Rituals impart a sense of identity for children (and families). They pass on religious and ethnic heritage and keep alive a sense of history. They help us honour memories of departed loved ones and help us heal from loss or trauma. They can teach about values. All very good things.
But as I also discovered, rituals have a very practical side that often makes parenting easier and more fun. Rituals provide comfort and security. They can teach practical skills, help families solve problems, and navigate change.

Rituals are important on many levels. Children who grow up in families rich with traditions have a bit of extra insurance against the ups and downs of life. Studies have shown that families who eat dinner together regularly have children who are less likely to participate in risky behaviour of all types. Another study of college students showed that children whose families had rituals and traditions had an easier time adjusting to college life because they had a firm grounding, a sense of identity and these things made them feel worthy of being liked. A simple google brings up studies that show family traditions can lower incidences of mental illness and anxiety in children and teens and even improve health outcomes for children with chronic illnesses.

And a study released in the Journal of Family Psychology found through a 50-year review of research that family rituals contributed to marital satisfaction, improved children’s health and academic achievement, a stronger sense of personal identity for adolescents, and stronger family relationships.

Even with all these benefits, what I think initially drew me to learning more about rituals and traditions was that it allows families to generate wonderful memories – they add the music to our daily lives.

So how do we get more of this in our lives?

As I began looking around for rituals and traditions which would satisfy my need for connection and meaning, I realized that many of the rituals Kevin and I grew up with are grounded in religion or in a culture that is doesn’t reflect who we are. Much of North American culture relies on a talk-unwrap-eat form of celebration and I was hoping for something more.

As Unitarians, we don’t necessarily have a set of carefully prescribed religious traditions which mark our daily life and lead us through the rhythm of the year. We have incredible freedom, and a responsibility even, to examine how we practise our spirituality. It is up to us to figure out how to create rituals and celebrations that are meaningful for us to incorporate into our daily, weekly and holiday traditions.  

I was new to all this, so I do what I always do and I turned to books. My favourite expert on the topic of traditions and rituals is Meg Cox, author of Heart of the Family and The Book of New Family Traditions. Meg is, not surprisingly, a Unitarian, which may be why I felt such an affinity to her perspective.   She is also incredibly creative and generous and shared a number of resources with me to help shape my talk today.

But where to begin? I discovered that if we are working intentionally to create some rituals for our family, we need to begin at the beginning, and keep the end in mind.

As Meg shared, the seed for a ritual’s form grows directly from its purpose. That includes everything from holidays to problem-solving rituals. If we can identify our purpose; then we can imagine creative ways to achieve it that suit our family.

For many of us then, that means determining what we want or need more of in our family life.

Is it more connection,   more fun,     more peace,    more meaning? What is the place in our lives where we need to create ritual? Is it daily, to connect or smooth over a sticky spot in parenting?

Is it a weekly or monthly ritual that provides space to transmit our values? Do we need an annual tradition that speaks to our identity as a family, connects us to a community, or creates a space for fun? Who do we need to include? Is it a ritual shared one on one with our children, something we  do as a nuclear family? Do we include extended family? Close friends? Community?

As many of you know, we recently moved, leaving a beloved neighbourhood for a larger house and a big yard. Establishing some new traditions is helping to make our new house feel more like home. The larger space means we have the opportunity to entertain more and so we have begun what I hope will be a series of traditions that include our friends. It’s driven by a need to maintain close ties with our friends in Guelph, by my hope to create a home where my children feel comfortable inviting their friends, and by a wish to use our new space to connect friends from different circles so that there is a community of caring surrounding our family. Some of these newly minted traditions are pure fun – a peach pie baking competition complete with judging forms and tiara for the winner, a dramatic reading of Harry Potter during a campfire hot dog roast on thanksgiving weekend (next year we will include costumes and props). Others like our Harvest Party potluck will hopefully serve to mark the shift in seasons, and act as a pre-Thanksgiving celebration of the richness in our lives. All of these traditions will help to make our new house feel like a home full of love and friendship.

