When we gather together around a table groaning with favourite dishes on special occasions, what are we doing beyond filling our bellies? Here, four experts in the psychology of family traditions discuss what ritual means in the context of holidays.
These psychologists focused on Thanksgiving, however the same psychological effects are also applicable to holidays such as Christmas.
Anne Fishel, psychologist and author of Home for Dinner: I think of Thanksgiving as the mother of all family dinners. As a ritual, it has all the important ingredients — a prescribed time and place; aspects that are predictable and repeated year after year (signature foods) and some that are novel (guests added and departed, new family stories and arguments); and meaning conveyed through symbols. Each year, families come together to revisit something familiar but keep adding new layers of meaning, so that the ritual is reinterpreted.
Janine Roberts, family therapist and author of Rituals for Our Times: I think another reason rituals are so powerful is because they’re active and have many sensory elements to them — smelling foods, seeing the lit candles, hearing the rhythm of words as thanks are given.
Barbara Fiese, psychologist and author of Family Routines and Rituals:
Another key ingredient is great expectations. Because Thanksgiving is repeated every year, there’s a buildup to the day — making sure everyone is included, dishes assigned, and lots and lots of planning around food. Expectations are sometimes a double-edged sword. You expect the turkey to taste fantastic; sometimes it does… and sometimes it’s on the dry side. You expect guests and relatives to be warm and inviting; sometimes they are… and sometimes they aren’t. Emotional connections keep this ritual going — along with some pretty good food.
Bill Doherty, researcher and family therapist: I’d add that Thanksgiving has an element that makes for longstanding family traditions: an intergenerational ritual that we remember from childhood and gradually assume more responsibility for over the life cycle. There are also poignant times when the chief architect of the Thanksgiving ritual grows older and has to pass the mantle to the next generation, sometimes not willingly.
What is the value of these kinds of traditions and rituals? What do we get out of participating, in terms of our health?
Barbara: Our group has conducted research on how routines and rituals are related to both physical and mental health. Through direct observation of family mealtimes at home, we’ve found that how families communicate with one another during meals is related to the children’s health. For example, when families show genuine concern about their child’s daily activities — such as asking about their day or following up on how a test went in school — teachers report these children are less likely to show acting-out behaviours in school. What’s more, these interactions make children with chronic health conditions such as asthma feel more secure, and they’re more likely to report that they feel better throughout the day.
These are just correlational studies — we can’t say that positive communication causes better health outcomes. But we do think that repeating these positive behaviours — attending to emotions during meals, recognising other’s concerns, demonstrating you truly care about what’s happening in each other’s lives — over time provides a supportive emotional climate for healthy development.
For rituals such as Thanksgiving, these emotional connections come to represent what it means to be a member of a particular family. We’ve also found in our research that when parents have more positive memories of family rituals from when they were growing up, they also tend to interact more positively with their children, which in turn leads to better mental health for the kids. It’s hard to escape the intergenerational pattern of these rituals.
Anne: There’s another intergenerational aspect of Thanksgiving — joining a Thanksgiving meal makes us feel we’re part of something bigger than ourselves when we connect to our extended family and to the generations that preceded us. Often, this larger family is represented by stories told about the food or about family members. Kids who know their family’s stories grow up to be more resilient — better able to withstand the slings and arrows of everyday life. And adults who get to share their stories feel valued.
Bill: The classic outcomes of regular rituals for families are coherence (a sense of identity) and connection (a sense of closeness). Beyond the good health outcomes of positive family interaction during family dinner rituals, in a new study, my colleagues and I have found that barriers to good interaction — such as mobile phone use, people getting up from the table and arguments — were even more strongly related (in a negative direction) to children’s psychological well-being and academic performance. The implication is that we have to pay attention to doing some things well during meals — such as staying at the table and laughing together — but also avoid negative interactions.
Barbara: How true, Bill. We recently used an experimental approach to document how disruptions can really mess up the power of good positive mealtime interactions. We have a research home here at the University of Illinois, complete with dining area, kitchen and living room. We brought 60 families into the home (one family at a time, of course) and exposed half of them to a very loud vacuum cleaner for the first 10 to 15 minutes of a meal. People exposed to this racket got up from the table more often, engaged in less positive communication and ate more unhealthy foods (Oreos) than those who were not exposed to the loud noise. We think this is an analogue of all the intrusions you often see at meal gatherings — the mobile phones, tablets and televisions that disrupt the positive benefits of sharing meals together.
Bill: Great to see experimental research in this area, Barbara! On the positive side of the equation, we found something intriguing in a survey of 1000 children ages eight to 18. Participating in cleanup after the meal was right up there with more traditional correlates of children’s well-being outcomes, such as having a good conversation and laughing together. Active participation is good for family rituals, as opposed to the consumer approach where someone puts on Thanksgiving for everyone else to enjoy.
