My all-time favorite picture of myself hangs on my office wall. It's done in purple crayon on newsprint and finished off with a black-and-gold frame from Wal-Mart.
The reason I like it, aside from the fact that I love the once-little artist, is that it reminds me of a goofy family ritual. Every St. Patrick's Day I bake Irish soda bread, crank up the Chieftains on the stereo and dance the hornpipe in the kitchen. When my daughters were small, they thought this was hysterical fun. Now they just think it's hysterical, but I do it anyway because 1) I like to; 2) my husband gets a kick out of it; and 3) I still can.
When you get right down to it, the fact that we perform a variety of rituals year after year because we like to, and because we still can, may very well be the most important thing there is to know about these repeated acts. Five years ago when I framed the drawing of myself dancing in the kitchen I didn't know this. I just liked the way my skinny little stick legs kick out from my triangle body and the uncanny resemblance my smile bears to the over-sized cups they serve cafe latte in down at the local coffeehouse. But the longer that picture hangs in my office, the clearer it becomes that the traditions that fill our lives with laughter, joy and a sense of the sacred are at the center of the gifts of life, love and family.
Robert Fulghum, author of From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives (Villard), calls ritual "a frame around the moment." Whether large or small, individual or universal, these repetitive acts whisper, "Hey! Pay attention! This matters!" Sure, my annual St. Patrick's Day dance is, uh, amateurish (I haven't received any invitations to perform with Riverdance). But I'd be willing to bet my gold-buckled hornpipe shoes that long after I'm too old and arthritic to shuffle across the hardwood, the memory of this ritual will linger on. It doesn't matter how corny, ridiculous or boring a ritual may seem to others. If it works for you, it works.
From small daily acts to once-a-year celebrations, traditions give our lives structure and provide a deep sense of security. It's comforting when you wake up knowing that all you have to do is flip the switch on the coffeepot and soon you will start the day with a cup of fine French roast and morning prayer. Even the more celebrated traditions, such as decorating the Christmas tree, are unique and special for the simple reason that nobody else does them exactly the way your family does. Who else would laugh uproariously at the sight of the computer ornament with the Santa face on its tiny plastic screen? To get the joke, you'd have had to have been there the year the hard drive crashed. Some traditions, like the Swedish custom of baking Lucia bread on the Feast of St. Lucy, remind you of your roots. There's wonder and mystery in knowing that you are part of something that stretches back for generations.
Rituals have the power to connect us with each other and with the past, and they help us weave a lasting legacy for future generations. It's important to create them early in your marriage and keep them alive through the years. But that's not to say traditions never should be altered. Remember, there is "a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven" (Eccl. 3:1). Just as life plays out in seasons, so does your marriage. The traditions you create and maintain will evolve to match the stage of marriage you're in.
The Early Years
Trying Something New
Like many couples at the beginning of their married lives, Tom and Cecily knew they needed to form meaningful traditions. They both had plenty of ideas, but sometimes their visions didn't quite jibe. Take mornings, for example.
Cecily loved the idea of rising with the sun, grabbing some coffee and easing into the day with Tom beside her on the couch. The problem was that Tom often slept through the snooze alarm and ended up dashing out the door with his briefcase in one hand and his tie in the other. Even when he made the effort to drag out of bed early he was tired and grumpy. Tom loved the idea of connecting with his wife, he just preferred waiting until evening. But that's when Cecily was preoccupied with grading papers.
"We had a lot of arguments about it," Cecily recalls. "I thought he was being unbelievably selfish."
"And I thought she was rigid," Tom interjects.
They had no idea how to solve this one—until the morning they spontaneously shared a hug in the garage before dashing off to their respective cars. Tom rested his chin on his wife's head and murmured, "Thank you, God, for a wife who understands that I have to work late Wednesday and miss the church potluck, and whose hair is as beautiful as Cindy Crawford's."
Surprised and delighted, Cecily responded, "Thank you, God, for Tom's strong arms, the way he smells like toothpaste and British Sterling, and the fact that he promised to go shopping with me tonight."
So began a daily ritual they call The Gratitudes. It takes only a minute, but it's creative and fun, gets the day off to a positive start, and most of all, connects them with each other and with God.
To be effective, a ritual needn't be elaborate, but it must be satisfying to all who participate in it. Whether it's a new spin on an old favorite, a combination of both spouses' cherished childhood memories, or something altogether new, a ritual satisfies most when it responds to the deep yearning for communion with the one you love. Working out shared traditions requires a process of trial and error. Not everything you try will "click." And very often it's the smallest and most spontaneous things that bring the greatest pleasure.
