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
And some traditions are born out of other things. Sisters Kyra Dunshee and Krista Mortensen both lost babies, decades apart. In honor of Cole and Adam, they decorate the graves of all the babies in the Bountiful cemetery on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They started with snowflakes on wires. This year, they placed 350 little gingerbread men with smiling faces, mounted on stakes. They take them down again around the first of January. Some of those babies died 50 years ago, but they will never be forgotten as long as the sisters can honor them each year.
Last year, they started a new tradition. They also raise money to help families that have lost a baby but cannot afford a marker for the tiny grave.
"A headstone is that baby's only identity to many people," says Dunshee.
Researcher Barbara Fiese, an expert in traditions' value and director of the Family Resiliency Center in Urbana, Ill., says traditions improve family and child outcomes, from marital satisfaction to academic achievement, and language and social skills development for children. In a study with Mary Spagnola of the University of Syracuse, they noted that some actions are both routines and rituals: "The practical tasks involved with completing the meal may be similar between families and families may practice similar rituals. However, rituals are distinct and unique to particular families, reflecting family identity, culture and shared values. Embedded in the complexities of day-to-day family life, family routines and rituals provide a context for the development of children." The meaning connected to them, they concluded, "may be closely linked with other mechanisms of developmental processes, such as parental efficacy, behavior monitoring and working models of family relationships."
Children in families with a tradition of eating dinner together are significantly less likely to use illegal drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol, says research out this year from the National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Yorgason says research has shown enhanced communication, satisfaction, interaction, problem solving, trust and love from development of traditions.
He believes the value lies not so much in the tradition or family ritual itself, but in what happens related to it, such as deep conversations and forged connections between siblings or parents and their children or between spouses. When families gather at Christmas for a meal or to exchange gifts, it is what goes on between the individuals that matters.
He, too, notes that anticipation adds sweetness to tradition.
Traditions are not always easy. One couple jokes about the battle the first year they had children over whether Santa wraps gifts or not. It turns out the jolly old elf handles family visits differently.
Yours, mine, ours?
Blending traditions isn't always easy. Individuals tend to try to keep the traditions they valued within their own families, but sometimes those compete.
"It can be a beneficial thing to create your own rituals and traditions instead," says Yorgason. "It helps to define who a family is and what it is all about." There's nothing wrong with pulling from previous traditions, but forging unique new ones is important, as well, he notes.
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