Use the Power of Traditions to Draw Individuals Into a Community

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Well, almost. No matter what holiday you celebrate, this month is a truly magical time rich with traditions and special memories. Allison Carey, direct response marketer at American Bible Society and Large Events Chair of 4word: Philadelphia, explains the importance of honoring traditions (especially in a pandemic holiday season) and the potential power those traditions could harness in creating a close community with those in your life.

Tell us a little about yourself!

I grew up in a small town outside Scranton, Pennsylvania on the same street as my grandparents and some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, so I’ve always been very close to my family. I attended Catholic schools right through college, and though I currently reside in Philadelphia, I’m still a member of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church where I grew up. I’m a proud and grateful American, but I’ve also always loved singing mass on Sundays in Old Church Slavonic and feeling connected to parts of my family’s history in Europe.

As an adult, I’ve come to notice that one’s ethnicity isn’t a highly remarked upon trait for most people, but when I was growing up, it was very common for people to know their ethnicity and rattle it off for others. I’m 50% Ukrainian, 25% Polish, and 12.5% each German and Irish, or so the story goes, though recent DNA kits have cast doubt on some of these claims. My area was largely comprised of 20th century European immigrant groups, and I was raised with a strong sense of my heritage and that of the people around me. It was expected that the customs and traditions I had with my Ukrainian family would be different from those of my other relatives, friends, and neighbors, who descended from other heritages. I always enjoyed learning about the different ways that the various churches and people around me would celebrate and the history behind it, and I feel blessed to have grown up in a way that allowed for so much unique expression.

You grew up with (and still practice) “different” traditions, thanks to your heritage. Why are these traditions important to you?

Many of my family’s more noteworthy traditions are connected to holidays, and they truly help make these times of year feel more special. Just like turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing set apart a Thanksgiving meal from a normal family dinner, a Ukrainian Christmas Eve Holy Supper that includes lima beans, lentils, raw garlic, and prunes tastes like Christmas to me, and I’ve grown to look forward to it every year. Our unique traditions make me feel more connected to my church community, as well as to my family and our history. They give me a sense of identity that’s rooted in something larger than myself, and they provide me with many great memories that I look back on with gratitude. 

I think most people feel the same way about their traditions. The Christmas season seems to start for so many people even before Advent now because the traditions associated with it, like decorating the tree and playing Christmas music, make us all feel so happy and warm. In the same way, we like watching fireworks on the Fourth of July because they make us feel more patriotic. While my family has a lot of ethnic traditions on top of these, they all serve the same purpose of bringing people together and inspiring certain communal feelings and values. 

In a world with a lot of mixed cultures, how can we keep traditions alive and focused on what they should be focused on?

Traditions are a wonderful way of celebrating diversity and ethnic heritage in modern America. As the generations pass and cultures mix, it’s easy to lose all connection to our roots. But making a point to keep some old family traditions alive can help honor our history. At the same time, combining your traditions with those of your spouse’s family and culture is a lovely way of creating something new and bringing a new family together. Likewise, sharing traditions with friends and neighbors can also be a blessing. My best friend is part of a big Italian family, and I always loved being invited into some of their traditions.

One of my favorite days of the year is Saint Nicholas Day in December. The reason I’ve always celebrated it is because my ancestors in Ukraine did. Traditionally, Saint Nicholas Day is when children receive gifts from Saint Nick (the inspiration for Santa Clause.) So, in honor of my heritage, every year I would wake up to gifts! Over time, however, we adapted the way we celebrate. One of our neighbor’s cultural traditions was to leave out shoes for Saint Nicholas to fill with candy and coins, and when I was young, she learned how to make little shoes out of napkins that she filled with chocolate coins and left on our doorstep every year. Now, I’ve started making them for my co-workers. I think the blending and changing of traditions can be just as beautiful as honoring the past with ancient customs.

Why is it important to keep family traditions alive? 

Traditions are odd things in that they both connect and separate us from others. When my uncle scatters coins through a pile of hay under our Christmas Eve table and I dive underneath to dig and fight my cousins for them, I feel connected to my mother, aunts, and uncles who did the same thing when they were growing up. At the same time, I recognize that no one else outside of my family does anything like this, so it feels special and somehow more bonding for those few of us who participate. These moments and experiences help to keep our family close.

Everyone innately knows the power that exists in habit and tradition. Not every family has these same types of ethnic-based customs, but maybe they bake cookies together every Christmas, have an Easter egg hunt in their backyard, or have a family game night once a week. All these things foster a sense of closeness and connectedness. There’s something about feeling rooted in your past and knowing you belong to something larger than yourself that inspires confidence, comfort, and security. I would encourage everyone, if they can, to reach into an aspect of their own history and pull out a tradition to start or restart. Whether this involves a dive into the archives and history books or just a walk down memory lane, bringing a sense of tradition into your life, and especially into the lives of children, can really knit a family together by providing a sense of comfort and dependability in a changing world.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a year like no other, and it was also the first time that my family elected to forego most of our Easter traditions. We didn’t gather to scratch wax designs on our eggs on Holy Thursday, visit Jesus’ tomb in three different churches on Good Friday, collect our food for a basket blessing in the church parking lot on Holy Saturday, or eat a meal of ham and kielbasa on Easter Sunday. While we still celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the dead in our own ways, the absence from each other, from our church, and from our customs made the celebration more difficult. Committing to all those routines every year can be a lot of work, but it also makes it easier to get into the spirit of the moment and to focus on what it is we’re remembering or celebrating.

Does having family traditions help keep your faith thriving? 

So many of my favorite family traditions reinforce the values that are important to us, including our faith. The hay on and under our Christmas Eve table reminds us of Christ’s humble entrance into the world. Fasting and genuflecting to venerate the tomb of Jesus on Good Friday reinforces the message of what our sinfulness is and what it took for Jesus to save us. Having our Easter food blessed reminds us that the day is set apart as holy. The overarching message that I took from all these traditions is “our faith is important.” I never forgot the reason for the Christmas season, and I always really felt the gloriousness of the resurrection on Easter. They were baked into so many aspects of what we did every year and what we prioritized as a family. Still today, our family traditions help me to think about the reasons why we celebrate each holiday and keep my faith strong.

I believe the Lord understands the power of tradition to draw individuals into a community and reinforce values, and that this is one reason He set up customs and traditions for the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and for the church in the New Testament. Christianity is for all people everywhere, and every culture develops new and beautiful ways of worship. Having the routine of traditions that enhance values like faith, love, hope, and generosity keeps my faith thriving, and I’m thankful for every minute spent growing closer to God and to my family through them.

“I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.”

1 Corinthians 11:2 (NIV)

Allison Carey works in direct response marketing at American Bible Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and has served as the Large Events Chair of 4word: Philadelphia since its founding in 2018.

When she isn’t spending time with family and friends, Allison loves to learn about other cultures, histories, and traditions around the world, whether it’s through traveling or curling up with a good book and a cup of tea.