One of the keys to having a strong family is to have strong family traditions. The rituals we develop together with our spouses, kids, and extended family become the anchors that keep us grounded through the storms of life. For example, Mike and I have moved six times since we started having children, but we have a certain rhythm to our life, which makes anywhere feel like "home".
I realized just how important this was when we moved 2000 miles from California to Tennessee a couple of years ago. We didn't know anyone, and we're not related to anyone in Tennessee, so all of a sudden, we were very alone (that is, as alone as a family with eleven kids can actually be). Suddenly, tradition became a very big deal as we all felt a little discombobulated from the move:
"You're making poppy seed cake for breakfast on Thanksgiving, right???"
"We're opening one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day, right???"
"You're making a flag cake this year for the 4th of July, right???"
"We're going to Easter Vigil Mass like always, right???"
I have come to realize that having certain rituals associated with the various celebrations of life, and even with ordinary every day things, ties us together and provides a framework for our lives. Out of these seemingly ordinary traditions, interestingly enough, many extraordinary memories are formed that give each family its own unique story. Here are some of our rituals for both holidays and every day to help you get started with or augment your own traditions:
1. Have dinner together as often as possible
This is huge. Statistically, very few families ever have dinner together as a family anymore. It's difficult with activities encroaching on our evenings, but if you prioritize it, you can make family dinner happen at least a few nights a week. It doesn't have to be complicated; it can be as simple as a one dish crockpot meal or some pizza. The main thing is that everyone is there, and you do your best to keep it fun and conversational. Keep everyone off their phones during dinner. Make dinner about the people who are present. Otherwise, what's the point?
Also, dinnertime is not a good time to start grilling each other and yelling about bad table manners. Yes, you have to teach good manners, but you can do that gently and then switch the subject to something more fun. You can talk about what each person did that day, or you can pick a theme and start a conversation around that. Ask questions like, "What's your favorite TV show/video game/movie/book/song/band/vacation spot/etc and why?" You can learn a lot about each other while also teaching the kids conversational skills.
Now that our oldest six children have moved out, we try to get everyone here for a family dinner at least a couple of times a month (fortunately they all still live close by!). It's a great way to keep everyone connected as a family, even as they are individually branching out and finding their own ways.
Hanging out after a family dinner
2. Have certain dishes only on holidays
Our Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter meals share a few dishes that I only make on holidays: poppy seed cake at breakfast, a sweet potato and apple dish, mashed potatoes, and fresh cranberry sauce for dinner. The main course is always either turkey or ham, and other elements can vary, but those are a given. On Easter, I always make an Easter Bunny cake. My mother made it every year when I was a kid, and I make it for my kids now. Pumpkin pies are a given on Thanksgiving, and decorated Christmas cookies are a must on Christmas. We also use the "good china" only on holidays, which makes them that much more special.
My mom with the first of many Easter bunny cakes that both she and I have made over the years
3. Go to church together on Sundays
This is difficult when you have a lot of small children, but the lessons it teaches are so worth it. The children learn that some things are bigger than ourselves (like God), and that some things are so important that you make the time, and you get there like clockwork, whether you feel like it or not, unless you're on your death bed. There are seasons in our lives when we really want to be there, and there are other seasons where it takes every ounce of strength to get there, but it's always been worth it, and I am seeing the payoff now in the character that my kids have developed.
Aside from the close relationship with God that they each have developed, the discipline learned by getting there every week spreads into everything in life that we know we have to do but might not feel like doing right that minute, like work, school, etc. It's a great feeling of strength to be able to overcome that and do what we know we need to do.
Some people take this tradition a step further by regularly saying the rosary together or reading the Bible aloud every night. Teaching your children to say nightly prayers when they're young will help build a habit of faith for life.
Some of our kids celebrating Christian's Confirmation (in back with the purple shirt)
4. Go on walks, hikes, bike rides, etc
When I was a kid, we would eat an early dinner and then go on family bike rides afterward. Mike and I like to do family walks after dinner on the weekends, and it's something that we all look forward to. We've been doing it sporadically for years, but we are turning it into a more regular occurrence now.
Family walk after dinner
My older kids enjoy going on hikes with each other, sometimes taking the younger ones with them. My son Alex, 20, likes to take his younger brothers to discover and explore new swimming holes and water falls. When we lived in Malibu, we did a lot of beach walks, ocean swims, and mountain hikes. I like the fact that they are all taking the habit of exercise with them into their adult lives as they develop their own rituals.
