I don’t remember how my husband Chris and I ended up with six-month-old twins dressed as vegetables—a chili pepper and a pea pod, to be precise—the first Halloween we were parents. I’ll admit the whole thing sounds very much like the result of a middle-of-the-night-nursing and Internet-browsing session. Regardless, they were pretty cute, as far as produce goes, and we wanted to show them off. At the last minute, we decided to throw on overalls (an article of clothing every good Kansan should own), dress as farmers, and take the veggies downtown, where we’d heard there was annual storefront trick-or-treating.
We did not head out the door that night intending for Halloween to become our family thing. In our Midwestern college town, we discovered, students ranging in age from preschool to graduate school flock downtown to the local businesses, who open their doors after hours and hand out candy from cauldrons and wheelbarrows. Everyone dresses up and the restaurants overflow with happy witches and silly superheroes, nibbling candy, drinking beer, eating French fries. Neither of us had participated in the festivities before becoming parents but realized, at least in this town, you’re never too old to be something for Halloween.
For the next five years, the downtown trick-or-treat tour was tradition, and our family’s passion for Halloween blossomed. While the twins were young, we dressed in themes: the farmers and veggies, Dr. Seuss characters, a family of pirates. Within a few years, though, the boys were ready to fulfill their own costume visions and left Chris and I on our own to coordinate. Halloween became our immediate family’s most consistent annual tradition, the holiday we made our own. The summer we moved to California, I had a harder time thinking of being away for Halloween more than any other day.
Chris and I are raising our children outside of religion, which is not unlike relocating to a new place: it’s both liberating and daunting to be free from constraints that inform our rituals and traditions. On the one hand, the possibilities are endless. We can determine for ourselves what values we want to express, what connections we want to nurture, and when, where, and how we do it. On the other hand, precisely because the possibilities are endless and we can make adjustments, we may notice “tradition” lacking in qualities that help define it: predictability, commitment, endurance.
It’s worth taking on the challenge: a whole body of research points to the fact that rituals and traditions benefit children in a number of ways, including academically, emotionally, and socially. As I’ve seen first hand, being able to count on a predictable set of behaviors and activities around certain landmark dates brings children a sense of stability and security. Opportunities to contribute to these activities help kids feel useful and needed, shaping identity and a sense of purpose. Participating alongside family and community members, regardless of differences in age and lifestyle, combats sentiments of self-centeredness and encourages empathy and generosity — all while creating lasting memories of positive emotions. It seems important, then, for all families, religious or not, to find meaningful traditions of their own.
We’d begun our Halloween tradition haphazardly, out of convenience more than anything else, as the logistics—who, what, when, where, how—were already answered for us. We didn’t really need to think about it; we just showed up to a party that had already been planned. Over time we developed an approach that stuck, one we could emulate even after we moved away from our familiar environment near family.
Thus I realized: holidays like Halloween, with little or no religious baggage, are the perfect occasions for creating solid family traditions outside of religion. Thanksgiving is another great example. It can be tricky to come up with a formula for creating tradition outside of the mainstream. I’ve learned, though, that creating new traditions can be a celebration of creativity and imagination.
Below are my suggestions for how to navigate the ins and outs of creating meaningful traditions for your family, with or without religion:
- Pick your occasions. Take a look at some of the activities and holidays your family has already established as routine. Ask your children what parts they enjoy and why. Consider what the activity expresses about the group and how each person can participate. Whether it’s Valentine’s Day, the summer equinox, or even Superbowl Sunday, make your picks and stick with them. Ritual and tradition is not so much what you do; it’s how you do it, together: with regularity, intention, and commitment.
- Own it. Reflect on your values and the things that give your family life meaning so that you are fully behind the actions. Consider the historical and/or philosophical reasons and meanings behind established traditions and create versions of your own to honor those that resonate. If you notice something lacking—an activity that expresses generosity or service, for example—come up with an activity that reflects this value and fold it in.
- Make room for others. Traditions are connectors; they link us to one another, which requires patience, understanding, and compromise. Remember, just as we don’t always resonate with traditions from past generations, so our children won’t always resonate with ours. Participating in tradition can be a practice in selflessness and acceptance.
- Allow for flexibility. While a defining component of tradition is its predictability, we also must allow for (and even embrace) change and differences. The level of flexibility needed won’t be the same for every family. Perhaps the location is always different, but the activity is the same. Or the location is the same, but some of the people participating rotate. Families who struggle with differences in worldview or belief can still come together to celebrate shared values in creative ways that work for everyone.
- Be committed. Because tradition can serve as a touchstone in times of change and difficulty, it’s important to keep it going even when the going gets rough. It can sometimes feel like pressure or burden on the leaders of the group, but if you’re struggling, take a moment to reflect on the benefits, talk to your kids about what they find meaningful, and make adjustments that work for the entire family.