If you find yourself trying to balance your vision for a perfect holiday with the reality of a tight budget this holiday season, you're not alone. Many families are having difficulty giving as many gifts as they'd like, or as they may have in years passed--which makes it even more important to have family rituals and traditions to focus on.

Why are rituals important?

Dr. William J. Doherty, author of the book The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties, suggests that rituals provide family members with a sense of a family culture that everyone contributes to. Around the holidays, when money is tight and stress is high, may be a particularly good time to create family rituals. "Historically, if you look at how family rituals developed, they really developed at a time when there were economic forces trying to pull the family apart," says Dr. Barbara Fiese, chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Syracuse.

What makes a tradition a tradition?

Despite what you may think, family traditions don't have to be religious or elaborate--they simply need to be meaningful enough to be memorable and stand the test of time, according to Dr. Fiese. Other key components of a lasting ritual are that it:

  • Is something your family anticipates
  • Forms emotional bonds
  • Has symbolic meaning
  • Is something you can play over and over again in your memory
  • Is the basis of family stories
  • Can be passed down among generations

Ideas for Creating New Traditions

Some holiday activities evolve into family traditions without that intention. Using the same pose every year for holiday pictures or opening presents in order from youngest to oldest are examples of traditions that your family probably hasn't ever discussed, but may automatically do. Creating new traditions may require discussion, to make sure that it fills a need for everyone in the family--adults and children alike. To effectively discuss a new tradition, you can:

  • Talk about why you need traditions. It could be that your family has outgrown some rituals or that you're looking for a way to bring the family closer together. Whatever the reason, defining the purpose of having traditions can make it easier to create them
  • Involve the whole family in the creation process. Adults tend to be the ones who come up with ideas and instate them, while the kids just going along with those ideas. Establishing a tradition this way won't make it likely to stand the test of time because it won't be meaningful to everyone
  • Identify what's most important about the holiday to your family. If your family is religious, new traditions may revolve around going to church or temple or the re-telling of the history of your holiday. If your family celebrates a holiday season in a more secular way, creating traditions around cooking a special food or decorating your home may be more appropriate
  • Be flexible--consider modifying current traditions. Rituals will only last as long as all family members feel comfortable with them. If what you're doing for the holidays is working for some of you but is causing stress for others, it's time to make some changes. Perhaps a large family meal is a still a good idea, but it should be a group effort instead of a solo one

The traditions you create help to provide a sense of belonging and identity, both of which can protect against stress. They're a way of remembering that even when life is overwhelming, you're all in it together.