Nick and Chris on a hike in Tennessee with family and friends
5. Make birthdays really special
With 11 kids, we have a lot of birthdays to celebrate through the year. I make the cake of their choice from scratch, and we keep the presents simple and inexpensive (like some books or clothing or a game). We realized years ago how competitive people like to get about the birthday parties they throw and the lavish presents they buy for their kids, and we decided to opt out of that. I did throw some pretty cool parties when my oldest kids were young (where I actually sewed princess dresses!), but now we stick to simple family parties with either just our family or with a few other families as a potluck.
When we lived in NorCal when all our kids were young, we lived close to my extended family and some of Mike's extended family, so all our birthday parties were big family parties. There was on average a party a month, so it was a great way to stay close to grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles, and little cousins. We would usually barbecue tri-tip and make a salad, and my mom would bring her famous rolls, pies, potato salad, and baked beans.
When we moved to Malibu, all eleven of our kids were still under our roof, but we were living far from our extended family, so we shifted direction and threw some super fun potluck birthday parties with our new SoCal friends, who we had met mostly at either church, swim team, or the gym. We kept it very simple, with the focus on the birthday person, the guests, the food, dancing, good wine and conversation for the adults, and playing on the trampoline for the kids. We kept the presents out of the limelight and made it about having an excuse to have fun with our besties.
Lauren and Christina, who share a birthday in August, celebrating with family and friends
Now that we're living in Nashville, we're bringing our family party traditions with us and including some new friends from the South. One thing that we've always enjoyed doing is decorating the cake with the person's age and then taking a picture of everyone at the party surrounding the birthday person. As we look back over the years at old pictures, it's easy to tell what year it is because the age is on the cake. It's also really fun to see how everyone has changed and to remember our old friends while enjoying our new friends, too.
My daughter Katherine came up with an idea that has become one of our favorite things to do on birthdays, which is to go around the table and have each person share a memory about the person whose birthday we are celebrating. The memories are usually quite hilarious, and this can go on for an hour or more! Another variation that we have done on this is to name what our favorite trait is about the birthday person and illustrate it with a story.
6. Set up regularly scheduled neighborhood get-togethers
This is relatively new for us, but since we wanted to meet people in this new area of the country, we started organizing neighborhood parties. We have done a neighborhood Christmas party at our house both years that we've been here, which is enormously fun, and we headed up the first of what we hope will become an annual block party in the Fall, when the weather starts to cool just a little. I also got together with the ladies in my neighborhood, and we started a bunco group that meets monthly, with a different person hosting each month. My daughters are on the sub list, and almost every month a couple of them are asked to join us moms, which they love. Not only are they having fun, they are learning about hosting social gatherings for moms, which of course is another type of tradition carried out all over the country, whether it's bunco or bridge or progressive dinner parties or whatever else.
Getting ready for bunco with the neighborhood moms
7. Have family reunions
When I was growing up in California, some of my fondest memories were made going to family reunions in Iowa in the late summers. We weren't able to go every year, but when we did, we would go to my dad's family reunion one weekend and my mom's the next weekend. Both of them came from large families, and everyone did their best to get there every year to see everyone else. My paternal grandmother lived in a house with a big family room that opened into the living room, and during that week every year, the floor was wall-to-wall kids in sleeping bags every night, who had come from as far away as California, Washington DC, New Mexico, and Michigan. This was far better than any summer camp because we were all related. The town was small, so we turned a lot of heads as we descended on the local pizza place or hit up Dairy Queen. There was a swimming lake nearby with a diving island in the middle of it that was the perfect entertainment for us kids on those hot Midwestern summer days. I really appreciate the effort that my parents and all my aunts and uncles put in to get their families to the family reunion every summer.
8. Family Game Nights and Read Aloud Times
Because we're homeschoolers, we've always done a lot of read aloud (usually during the day), and everyone has always enjoyed that. Some families like to take that into the evening instead of everyone parking themselves in front of a screen, which is a great way to enjoy new stories and learn things together.
Me reading aloud to Nick and Joey
Family game nights are also a fun way to bond as a family. We pulled out our Scrabble board a few nights ago and had a loud and crazy time together; who knew spelling could be such uproarious fun? We also like to play Hearts, Apples to Apples, and Yahtzee among other things. It doesn't really matter what game you play, and it's not about the competition; it's all about doing something fun that is easily doable for everyone in the family. These become favorite memories later on for both kids and parents alike.
What kinds of traditions does your family have? Share in the comments below!
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