Six Important Reasons Traditions Matter by Robin Dance

As a young mom juggling two babies during the “Cheerios and Crafts” phase of motherhood, I had no idea the long-range impact of a “yes” answer to a question posed by my mother-in-law 14 years ago:  she simply wanted to know if I’d be interested in hosting a Valentine Tea Party for my then three-year-old daughter.  To me, a mother-daughter tea party meant temporary suspension from diaper duty and laundry, and my enthusiastic “yes” required, oooh, about .01 nano seconds of deliberation.

Having now graduated to the “Taxi Service and Sports Spectator” phase of child rearing, I realize it was an important decision despite the mindless expediency with which it was made.  More a brunch than a tea, our annual Valentine gathering has crystallized in my mind the value and significance of establishing family traditions.  Traditions have far-reaching implications, and though I’ve written with our Valentine Tea in mind, my hope is

  • to seed ideas in you for cultivating and nurturing your own traditions
  • to open your eyes to the “everyday traditions” you may not yet recognize
  • to realize why they need to be an integral part of your family.

1.  Family super glue

Traditions strengthen and bind families.  Our Valentine Tea brings together the women in our family, particularly important because we don’t live in the same place.  Though there are other times of the year when our guys are welcome, this day is special because it sets aside “girl time” with my sisters-in-law, nieces and a few special friends.  We don’t have the luxury of quantity time; I’m thankful for condensed quality time.

(Except my father-in-law–he’s our Chief Waffle Maker, so we allow him entry…for a little while, anyway.)

2.  Bridging the gap

Traditions don’t see age differences as chasm but they do add depth.  Three generations come together for our annual Tea.  As we sit around a table, younger cousins learn from the older; a grandmother is able to share her heart about what’s most important to her; young (and not-so-young) moms think out loud about parenting, celebrate their children’s successes, share their struggles.

All among people who know them best and love them anyway. 

I say that with a wink, but the truth is, because people are imperfect, families and friendships are imperfect.  It’s good to have reason to get together; holidays often provide the perfect backdrop to share a meal or celebration, mingling the company of those with whom we have shared blood through birth or marriage or faith.

3.  Repetition, Redundancy & Recapitulation

Tradition is like a broken record, spinning the same song over and over and over; its beauty lies in hearing the music, not in being stuck in a rut.  The word “tradition” is derived from the Latin word “traditionem“, meaning “handing over, passing on”.

The structure of our tea has evolved through the years.  In the beginning, it was oriented towards preschoolers:

  • since they attended with their mothers, together, they’d make cards for their daddies
  • they’d construct a simple Valentine’s-related craft (oh, how I loved the Barney Box when my children were younger–glitter and glue all the way, baby!)
  • brunch consisted of heart-shaped PB&Js for the daughters, frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies, strawberry Jello jigglers, Noni’s famous butter mints.  Moms enjoyed a more sophisticated meal, but guess who snacked on the kid stuff, too?

Now, it’s geared more toward “young ladies”:

  • no card-making for the dads any longer
  • no craft making
  • homemade waffles with strawberries and whipped cream has replaced peanut butter and jellies but the butter mints are still found in little bowls just about everywhere

The point is, guests generally know what to expect, though adaptation is made to accommodate age shift.  Some things have been consistent from the beginning:

  • we dress to reflect “special occasion”
  • china, crystal and silver are used, a perfect match to good manners
  • we enjoy a meal that is as pretty to look at as it is good to eat
  • little treats–surcies–are given to each guest; both me and my MIL keep our eyes open year-round to find the “perfect” little gift…sometimes it’s handmade, too

4.  The Heinz Ketchup Effect

Expectancy and repetition translate to eager anticipation for traditions.  When our Christmas decorations are finally deconstructed and stored away in the attic until next year, I know to expect a phone call from Sarah to discuss the date and plans for Valentine Tea.  One of my favorite parts of the tradition is making the invitations; though it’d be easier to have them printed, I can’t bear with losing that personal touch.  Even before they’re mailed, though, there’s an air of excitement about getting together to celebrate; I love watching the little girls play; it’s pure joy to see how they’ve grown from party to party; and I delight in the company of my sweet sisters-in-law and sisters in love more than they’ll ever know.

It’s not just me, either; my sister-in-law told me how excited my niece was about the tea, and my heart absolutely MELTS.

5.  Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em

Tradition for the sake of tradition isn’t very effective.  Doing something just because it has always been done is not enough reason to continue it in the future.  Sandy, on a post at 4 Reluctant Entertainers, recognized that sometimes traditions do little more than add pressure or rob joy from holidays or special occasions.  She recommends considering how you can simplify or modify existing tradition…or when necessary, eliminating ones that no longer serve your family.

In the early years, we invited my daughters’ friends and their mothers to our party; it grew so large, we eventually culled back to make it more a family affair, with the granddaughters inviting only one friend and her mother.  The resulting intimacy has enriched the tea (as opposed to diminishing it due to fewer people).

6.  Now you see it, now you don’t

Traditions are often thought of only in the context of holidays or special occasions; but perhaps the most beautiful are the things you do as a family every day or on a regular basis. 

Recently, I asked a group of high school girls to share their favorite traditions (I believe it was following Thanksgiving).  I was surprised several of them didn’t realize they DO have family traditions.  When the question was posed a bit differently–“What do you always do at Thanksgiving?”–they recognized eating a meal with family, going to visit grandparents…and even a burping contest IS tradition.  It’s what makes their family unique.  

Some Facebook friends chimed in with a few more thoughts:

  • Blake saw how much the little things have mattered to his own children as they’ve gotten older; that it was less about what it was (going to the beach, Sunday dinner after church or Georgia football games) and more about repetitive, meaningful and one day, cherishable, action.
  • Lori pointed out how difficult it was when you lose a family member, to continue with traditions tied to person; establishing new ones can be just as difficult.

In recent years, brunch has begun with my mother-in-law reading from An Invitation to Tea (Teatime Pleasures) by Emilie Barnes, and I think it perfectly concludes my thoughts; I’ve substituted the word “tradition” where Barnes original text mentioned “tea”:


“It’s what happens when women or men or children make a place in their lives for the rituals of sharing.  It’s what happens when we bother with the little extras that feed the soul and nurture the senses and make space for  unhurried conversations.  And when that happens, it doesn’t really matter what [tradition] fills cups or holds the liquid.

It really isn’t the tea tradition.

It’s the spirit of the tea party tradition.”

Tell me about your traditions? I’d love to hear!

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