Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Stabilizing and Healing Power of Traditions

The holiday season is coming on quickly!  COVID has really affected the way most have had to approach gatherings both public and private--surely, this holiday season will be no different. The restrictions, which have become unpredictable and varied in strictness, have also impacted the limits of our resources including our time, energy, and money. This Christmas season may cause us to reevaluate or rework some of our traditions. How do we adapt?  What traditions will we keep?  What will we choose and why?  We have some time right now; let’s not go into the season reactive. We need traditions now more than ever. There are some things we can do.  

First, let’s clarify why traditions matter.  Why do we need traditions?  What purpose do they serve?

Traditions Create a Sense of Order and Stability

Traditions are tools that can create order and stability both physically and emotionally, especially if those traditions are regular. Some of these traditions can be as simple as Sunday dinners shared together or family prayer at the end of each day. Simple traditions, like these, bookend our weeks and days. The feeling that everything is as it should be--that things are in order--deescalates tension and anxiety. Order can be created in our homes and in our lives, not only with what we own but with how we use those things and how we arrange our time.   

Traditions Create Opportunities to Transmit Values 

As humans, we consciously or unconsciously search for and embrace patterns that aid in survival and safety. It’s literally built into our DNA.  Research from the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health confirms this. Additionally, an article from out of Ohio State University, published May 31, 2018, confirms this fact: “Detecting patterns is an important part of how humans learn and make decisions.” The traditions we chose to propagate in our homes and lives create opportunities to teach patterns of living--patterns that reinforce beliefs we hold dear and values we hope to transmit. It’s up to us to choose those traditions wisely, not by default or worse, blindly. Traditions stand as physical witnesses of what we believe and want to keep present and alive even if it requires sacrifice on our part of time, money, or energy. They act as tools to teach values

Traditions Create a Sense of Unity 

Traditions are the embodiment of shared memories and connections to the past, they tie us to loved ones present, and are an unspoken promise to future posterity about what we chose to preserve.  As such, traditions link generations and unite our affection across generations.  Before I left home to attend college, which was over 2,000 miles away from my home in North Carolina, I carefully copied recipes my mom kept over the years from her mother and grandmother including her own favorites.  Being so far away from home, I wanted something to help me stay linked to the line of women I come from. Every Thanksgiving I include one of those recipes--along with new ones--as a nod to tradition.  I find that food is often a common denominator in our traditions.  It’s so fundamental.  

As a nation, there’s nothing like BBQs, parades, and firework shows on Independence Day every year on the fourth of July.  As a child, I was raised as an Army B.R.A.T. (“Born, Raised, and Trained”).  We lived all over the country and regularly saw soldiers training, helicopters flying over, and humvees driving all over. I remember hoping my dad would bring home MRE’s after returning from practice trips in the field.  (As a sidebar, MRE’s are “Meals, ready-to-Eat”. Everything in the military is made into an acronym!) Every fourth of July my dad would take all six of us kids to airshows with a picnic lunch where we got to see the Blue Angels fly in formation, biplanes do loop-de-loops, and even climb into tanks on display from WWII. It was very impactful on me as a young girl to see how many people came to celebrate together.  So much effort went into those events.  Participating in these national traditions as an adult helps me feel linked to my country and its citizens past and present, still.  It always brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye. I love it. The traditions we practice can unify us--even if we are separated--not just as families, but as communities and as nations.

Traditions Set the Tone of Our Environments 

The physical environment of our spaces, particularly of our homes where we have more direct influence, is a primary tool in shaping the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual tone in which we live. Traditions are tools that can set the tone of our most cherished environment: our home. There is so much evidence of this I hardly know where to start--in fact, I’ll have to revisit this idea later in a post--it’s vital!  Through the physical environment, you create either purposefully or inadvertently, you are sending messages about what you value.  Period.  Traditions are physical expressions with spiritual consequences.  What tone do you want to evoke in your life, or in the lives of those who live in or pass through your home environment? What emotions do you want to invite through your traditions?  What principles or ideas do you want to reinforce? 

In our home, prayer is a simple but poignant family tradition; it sets a tone. When we sit down to a meal as a family we say a prayer of thanks for the food even if friends or guests come over.  We want to set a tone of gratitude through this daily tradition.  Through mealtime prayer, we also want to teach our children the tone of humility--that gratitude God comes first and that He is the giver of all things that give life and allow for its abundance.  We reaffirm that physical urges are tempered by putting God first.

For Christmas this year, I’ve decided to make a gingerbread house again.  It’s been years.  Besides setting a tone of wonder and awe in my children over the years, for me personally, a gingerbread house is a work of love, a symbol of prosperity, and an act of sacrifice.  It's a physical reminder to myself that prosperity is a creative act in which I play a key part. 

