Building traditions: The power of the holidays to forge family bonds

Published: Friday, Dec. 23 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

Sally Ames makes cookies with her grandmother Suzanne Tate, whose family has made the activity a tradition.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

HOLLADAY — A pinch of salt, some flour and sugar, a laughing grandmother, doting children and a hot oven are all you need to bake a family bond.

Making Christmas cookies right before the big day is a tradition for Suzanne Tate, a woman steeped in tradition, a birthright from her own parents, Ed and Elizabeth Jeppson. They raised their 11 kids in sit-down dinners together, Family Home Evenings, conversations about good character and God and impromptu skits. Decades later, those children and their spouses meet for a group dinner every month. And on Memorial Day they all gather, with their own families — Ed and Elizabeth's posterity has swelled to 245 — at the cemetery to place flowers and exchange hugs and "do some remember when."

"Traditions truly bond a family together," says Tate. "Children particularly love repetition." She likens it to a child's love of reading the same book over and over.

Some of Tate's traditions center around holidays and faith. But she and her husband Warren have created others, as well. When they attend their grandchildrens' activities — and they seldom miss one — they always take the child for treats after. "We have traditions with all 31 of us and we have other traditions within each individual family," Tate says.

In Bountiful, Nikki and Callahan Williams will wake up Christmas morning and cuddle their daughters, Eliza, 6, and Caroline, 2, before reaching for the cards and letters that are their oldest daughter's gifts. She has a degenerative neurological disorder that has made her regress. She long ago stopped speaking, walking, crawling.

Her parents turned her love of being read to into an ongoing book drive; they outfit children's libraries in schools and health clinics with books donated by friends and strangers alike.

On Christmas, to them the holiest and most joyful of days, a tree in Eliza's room is stacked with cards that are a gift to the girl and to the sender both: They outline what acts of kindness, what gifts of time the sender has given in Eliza's honor. It is a tradition that will likely outlive the child that inspired it.

Little things count

Traditions don't have to be big, bold gestures. They can be small moments in time, as well. But they are important, says Jeremy Yorgason, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Even little rituals — meaningful, symbolic interactions — strengthen or create emotional bonds.

Yorgason's children, ages 4, 7, 11 and 14, have one: Everybody looks under the table and they count to three, then the kids yell, "Thanks, Mom, for the delicious food." He doesn't remember how it started; it would be a strange dinner without it.

A Friday movie night, a weekly daddy-daughter breakfast, an annual family trip to Lake Powell are all examples of bond-forging traditions.

Some center on holidays. Lorrie Norman of Salt Lake City delighted her children with breakfast scones every Christmas. Mary Lou Holman has attended The Nutcracker for more than 50 years. Linda Whipple of Kansas City, Mo., lines each of her children up, shortest to tallest, each January 1 to march through the rooms of their rambler, turning on and off every single light and water faucet. It brings luck, she says, and ushers in a fresh start to match the fresh year. The tradition in her family dates back at least to her grandmother's childhood.

There are nearly universal traditions, like the singing of "Happy Birthday" amid the candles and cake and national customs and religion-based rites.

From sorrow, joy

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