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Holiday traditions build strong families

Many of us grew up with traditions we follow at holiday time. Time and location of family meals, when and how to open gifts, and special activities, such as caroling or church services are some of the makings of holiday traditions.

In America, there are many Christmas traditions, as our "melting pot" culture has brought many nationalities and traditions together.

We have carols from England and Austria and decorated Christmas trees from Germany. St. Nicholas as the giver of Christmas gifts comes from the Netherlands, and his house-to-house visits are reminiscent of the tradition of Pere Noel from France. Our holiday parades might be a carry-over from Latin religious processions, and Santa's reindeer are an American addition.

In my own family, we have our special holiday traditions. We open gifts from each other on Christmas Eve. Santa arrives sometime during the night to leave toys (unwrapped, of course) under the Christmas tree for the children. Every member of the family, no matter the age, finds their decorated stocking filled with special gifts and treats on Christmas morning -- all laid out on the dining room table for lack of a fireplace at my parents' home.

Feasting is a typical holiday tradition of every nation, and my family's holiday food traditions are reflective of our melting pot of cultures, too. Our Christmas eve buffet includes Swedish potato sausage and ost kaka, a Swedish cheesecake dessert, borrowed from our Swedish neighbors in the Smoky Hill River valley between Salina and Lindsborg. My grandmother's English heritage is reflected in the oyster stuffing, and my German aunt contributes dark brown bread and her delicious German potato salad made with dill pickles, green olives and tuna.

A tradition is any repeated, shared activity that is full of meaning and satisfying for all family members. It doesn't matter what the tradition is -- maybe your family enjoys tamales and posole at Christmas time, or black-eyed peas and greens, or even pizza topped with smoked oysters, as in one family I know.

Traditions are the things that make a family special, and one of the ways in which a family becomes strong. The traditions are important not so much for what is said or done, but for the results they give -- the sense of belonging and togetherness that grows out of the shared experience.

As families change, it's OK for traditions to change, too. When parents age, children marry, couples divorce, or family members move, families might find old traditions no longer work. New traditions can be created to better fit the new family situation. Don't let a tradition become a rigid family rule that makes people feel bad when a change is needed. Remember it's not what happens that is most important, but instead the shared family experience that makes your family feel close and special.

As you celebrate the Christmas holiday next week, reflect on the traditions that make your family unique. Ask family members to name the holiday activities, foods or customs that are most meaningful to them. Encourage older members of the family to share stories of holiday traditions of their youth. And ask members if there are any traditions which are ready to be changed.

By building and celebrating your special traditions, your family can become stronger this year. Happy holidays!

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences.