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Traditions make us—but let’s not let them break us: How reexamining our rituals can make stronger families and communities

By Tim Schwantes on November 17th, 2021

It’s already the holiday season! As families gather this year—many for the first time in a long time—they’ll bring with them an assortment of histories, viewpoints, and traditions.

Holiday traditions can be different combinations of fun, forced, full of silliness, stoic, or nostalgic. But like any ritual, over time they can become rigid, obligatory, or rote—they may seem to lose their luster (at least) or rationale and purpose (at most). Gone unchecked, rituals can even veer from their intended purpose. They can cause us to resent something (or someone) we used to love. It happens in families, among friends, and in our communities.

Three weeks ago, my parents visited me in Chapel Hill, NC. They helped out around the house while I worked. While I’m grateful to have both my parents still able and willing to help, the different ways in which we do things can leave me rolling my eyes at times. After all, they are my parents!

They unloaded the dishwasher (thank you!) and put all the drinking glasses in the cabinet topside down when all the others were upright. They fed my son yummy pancakes (he was also thankful) and used honey instead of maple syrup (even though there was a full jug on the refrigerator shelf).

Sometimes I can let these things go, but in both cases it left me puzzled enough to ask them: “Why did you do that?” And both times, the answers were eye-opening.

After talking with my mom, it turns out that my grandmother, who grew up during the depression, always had open shelving in her kitchen. As a result, she learned to place clean cups and glasses facing down, to prevent dirt or dust from getting inside. She did this her whole life—even after she got kitchen cabinets and this ritual was no longer necessary. She passed it on to my mom, who may have tried to pass it to me. But I like to airdry glasses right after the dishwasher cycle ends, sometimes while they’re still steamy. Of course, my grandmother never had such a contraption.

Now, honey as a substitute for maple syrup is relatively foreign for me, my son, and my parents. But after my genuine curiosity led me to ask them about it, I learned that they keep their syrup in the refrigerator door. They didn’t even think to look on the shelf. And while I buy maple syrup that comes in a squatty jug (and thus doesn’t fit in the door), my parents buy the imitation variety, which comes in a leaner, taller squeeze bottle (and easily fits in the door). Honey turned out to be an expensive alternative to what was already there.

These relatively trivial experiences got me thinking about rituals, traditions, legacies, and symbols—the things we do and understand, almost by default—and how so many of them come from familial experiences and our community’s historic values. They influence how we behave, interact, learn, and even how we shape our geography. But what we learn and carry on as individuals and in our communities—including maintaining policies that exclude some populations, highlighting historical symbols that perpetuate white supremacy, turning a blind eye to racial and health inequities, and continuing disinvestment in historically redlined neighborhoods—is not trivial and needs reexamining.

My parents unload the dishwasher in a way that makes sense to them, in a way they’ve always done it. They didn’t intend any harm. But it’s important to question why we do things. Because if we don’t, we’re likely to lose sight of new opportunities, talent, technologies, and cultures that could enhance our lives.

Similarly, if we only look where we expect solutions to be (or where we think maple syrup should go) and not dig deeper, we might overlook exactly the thing that we’re looking for. In my experience working with a number of communities across the country, it’s not uncommon for a community to want to solve problems through policy changes that make it attractive to an outside developer or that give tax incentives for a big business to come in and save the town. Such an approach may work sometimes, but this traditional way of thinking needs to include a broader view. Let’s not overlook the entrepreneurs, existing housing and infrastructure, or accentuating other assets in a community. For example, cities, chambers of commerce and businesses can incentivize local entrepreneurs by offering free working space or local competitions with prizes; local governments can zone certain areas for intentional revitalization projects while working with existing residents; or blighted or unused spaces in communities can be repurposed with community input into park or art spaces.

With the holiday season here, let’s pay closer attention to the purpose behind the work we do in our homes and communities. That doesn’t mean we have to constantly question our traditions (and procedures and policies). But it’s useful to think about why they’re there, to celebrate them if they still resonate, and to revisit them if they don’t. The result may be a stronger, more understanding community.

Tim Schwantes

Senior Project Officer

Life-long learner, connector, listener, privilege checker, and triathlete.