The Middle Years
The Expectation Trap
When survival can hinge on a box of Minute Rice and a frozen Create-A-Meal wedged in between work and soccer practice, it's tough to find time to even think about rituals, much less perform them. But the busy years of juggling jobs and kids are your prime chance to make lasting family memories. Rituals give your kids a sense of identity, teach them what you value, and root them deep in the family circle. Some traditions last forever, while others require change, or even abandonment. Either way, in order to reap maximum satisfaction you've got to go with the flow. When time is at a premium, it's tempting to expect too much return for your effort. As Monica and Dave found out, preconceived expectations and children don't always dovetail as neatly as they do on TV specials.
Their problem arose last year when Monica went all out to recreate a "traditional old-fashioned Christmas." As she painted pinecones and wooden sleighs her thoughts were daubed with the same golden brush—smiling children, warm fuzzies by the fire and a house that looked like a Martha Stewart showpiece. So when the inevitable tears, tummy aches and trail of torn wrapping paper spoiled the fantasy, she and Dave both felt cheated. They had spent so much money and worked so hard for this? It was the same chaotic Christmas they always had.
But ritual isn't about perfection, it's about connecting. When you perform your rituals with care and planning, but at the same time embrace whatever the moment brings, you open yourself to unexpected gifts and unplanned joy.
Jenny and Joe understand this. A few years ago they broke with tradition and decided to take their family vacation during Easter week. Since Easter is a time of renewal and nothing invigorates them more than travel, an Easter journey seemed tailor-made for their family. With lingering doubts about being away from extended family, they booked a condo on Sanibel Island and made the trip anyway. For three days it rained almost nonstop. So much for fun in the sun. But they made their own fun, collecting shells in between sprinkles, playing games and writing and starring in a zany homemade video. When Easter morning dawned with a glorious sunrise and a worship service on the beach, it seemed like icing on the cake. Yet there was more to come. On the way back to their condo they watched with awe as a flock of roseate spoonbills took flight, rising like a cloud to soar across the sky.
"It was so amazing," Jenny says. "We had closed one door and opened another and in that moment it seemed like God was saying 'yes.' The ritual of the Easter trip is a keeper." Though family traditions definitely take center stage during marriage's middle years, it's important to keep your "couple rituals" alive. The special things you do to connect in the midst of family chaos will pay off in the season to come when you will once again be alone together.
The Later Years
Revamp, Renew and Rejoice
You've created wonderful family memories and have the photo albums to prove it. Now, in what seems like the wink of an eye, all those exasperating, charming, adorable kids are gone and, like Bill Cosby says, you've "got the house back." You've also got each other. At this time of life the art of ritual-making takes on a new poignancy and sweetness as it resurrects the tenderness and pleasure of "just being a couple."
Whether you find the transition simple or challenging, the process is a little like moving from autumn into winter. Before you can enjoy the warmth of the fire you have to put up the storm windows. It requires work.
When Linda and Fred packed their youngest child off to college, the silence nearly deafened them. Looking back, they realize they moved into a period of mourning over the fact that life would never again be the same. Though they loved the prospect of fulfilling old dreams and pursuing new pleasures together, they first had to mourn what they'd lost. They began walking around the lake near their home every evening, sharing memories, feelings and hopes for the future. Sometimes there were tears, a few times arguments, but many more times healing laughter. Their nightly walk became a wonderful new tradition.
One of the biggest pitfalls of this period is refusing to let go. Many couples cling so tenaciously to family traditions that if an adult child abandons one, it's a staggering blow. Change is tough, but if you think back to your own struggle to create new traditions as a couple, you'll begin to loosen your grip on the past. It's not that the old rites no longer matter, but rather that they are meaningful only when they mean something to the participants.
Some traditions, of course, will last and there's exquisite joy in seeing them continue into the next generation. One older couple, Mary and Will, both of Scottish descent, enjoy participating with their grandchildren in Burns Night, a celebration of the birthday of poet Robert Burns. They had done it with their own parents and with their children when they were young. Now they prepare the traditional foods, read the poems, and play the same music to the delight of a new generation.
But this tradition didn't continue because anyone insisted on it. Instead, Mary and Will allowed their adult son to rediscover the beloved ritual and introduce it to his family.
No matter which stage of marriage you're in, ritual is a way to celebrate the life you share with those you love. To maintain successful family traditions, be flexible and spontaneous, don't let unrealistic expectations get in the way, and be sure to make time for "couple stuff."
Most of all, relax and enjoy the miracle of being together.
Eileen Silva Kindig is the author of Remember the Time … The Power and Promise of Family Storytelling (InterVarsity). She and her husband, Eric, live in Ohio.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.