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How to make the most of family values in Thanksgiving Day traditions

“How do we keep our balance?

That I can tell you in one word: tradition.”

– Tevye, from the 1971 movie “Fiddler on the Roof”

Tradition is a hallmark of Thanksgiving Day.

Tradition explains why people and families do what they do when getting together with relatives, loved ones and even strangers at public events.

But the irony is that Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” extols the value of tradition just as they are challenged by family dynamics and political circumstances. He is forced to find balance in his traditions as he tries to live a peaceful, fulfilling life, just as a fiddler scratches out a simple tune balancing on top of a roof.

By the end of the movie, some old traditions are lost while new ones start to take shape. However, they all reflected the same bedrock: the importance of faith and family, no matter the place or circumstances.

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In praise of traditions

Traditions generally are a reflection of what a family values and can be seemingly superficial, ostentatiously significant or somewhere in between, said Heidi Morris, an associate professor in the department of marriage and family studies at Abilene Christian University and a licensed professional counselor.

Heidi Morris, associate professor in the department of marriage and family studies at Abilene Christian University

They are “anything that has kind of been a part of that family’s history at some point. It could be with ancestors – grandparents, parents when they were younger – but it was some type of commemoration of something special,” Morris said.

Those traditions can center on a spiritual faith, a holiday or other events, such as having family pizza night once a week for parents and children to reconnect without distractions, she said.

Traditions have their benefits. They can be the means for passing family values from one generation to the next. They also serve as a way to make that specific family value “something that is lived out not just in words, but through actions,” Morris said.

Another merit of traditions is that they can signal family identity, she said.

With a tradition as a focal point, “we as a family are setting aside something here that we hold sacred or important. And so it kind of establishes in some ways like an identity around some of those important principles that shape your family and your dynamics,” Morris said.

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Pass the traditions

Keepers of tradition can take that role willingly, or sometimes by default as it goes from one generation to another, Morris said.

Sharing stories and photographs at multigenerational gatherings is one way to intentionally pass down those traditions. “It’s a way for the older generation to say, ‘I want you to kind of understand why we do this,’ or ‘Here’s an example in our photo album of our family doing this,'” Morris said.

Through such talks, they “maybe hope for those things being passed on and so when they’re talked about, when they’re taught, those things become a bit more intentional,” Morris said.

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As children leave the family and marry or form new relationships, traditions can clash in those connections. That’s when negotiation can help solidify the traditions going forward.

“Maybe I take something from my family, you take something of yours, and we might modify or blend,” Morris suggested as a way a couple can negotiate the issue. “We may just kind of have preference to things that we like and we choose from our families what we want to carry on.”

Some traditions, however, “we look at and say, ‘No, I don’t really like that one,’ or ‘I don’t find value in that one so I’m not going to replicate that,'” Morris said.

She gave the example of how she and her husband handled Christmas presents from Santa for their children.

“When I grew up, Santa Claus kind of arrived and we woke up Christmas morning, and there were unwrapped presents that were by the chimney,” Morris said. “In his house, Santa always brought the wrapped gifts.”

The result was to merge the practices.

“We do wrap Santa’s gifts, which puts a little more effort on our part. I know now why my parents didn’t do that,” she said with a laugh. “But we kind of put them by the chimney.” The ritual says, in effect, Santa has come this way.

Starting traditions from scratch

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye admits that he does not know how the village traditions – how to eat, sleep, work, dress and more – got started.

For those looking to start a family tradition during the holidays, Morris suggests asking “what is it we value and how a tradition could kind of, in some ways, illuminate some of those values,” she said.

The values could be something tied to the holidays, spiritual faith or even activities around summer vacation breaks, Morris said.

She gave the example of a family that volunteers together at soup kitchens during the Thanksgiving break because they value community service.

In her family, Morris and her husband wanted to instill in their sons the importance of being service-minded. The boys played soccer for several years, so the family hosted at ACU and with others a free soccer camp for refugee children in Abilene.

The activity also reflected how the couple want to be an example for their children of being hospitable and welcoming, she said. Soccer is played universally, and was a way to have children play together.

“I can’t speak for my children, but I hope that they would look back and say, ‘Yeah, that was a tradition that our family started because we valued service,'” Morris said.

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Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.

This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: How to make the most of family values in Thanksgiving Day traditions

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