There’s more to gingerbread though that sets the tone I want to feel this season.  Historically, gingerbread is a symbol of faith and endurance. In Germany, gingerbread is called Lebkuchen; ‘kuchen’ is cake, ‘leb’ could have a variety of meanings.  There are a few possibilities of the etymology of ‘leb’.  It might come from:

Latin libum (flat bread)

Germanic Laib (loaf) or lebbe (very sweet)

Germanic Leben (life), Leib (body), or attached to compound words that indicate ‘favorite’ like Leibspeise (favorite food)  


The Germanic meaning is richly historical and deeply Christian. In one of His most powerful and, ironically, stigmatizing sermons Christ taught in St. John chapter 6 in The New Testament

Verse 48: “I am that Bread (Laib or loaf) of Life (Leben). 

Verse 50: This is the bread (Laib or loaf) which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die (Leben or to live; be alive)

Verse 51: “I am the living bread (Leben Laib or living bread loaf) which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread (Laib or loaf), he shall live (Leben) forever….

Let’s put this together: Gingerbread--or Lebkuchen--is the flat, very sweet, and favored bread that gives life; to the Christian, it is a symbol of Christ’s life and the eternal life he promised to the faithful.  

Gingerbread is a particularly potent symbol for eternal life. The physical properties of ginger extend the life of this flatbread.  By comparison to yeasted bread, the chemical properties of ginger cause it to be preserved in its soft form for months.  The life of the bread is extended unnaturally by comparison. 

Additionally, it was also used as medicine for gastrointestinal ailments. It holds healing properties.

Recognizing this ‘eternal life’ symbolism, according to the online Smithsonian Magazine, “Ladies (in medieval Europe) often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament.” It was a symbol of a long and preserved life.  The Germans connected this ‘eternal life in Christ’ symbolism to gingerbread. 

There is another way gingerbread represented a saved life historically. Karen Cottingham, writing about gingerbread for The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit, says, “Unlike most other foods of this (medieval) era, gingerbread could be safely stored for long periods of time and was life-sustaining during the all-too-frequent times of famine.”

It was also used medicinally to heal stomach and intestine ailments. According to an article written by Ann M. Bode and Zigang Dong called “The Amazing and Mighty Ginger,” and published by The National Institute for Health, “Ginger has been used for thousands of years for the treatment of numerous ailments, such as colds, nausea, arthritis, migraines, and hypertension.”

Gingerbread became a symbol of Christ, of healing and comfort, of sweetness, of salvation from death by famine, of protection from danger in battle, and of eternal life.

 What environment do you want to create?  What memories will your thoughtful preparation bless others with through the years to come? You can contribute to that experience. You can help set the tone. 

The Choice to Create Meaningful Traditions is an Expression of Self-love

Sometimes, keeping traditions alive is an act of hope and courage. It is willfully resisting discouragement and despair in ourselves by creating the environment and events that support how we want to feel. When we take a stand to defend and support our own needs we acknowledge that we matter.  It’s not self-indulgent. It’s spiritual and emotional self-defensive.

Here’s a Quick Summary:

When is it appropriate to adapt traditions?

Sometimes traditions have to change because the original context of a tradition no longer applies. change. I remember hearing a story of a family whose grandmother and mother always cooked ham sliced in half.  It was just how it was done in their family. As each generation of children grew up and had their own homes, they continued to bake their hams after first cutting them in half into the third generation. One day, during meal preparation, a spouse protested: “Why do you always cut the ham in half to cook and serve it?  Does it taste better?  Does it make the cooking time faster?” There was no answer.  It’s just how it was always done in their memory.  To solve the query, they decided to call up mom and ask.  She responded, “It’s how my mom did it.  That’s how it’s always been done in our family.”  They decided to call grandma.  When they got grandma on the phone she gave a hearty laugh and explained, “the only reason I cut it in half all those years was that my oven was always too small to cook the whole thing in one piece!”  The ham cutting tradition ended that day.  

Sometimes we keep traditions alive simply because we don’t understand the context of the tradition.  Family habits inadvertently evolve to become family traditions.  When the context of these traditions change, we can reevaluate and adapt. Traditions become meaningful when we understand and agree with their purposes. What traditions will you adapt? What will you keep the same? Why?

Traditions Can be Adapted as Needed to Suit Your Needs, Your Objectives, and Your Resources

If I need to, how do I adapt my traditions?

  1. Consciously decide what outcomes you want to create and why. What are the highest values you want to reinforce right now?  Do you need to reinforce a sense of safety, of peace, of unity?  Do you need to promote feelings of hope or of healing?  The right traditions can do that. 

  1. Evaluate what tradition will best fulfill the outcome you want to achieve.  Plan your resources of time, energy, and money to those ends.

  1. Be realistic in your expectations. Traditions set tones. They aren’t a cure-all and don’t replace healthy communication.  Nor should they be a source of contention. Traditions DO have the power to create environments, evoke feelings, and bring us together emotionally—even if we can’t be together physically. 

Here’s a Visual Reminder:

Meaningful traditions are tangible expressions of Beautiful Living. They are the gifts we give ourselves and others.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! What are some of your favorite family traditions outside of Christmas? What are some of your favorite Holiday and Christmas traditions?


Until next time, choose the best traditions and choose to…

...Live Beautifully!

Heather Butler

Founder and President of Beautiful Living, LLC

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