Rituals, traditions, and the perception of time

10 October 2016

Thanks for all of your thoughts last week, friends! I always love hearing when a post resonates with you.

Something I bumped up against when I started to think about purposefully injecting novelty into my life was how to handle rituals and traditions. If you’re like me, you think a lot about them. It seems like my friends, my family members, and really, my whole generation, is hyper-focused on creating meaningful celebrations, meaningful holidays, meaningful Saturday mornings, meaningful bedtimes, meaningful birthdays, meaningful first days of school, etc., etc., etc. We want our lives to be meaningful and purposeful and joyful and memorable, and one of the best ways we’ve found to do this is through creating and upholding rituals and traditions.

And from what I’ve heard and seen and experienced, kids love this! They love boundaries and knowing what to expect and festivities of all stripes and eagerly anticipating things. (Ahem, Christmas.)


But, even good things like traditions can be taken to an extreme. It’s not that traditions or rituals are bad (most definitely not!), it’s just that I think a maxim I adhere to throughout my life is appropriate here, too: everything in moderation. Instead of worrying that my family hasn’t established a special meal for Halloween night or bought the birthday banner that will reappear with every trip around the sun, I want to embrace the fun of thinking up new ways to celebrate! I never want to lose the margin for new holiday activities, new after-school snacks, and new Easter dinners that we haven’t yet dreamed up.

One example we wrestle with: vacations. Here’s how it goes: A non-negotiable for me is going to Maine every summer. Absolutely has-to-happen, can’t-miss, no way, no how. Got it. We’ve also grown to love going to Asheville in the fall. Okay, we can make that work. Our trip to Bald Head Island over Memorial Day was amazing – we should make that a tradition, too! Okayyy, we can maybe do that. Isn’t Charleston in the spring magical? We’re within driving distance, so let’s do that every year!

Charleston-Bald Head Island-Maine-Asheville would be an amazing year of vacations, and I wouldn’t complain about it! But if we actually wanted to do those four trips every single year, we’d have very few vacation days (and dollars!) to do anything else. Over a lifetime, we’d miss out on so many other amazing destinations!

To bring it back to the perception of time we’ve been talking about: If your entire day, week, and year is already assembled for you from blocks of tradition before you even flip the page on the calendar, might your brain respond the same way it does when it meets with any boring stimuli? Shut off, say “nothing to see here?” In the pursuit of meaningful lives, I don’t want us (and by us, I really mean me) to lose the joy and importance of spontaneity. I don’t want every year to feel like a repeat of the one before, and therefore glide by almost unnoticed.

Tradition and rituals satisfy a deep craving for me, and I’m guessing for you, too. But I think it’s worth trying to strike a balance between margin for novelty and tradition, and at the same time, take the pressure off all of us to make every single moment special and meaningful. Because in the end, I think what really makes life meaningful is the people with whom we spend it, no matter what we’re doing.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, friends! Have you ever wrestled with this? Does your life lean more heavily toward tradition or novelty?

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October 10, 2016 8:50 am

This post could not have been more perfectly timed for me. I am an oldest child, a lifelong Maine-vacationer, and a lover of traditions and rituals. I am also a newlywed, in a season of trying to honor traditions from both my family and my husband’s family while creating our own. Thank you for reminding me that it doesn’t all need to be figured out perfectly, at once, meaningfully, in the first year. Your kind, thoughtful, moderate advice is so refreshing!

October 10, 2016 9:02 am

I think traditions are special, connecting a family or group of friends more deeply through the shared experience in anticipation and nostalgia. But traditions are not always worth keeping or fighting for if it becomes more of a burden than a blessing for the people involved. If the budget doesn’t allot for another trip or the snow doesn’t fall before the annual family snowball fight, novelty sweeps in when we find something new to fill that place instead of stressing over things not being ‘perfect’. Some of our sweetest family traditions came about as an adaptation of a tradition that once better suited our family but has now grown along with us in new form. :)

October 10, 2016 11:44 am

YES to all of this! And some encouragement–two of my most beloved family traditions (both involving food, haha–chili and cornbread on Halloween and Christmas gumbo!) didn’t start till I was in high school :)
Kind of related, I love a sentiment my mom shared with me a few years ago. She never imagined she would raise her kids in the house that we lived in in Qatar–exactly the same as every single house in our compound, company-issued furniture, etc–rather than a “dream house” that she loved, but when it came down to it, the memories we made inside that house and from living where we lived far outweighed the home she had always imagined. That has been a great reminder to me that a setting or situation doesn’t have to be perfect to become something really special!

October 11, 2016 8:59 pm

I completely agree with this post :)

And might I add that I think our generation’s draw to trying to make everything meaningful is in part due to our connection to social media. I’m someone who admits that I have to limit my Facebook time and what I post because years ago I realized I would come down with serious cases of F.O.M.O. after seeing everything my “friends” were posting.

In the quest to make everything meaningful, I remind myself regularly that not everything has to be perfectly planned out all the time, or done the same way all the time, and not everything has to be “Instagrammed” or “Instagrammable.” I don’t actually have Instagram, but hopefully you get the idea :)

October 12, 2016 12:35 pm

Very thoughtful, Em, and well put. I also think it can be important to remember that often what’s most important is that you (and your family, friends, etc.) are together and doing SOMETHING together, not precisely what it is.

October 26, 2016 5:36 pm
Reply to  Rob

Yes!! Absolutely!

October 13, 2016 3:24 pm

This totally makes sense to me Em. I’m the same way but I also struggle with trips that are fun but tend to seem more like an obligation each year because they are to see family that is out of town. Since your families aren’t in NC do you struggle with this too? Is there an annual trip home each summer that you factor in? How do you balance creating time for family v. prioritizing time for your little family of 3?