Traditions That Make A Family

Share your family traditions, rituals, habits, and quirks with us.
Family meal photo by Ron Tech/iStock

Photo by Ron Tech/iStock

YES! staff and friends shared their traditions, rituals, habits, and quirks for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.

Join the conversation by clicking "Comment on this article" below.

Family Food

Every year, my family's Christmas Eve dinner consists of cheese, crackers, sardines, shrimp dip, and wine. That's it. In 1978 our car broke downin Needles, Calif. on the way to spend Christmas with friends in Salt Lake City. That year our Christmas Eve dinner came from a gas station. We have continued the tradition.   –Wendy Call

It’s a family rule not to leave one meal without discussing plans for the next.  –Donna Bernstein Schmidt

My family has always shared meals. So, whenever we are apart, our favorite way of keeping in touch is by texting snapshots of the food we are eating. Even from afar, “eating together” makes us feel closer (and sometimes jealous of each other’s meals)! —Alexandria Abdallah

Growing up, my family ate together nearly every night, and we’d linger at the table long after we were done eating. I loved it, but I remember high school friends leaning over to whisper, “Um ... why are we still sitting here?” —Brooke Jarvis

Vietnamese fish sauce, nuoc mam, as a secret ingredient in everything, from spaghetti sauce to scrambled eggs!  — Lynn Boland

Sunday night supper is popcorn, cheese, apples, and juice. A meal an eight-year-old can prepare, so other cooks get a break. —Loree Monroe

Blessings and Celebrations

Alyssa Johnson family photo by Allen Ballinger

A loving song: Derek Ballinger, Alyssa Johnson, and Tracy Ballinger celebrate Tracy's birthday on a family trip to Canada.

Photo by Allen Ballinger

At birthdays, we sing six versions of “Happy Birthday,” including one that asks you to “stand up and take a bow--wow, wow!” and another that declares, “you are beautiful, you are strong... you’re a loving song.” My sister brought this song contagion home from a cousin’s house when we were teenagers. Once our whole family started we couldn’t stop. One song comes rolling uncontrollably after another. It’s akin to hazing when we celebrate birthdays of newcomers to the family.  –Alyssa Johnson

We like to have a “lights out party”. When we lose power we stop whatever we were doing and have a party with games and stories.  –D

Our family—myself, partner, daughter, three stepsons, ex-partner, partner’s ex-husband, new girlfriend, girlfriend’s daughter, and my mother (11 at the table when all are present for family dinners!) always say a special grace before any meal we are fortunate enough to share. Originated by my partner, my grace calls on each of us to say what we are grateful for, who or what we want to send special energy to, and where we wish for peace. Gratitude, blessings, peace. We share this grace with all who come to break bread with us. Amazing things happen.—Jill Bamburg

My family sings a birthday dirge to the tune of Volga Boatmen (Agony and despair, people dying everywhere ... BUT, Happy birthday). Also, traditional joke with my kids: If you don’t know what to say in Confession, use “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
—Cathy Sherwin

We have the “Watterson goodbye” in which we continue waving to leaving visitors until they are literally out of sight.—David Watterson

Family Walk, photo by Woodley Wonderworks
Taking Time

As coordinator of a nonprofit I adjusted my schedule to spend a weekday with my son as he was growing up. We would go down to the shore of Puget Sound and explore. Over the course of hundreds of visits, he got to know one natural environment intimately, and it has been such a joy to watch that understanding—that relationship really—grow and develop.—Glen Gersmehl

We play games at top volume, especially when we have visitors. And we integrate smooching and hugging into every day life.—Angela Park

We formed a five-piece orchestra—even the five-year-old plays a part! Beatles to Sousa, we’ll play anything we can.—“teledyn”

I’m a widow with a farm who was about to give up on all the work. Then my daughter and her husband came to live with me. They took the stables on one side of my 200-year-old log house and turned it into their house, with trees cut on the farm, barked and milled here. Their two boys have the run of gardens, sheep meadows, woods, and streams, and are in and out of my house all day. My daughter raises her own meat, I have a large organic garden, and we share laying hens and a ridiculously affectionate pet turkey. The oddest thing we do together is fight the spreading of municipal sewage sludge ... my daughter and daughter-in-law have become the local experts, on, well, poop, and what to do with it.  —Holly Dressel

My partner and I start the morning sitting on the couch with our first cup of coffee or tea, watching the sun rise.   –Sarah van Gelder

I grew up in Longview, Washington, a town of some 22,000 people, in a stable extended family that included my grandparents on both sides and the families of my father’s two brothers and their children plus at one point the two sisters of one brother’s wife and their families. We all lived within a one-mile radius of each other, except for my mother’s sister who lived maybe five miles away, and we gathered frequently for family events. Until I went to college, I rarely traveled more than a 100 miles from home.