Anne: Another study found primary school kids who made lunch were much more likely to eat it. One of the great features of Thanksgiving is that it usually pulls in many cooks to the kitchen. Guests often come bearing a homemade pie or cranberry sauce. I wish that this spirit of sharing the work of dinner could carry to everyday family dinners.
Barbara: And let’s not forget that Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for expressing gratitude about health, family and personal circumstances. Psychologists are finding that simply enumerating the things you’re grateful for can give you a greater sense of well-being. Family researchers have recently turned their attention to the role that forgiveness may play in marital satisfaction and health. Forgiveness is a complex process that requires genuine interpersonal change. If we take time to pause at this time of the year to let go of petty transgressions and/or annoyances in relationships, perhaps this will allow greater perspective about the gratitude we can feel for what we have.
Janine: Being attentive to all the different ages of people who are there at Thanksgiving is central to making sure giving thanks is part of the gathering. How can elders connect with children and vice versa in meaningful ways? One family wrote simple thanks cards (the youngest members drew) highlighting things they were thankful for over the past year and then shared them as a way to focus dinnertime talk on gratitude and appreciation. And some families choose to serve food at a community Thanksgiving for the homeless or do other types of service to connect with those who don’t have access to the same level of resources.
What is participation in these rituals like for people who don’t fit the Normal Rockwell painting version?
Janine: The media and people selling things push expectations by featuring, for example, photos of the “perfect” family — usually a white, heterosexual couple, two children, and the dog and cat — with huge smiles sitting down to a delicious Thanksgiving meal. This sends difficult messages to families that are actually the majority: single-parent or remarried; Latino, black, Native American and Asian families; bicultural and biracial families; gay, lesbian or transgender; or families who have recently experienced a death or other major loss.
Barbara: Janine, you raise some really good points. These rituals are times of remembrance. When we tell the same stories over and over again, often we’re remembering people who are no longer there, even as we miss the laughter and joke-telling of those who are gone. It’s also a way to share across generations so the younger family members can learn about older folks that they may have never met. Often these are stories that are told about ritual gatherings like Thanksgiving.
Anne: In my work with The Family Dinner Project, we try to push back on visions of family dinner that are constraining. Instead of invoking the bygone 1950s era of women doing all the cooking, we emphasise the importance of sharing the workload. And rather than focus on trying to cook a perfect, gourmet meal, we concentrate on what happens at the table in terms of having fun and interesting conversation.
Our current national moment is characterised by more “nontraditional” families and more of us separated by distance from those we care about. How does a somewhat old-fashioned harvest holiday maintain its value on the annual calendar?
Barbara: A marker of successful rituals is that they also change with the times. As we bring new members into the fold, we make room for new traditions. We can redefine “family” so neighbours, newcomers to the community and international visitors can have a place at the table. These are times to learn about other traditions — expand our group and hopefully expand our world.
Anne: I agree that change is a vital characteristic of vibrant rituals. You also made me think about ways the larger cultural observance of Thanksgiving has changed — in particular the advent of Friendsgiving, a more casual get-together before or after Thanksgiving that highlights the importance of friends.
Bill: The hallmark of successful rituals over time is a combination of predictability and flexibility. You can change the people, for example, but keep the turkey! Sometimes when a family has gone through a major loss, they may decide to try something very different the next Thanksgiving. After the death of the mother in a family with young children, the father and children decided to travel and be in a different part of the country with family friends the first Thanksgiving after their loss. Families need cultural permission to emphasise stability of rituals when they need that, and innovation when they need something different.
Janine: Well-said, Bill. I’ve worked with a number of families over the decades who, to honour changing values and dietary needs, have made vegetarian dishes the heart of the meal. After all, the “Turkey Day” tradition is “thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign on the part of the poultry industry.” Create what works for you and leave behind what doesn’t. And we shouldn’t forget that holidays and rituals can be very different in different communities — some Native Americans, for example, mark Thanksgiving as a National Day of Mourning.
Anne: It’s that balance of sameness and change that makes this ritual so important. Adults need rituals as much as kids do because they help us step back from the everyday hubbub and feel connected to something bigger and something evolving.
Annual holidays remind us of the continuity of family life, linking us to the generations who preceded us and to earlier times in our own family when we celebrated this same holiday. Against the predictable canvas of the turkey and mashed potatoes, we’re also reminded that our family keeps changing. A grandfather’s death leaves an empty chair. A cousin is expecting her first child. An adult child has gone to spend the holiday with his girlfriend’s family. I think it’s important to embrace change by adding some new elements: you might invite someone new or add a different twist to your mother’s stuffing, or play a new game. The balance of familiarity and novelty keeps holidays feeling meaningful. Maintaining our connections year after year gives an anchor.
Barbara Fiese is Director of the Family Resiliency Center and Professor of Human Development & Family Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Anne Fishel is Author of Home for Dinner and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School ; Bill Doherty, is Professor of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota, and Janine Roberts is Professor Emerita of Family Therapy, University of Massachusetts Amherst
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