Once we have identified what we need more of, how do we determine the best way to create a ritual to meet those needs? I think the best place to start is by determining what is the core emotion of this ritual or ceremony? How can that be expressed in a physical, visual or metaphorical way. What ways can our family’s core values enhance this experience? If you are looking for inspiration, turn to the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, and use them to give structure to the ritual.  

When both our cat and our dog died this past year, I knew I needed a ritual to help my children navigate that loss. Our family values handmade items and so we decided to make something to help mark the occasion. For each animal, we painted our hands and made a hand print on a piece of fabric. I embroidered our animal’s names on their piece and then sewed it into a small quilt with fabrics picked out by the kids, some of which matched the blankets or pillows on their beds. We use these blankets to cover our pets as we buried them in our back yard. The handprints symbolized our family petting and loving our animals and staying with them, and them with us, even as we buried them. We planted a tree and a small garden, which we hope will grow and mark our connection with them. It also gives my kids a tangible space to connect with our animal friends.

Some rituals, such as the one to honour our pets, are created intentionally to meet a need in our families. Some rituals just evolve naturally. Some are initiated by kids, some by parents, some handed down from previous generations, some adopted from other families or cultures. Many of the best ones are spontaneous and I think they can be the sweetest because they express who our family is in a pure way.    If we are looking to create rituals, how can we introduce them in ways that feel meaningful?

I think the best approach is to start with our ritual’s purpose and let that guide us. Our best chance of success is to keep it simple and to be playful, allowing everyone to have fun and offer input, so that family members won’t feel awkward or too embarrassed to participate. We also need to give the rituals time to deepen, and space to evolve so that they feel natural.   

A satisfying and thorough ritual has three parts: It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even a simple blessing before supper has those elements: a nod or verbal cue that grace is to be said, the grace itself, and “amen” at the end. There are often symbols or tangible elements involved in rituals. In our family, we light a candle at the table before our meal. One of the kids or a guest, chooses a blessing from our multi-faith blessing cards and we read the blessing before we begin. Other families I know hold hands during a moment of thanks for their meal. Meal times are rich ground for family traditions – some serious, and some silly. In her Book of New Family Traditions, Meg Cox outlines some wonderful ideas: There’s kids’ choice nights where the kids prepare and clean up the meal but also get to make the rules governing dinner that night - so on changing seat nights, everyone sits in a different spot, and on lego night the center pieces are made from lego. There’s Opera Night where everyone has to sing rather than speak during the meal. Imagine “please pass the butter” sung as an aria. There’s also a lovely tradition of using a special plate to honour a family member for something notable – making a team, passing a test, celebrating a promotion.

Susan Lieberman in her book New Traditions details a beautiful family dinner tradition crafted by the Toum family who had moved away from extended family and was feeling the need to create something meaningful for their family. These special dinners are held a few times during the year, often in celebration or when the family wants to connect. The table is decorated with special symbols – a family bible and genealogy book which represent history and family connections, flowers or a plant to represent life and growth, a candle to symbolize warmth and a special goblet of wine for sharing. The Toum family talks briefly about each symbol and what it means, and finds recent examples in their family life that speaks to those symbols. And then the father reads special words written by the family about their connection to one another.

I love hearing about these sorts of mindful, meaningful traditions and I was thrilled when I stumbled across a similar Unitarian version. Bill Doherty, author of the Intentional Family, and longtime UU is developing what he is calling Sources Suppers. Drawing on the traditions of a ceder, and our 6 principles and incorporating some of the same elements that the Toum family does, he has created a new tradition grounded in Unitarian history and philosophy.   The Sources Supper ritual aims to create a deep connection with our Unitarian Universalist heritage via story telling and conversation around a common meal and I hope to be able to incorporate this into our family’s traditions so that it becomes part of our  religious identity.  

Similarly Chalica is another budding annual UU tradition. Chalica is seven days long and runs from the first Monday in December through to Sunday. Each day represents a different Unitarian Principle, a chalice is lit each day and gifts are given and received. Gifts can be made, bought, verbal, written, acts, shared/personal celebrations. One can have seven different chalices or one common chalice.
These sorts of mindful, meaningful traditions, grounded in UU philosophy are especially important as we head towards the holiday season when the world seems split into the deeply Christian or the deeply commercial, neither of which fit our family. 