Throughout our 48-year marriage, Fran and I lived nowhere more than five years until we moved to Bainbridge Island from New York City in 1998. Our two daughters grew up with us in Managua, Boston, Manila, and Jakarta, at the least a continent away from any other relative. They now live in Tennessee and Virginia far from each other and connected to relatives only by phone and e-mail. To my recollection in the last 15 years the four members of our immediate nuclear family have gathered in the same place for a family reunion just three times. Not a single relative by blood or marriage remains in Longview. The elimination of geographical barriers has expanded our horizons, but at a high price in terms of relationships with family and place. –David Korten

You Had to Be There ...

The Panek Family Cake Cutting Competition occurs on the occasion of any family member’s birthday and always includes a strawberry angel food cake (with filling). Each participant chooses a name and nationality. Mom always ended up being Dagmar from the former East German Republic. The contestant attempts to cut his/her piece of cake with as much skill and artistry as possible. Other family members provide sports commentary, as in: “Dagmar is back in competition after healing from a severe wrist injury last season that thwarted her hopes. Heartbreaking!” The cake cutting competition was a great reflection of my family’s inbred goofiness and playfulness. Oh–and when a contestant removes the piece of cake from the platter: that’s the dismount.  –Stacey Panek

If anyone gets underwear for Christmas, they have to wear it on their head.—Kate Elmer

The first holiday I spent with my partner’s family, I was introduced to raucous late nights of Boggle, cards, trash-talking, laughter, wine-drinking, and cookie-eating. The most unique of the games was invented by my partner and his brother: “flaming midnight croquet,” played only on New Year’s Eve, with a croquet set and luminaria  (which invariably catch on fire).—Madeline Ostrander

Before big dinners my great uncle says the prayer in Norwegian then my grandma, aunt, and dad yodel! (I can’t do it yet!) —Sarah Crumrine

X's and O's

As a six-year-old raised in a small southern rail-road town, I took the warning to heart and lived in dread of being caught, flayed and eaten by a hobo with long yellow teeth and black fingernails; served up with the communal pot of pork and beans, watermelon rinds, or missing family pets. Even in late 1960s Kentucky, every small crime was initially laid at the feet of the nameless hobo, even after the true culprit had been caught and convicted.

Our turn-of-the-century home stood close by a thick belt of overgrown woods, beyond which lay the fearsome train-yards where the freights rumbled like thunder, rattling loose window-panes.

On a very rare occasion, my parents were out of town, my brothers away, and my grandmother was here to babysit. I loved it; cinnamon toast for breakfast, frozen fried shrimp for dinner, and, for the first time in my young life, a Coca-Cola float with vanilla ice cream for dessert. This was heaven for the youngest of five much older siblings, and, bloated from my unaccustomed feast, I sat with Grandmother in the swing on the screened in porch: she to continue her perpetual needlepoint, me to digest.

She told the best stories; stories of the nearby Mississippi river flooding so that whole houses floated away, or Charles Lindbergh making social calls to a friend of hers, or going dancing to Duke Ellington when his band played at a local ballroom.

The sudden crashing sound of a freight train limbering up to begin its long trek, north to Chicago or south to New Orleans, brought me back to the hobos that haunted my imaginings.

“Boo,” which was the grandkids' name for her, “did you ever see a real hobo?”

She chuckled before answering me, a soft bubbling laugh like a deep river. “I have, many a time,” she said.

“It wasn’t so long ago that we’d have a man come up from the tracks every couple of days to get a little food.”

“For dinner too?” I was incredulous, picturing my parents’ dining room table surrounded by bearded, toothless unkempt men.

“No, they would bring a pail for food. This was in the Great Depression, long before you were born,” she said, while in my mind I lumped this epoch in with the Civil War, the Declaration of Independence and Adam and Eve.

“Lots of people didn’t have work, and there was no money to spare, so they’d ride a train to another town to try their luck elsewhere. Several times a week there’d be a knock at the back door, always the back door, and there’d be a nice man asking if there was any work. We were luckier than most, my father being a doctor, and had more than enough for ourselves, so I’d find something for him to do, like chopping some wood or hoeing in the garden. Then he’d hand me his pail and I’d fill it with whatever we had.”

“What if you didn’t need anything done?”

“There’s always something. It didn’t matter what, but it was important to these men. It would offend a man to offer him a handout,” she looked down at me to see if I understood, and I nodded like I did, though I didn’t. I would be perfectly happy with a gift and no strings attached.

“In fact,” she said, looking towards the yard through her bright brown eyes as though seeing people and places that were no longer there, “they would put a mark on a post by the gate to let the others know what kind of person lived there. There were different marks for bad dogs, doctors, and people who’d help. They had their own alphabet.”

“On the gate post in our backyard, on the side and out of sight, there was an ‘X’ and an ‘O’.”

“Why X and O?"

“I don’t know, son. I’m just thankful we were there and could do something, however little. As fat as people live these days, you’d never know it, but not so long ago a lot of good people were one stroke of bad luck away from being homeless.”

I stopped my questions, having more to digest than I could easily manage, and Boo returned to her needlepoint before the mid-summer light faded.

I went inside and found my cigar box full of crayons and took out the black one.

We didn’t have a gatepost or fence, but there was a bird feeder on top of a wood post in the side yard. I went to that, scrawled my ‘X’ and ‘O’, then went back inside and waited.   
–Richard Hefley

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.