Marriage Matters

Christmas is the Perfect Time for Building Family Rituals

When people want to make a major change in their lives, they usually make a New Year’s resolution. And that’s a good thing. However, we know that most New Year’s resolutions fail. Why? Because these resolutions mainly represent a clean break from previous behavior. Someone who was not exercising is not trying to exercise 3-4 times a week. And establishing completely new behaviors in the face of established habits (sitting on the couch with a bag of potato chips watching your favorite TV show) is really difficult. So while there is a lot of merit in embracing a new start through a New Year’s resolution, there is a better way to make major changes in your life. And that is to work with your established habits in order to bring about new behavior.

So you may know that you want to make some changes in your family’s established patterns. Maybe you want to spend more time really talking to each other. Maybe you want to start family prayer time together. Well, there’s good news! The Christmas season offers an amazing opportunity to build a new family pattern! Most of us have certain Christmas traditions in our family: singing Christmas carols, trimming the Christmas tree, Christmas cookies and other special foods, and maybe even some special prayers or devotions. With a little creativity you can use these traditions as a launch pad to establish a new family ritual that will last all year.

One thing that will ensure success is to work to establish a ritual rather than just a routine. What’s the difference? When you think of rituals in this context, don’t limit your thought to liturgical rituals. Rituals are very similar to routines. Routines are things that we do over and over again so that they become habit – part of our regular pattern. Rituals are too, but rituals are imbued with a greater meaning that reinforces the pattern even more strongly.

Establishing a ritual takes a bit more conscious effort than starting a new routine. There are four qualities of a ritual that we want to be sure to include:

  1. Defined roles – a ritual has very clear-cut roles. It doesn’t matter if the same person performs those roles, or if you rotate the roles through the family. The important thing is that whenever you perform the ritual someone plays these defined roles. For example, when my family does evening prayer it is someone’s role to light the candles, someone’s role to read the Scripture, and then everyone’s role to offer a prayer of thanks and a prayer of petition. The kids fight over who gets to light the candles, but they know that someone gets that role every night.
  2. Active Participation – even if every member of the family doesn’t have an opportunity to play a pre-defined roles, a good ritual invites them into active participation. That’s why in our evening prayer that everyone offers a prayer of thanksgiving and a prayer of petition.
  3. Significance – a ritual has deep meaning and purpose. More importantly, the significance of the ritual is clearly communicated within the ritual. In our evening prayer, my wife or I offer an opening prayer that states that we are gathering to acknowledge our loving God as the source of everything that is good in our lives.
  4. Positive Emotional Meaning – for the ritual to having “sticking power” it needs to be something that participants enjoy. This doesn’t necessarily means that it needs to be fun and exciting. Positive emotional meaning can take many forms. It can be a sense of family togetherness. It can be the communication of being loved. In fact, the “deeper” the emotional meaning the more powerful the ritual will become. Now, to tell you the truth this is the most difficult element of a ritual to instill in your family – especially with children who may lack full understanding. But perseverance pays off here.

So what Advent or Christmas traditions do you practice as a family that could be transformed into a year-round ritual? Could time around the Christmas tree with a plate of cookies be transformed into regular family discussions around the living room? Could the Advent wreath prayer be transformed into daily evening prayer? The effort to transform these traditions into regular rituals can really pay off by helping your family make some major positive changes.

You can contact Jeff Arrowood at jarrowood@diolc.org

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