For the Holiday season in particular, we have been working hard to find traditions that balance the need for fun and acknowledge Christmas, with more meaningful traditions that reflect our family’s values. I thought I would share a few of our winter traditions today, perhaps as inspiration.

One of the things we hope to pass on to our children is an appreciation for handmade goods and so we do our best to make gifts for each other and our family and friends.  Beginning in early December there is a lot of secret scurrying as the kids dig through the craft cupboard and the fabric stash to create their gifts. I spend late nights trying to sew in secret, and evenings pretending the socks I am knitting are not for my kids. This year we stumbled on the lovely idea of picking strawberries on the summer solstice which we made into jam to be eaten on the winter solstice as a way to honour the turning of the wheel. We made extra and those jars, along with some other homemade goodies will be the basis for our Solstice gifts to friends.

Each year for the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to have been invited to a craft swap with girlfriends. We make 10 of the same thing and then swap so we all come home with 10 different handmade items – everything from soap and candles to jewellery, paintings or knitted scarves. My kids have been asking for something similar and so this year we plan to host a craft day with friends at our house, and perhaps an ornament swap with a few friends.

In the purely for fun category, we have been blessed with an elf who visits us during the month of December. He’s aptly named Dugood and he brings us news from the North Pole and sometimes small gifts to help us celebrate the season. We know he has been to visit because he leaves clues which the kids follow to find the letter or the gift. Traditionally he brings our advent calendar in time for December 1st, and new jammies on Christmas Eve. He also brings craft kits or baking supplies, a new seasonal  story book to add to our collection, or a new music Cd. His letters also give us a bit of neighbourhood news – how the widow across the street might love some cookies, or how much our neighbour appreciated the help shovelling the driveway.

We celebrate New Years, with a dinner of appetizers and a trip to see the fireworks. At dinner we create a list of the best things from the past year and a bucket list for the coming year.

Christmas and Boxing Day are extended family celebrations which are always fun and full of the traditional sorts of celebrations.  My aunt plays Joy to the World (somewhat haltingly) on the recorder she got in grade 4. We exchange the crazy curling monkey that once belonged to my grandparent, and read the new poem from the book that accompanies him on his travels to a new home each year.  We eat too much, play charades or trivial pursuit, and we laugh as everyone – even the kids – turn to see who is being called with the infamous Knox whistle.

In the past few years our family has become more intentional about celebrating the winter solstice as well. We create a candle spiral centrepiece made of 21 tea lights and greenery and we light a new candle each night at dinner time from December 1st to solstice, to mark the coming of the light. But our favourite part of solstice, without a doubt is our Solstice Walk with friends. This ritual was truly a gift from a friend who started It as a way to introduce some elements of connecting to nature into an already busy season and invited us, and some other friends along.   Every year for the past 5 years we have celebrated the Winter Solstice with the same group of friends. The first year, we gathered to make solstice lanterns, which are still an important part of our celebration. During the day families make gifts for the animals. We string cranberries and popcorn, tie apple and orange rings to strings, cover bread with peanut butter and bird seed, stuff suet into pinecones and roll in seeds or nuts. 

And then in the early evening we meet on a trail by the river, and light the candles in our solstice lanterns. We walk together by candle light, in mixed groups of friends and family to the same clearing, where we stop and decorate the trees with our gifts for the animals. When the trees around us are decorated we read a story about the meaning of solstice, and share some snack – usually a cake or cookies, and some hot chocolate or tea or cider. The kids light sparklers and wave them around in the dark making all sorts of beautiful patterns. The adults snap pictures and stamp their feet and try to stay warm. Last year we had a small fire in an old pot, just enough for a bit of warmth and light while we asked the sun to come back. And then we pack up and head back along the trail, singing Deck the Trees and We wish you a Merry Solstice and ringing our bells.

I love this tradition. It is, without a doubt, one of my family’s most treasured rituals. And this group of families, who have change little in the last 5 years, continues this ritual because it has such meaning for all of us. It connects us to nature, to the turning of the wheel, to the need for light on the longest night of the year, to each other. It launches us into the last of the crazy holiday madness with a bit of peace. It gives us a chance to be together, in the dark, in the cold, in the snow and marvel at the changing seasons, the growing kids, and beauty of quiet and the gift of connection.

In addition to generating wonderful memories, it helped solve the problem of how this group of friends could celebrate something meaningful together during the holiday season in a way that doesn’t cost anything, that takes the focus away from gifts, that honours the multi generational friendships in the group, and strengthens the identity of the group.   It was a simple thing really – a walk in the woods – that has evolved to become sacred by virtue of the fact that we do it every year in a way that is intentional and mindful.

As I prepared for today’s service, I have been reading books and blogs, and talking to friends (both parents and children) about the rituals in their families. Most people stop for a minute and then begin describing the big holiday traditions – telling me about the family recipes they cook for thanksgiving, or how the rituals of tree decorating at Christmas. I love hearing those. But interestingly, it’s often the “little things” that seem to make their faces light up. Things like granddaughters making cookies with a far away grandma every time she visits or the mom who says the same 4 words to her son before every one of his baseball games. The words on their own make little sense – luck-fun-win-chin which is short hand for a silly rhyme the mother made up one day and he has heard them before every game – from little league to his College ball games in the states.

There is immense power in the connections made with those seemingly frivolous traditions that fall under “crazy stuff my family always does”. I heard one from a young friend this week who was telling me about his family playing a board game called dragon-ology which is based on a map and dragons and all sorts of elaborate rules. I am fuzzy on the details but I do know that during every game, his mother finds a way to pick up his father’s character and drop him in Siberia while making, and I quote “this crazy cawing noise. She does it every time .” And he laughed. Such a small thing on the surface. But wrapped up in that simple little thing is the ritual of regular family time, a loving and playful relationship between parents which is shared with the children, honouring of a child’s passions (in this case dragons)

Another tradition I stumbled on was in an article written by parenting author Richard Eyre has his birthday in October, and to celebrate his family had always raked huge piles of leaves with the kids and then jumped in them, stuffed them in their shirts, thrown them in the air, and just generally having a wild time. He writes:  he thought as the kids got older, their interest in such a frivolous activity would fade. On the contrary, when they were teens, the leaf piles just got bigger. Finally there came a year when their two oldest had left home—a son to go to his first year of college and a daughter doing humanitarian work in an orphanage in Bulgaria. As his birthday approached he was missing them and the idea of the crazy birthday leaf ritual. On his birthday morning, an envelope arrived from each in the mail. He opened his daughter’s first, wondering what kind of card she would send.

But it was not a card. It was a leaf. And it had a post it note stuck on it that said, “Dad, this is a Bulgarian leaf. The orphans helped me celebrate your tradition, Love Jill. PS: Dad, don’t forget, I’m still part of our family!” The envelope from the son also contained a leaf (they had not talked to each other) but, typical of boys, no note. He said “ I could just imagine Jason thinking, “I’ll just send Dad a leaf—he’ll know what it means.”

That is what rituals do. They give us a way to connect, deeply and meaningfully with each other through something as simple as a leaf, or a game, a whistle or a walk.  They sing our family’s song no matter how far apart we are. Whatever rituals you choose, or whichever ones choose you, my hope is that that they sing you your song in a way that brings you comfort and joy.

Thank you

In truth a family is what you make it. It is made strong, not by number of heads counted at the dinner table, but by the rituals you help family members create, by the memories you share, by the commitment of time, caring, and love you show to one another, and by the hopes for the future you have as individuals and as a unit.

MARGE KENNEDY, The Single Parent Family


Meg Cox has written 2 books: Heart of the Family and The Book of New Family Traditions. She also has a number of articles on UU websites.

Other resources:

Sources Supper by Bill Doherty, author of The Intentional Family.

Soulemama’s blog

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