As the end of the year comes hurtling toward us, many of us who celebrate Christmas may be feeling mixed emotions. This time of year can be expensive, stressful and frankly a whole lot of pressure and emotional overwhelm.
However, it can also present us with the opportunity to reflect on family rituals and in our busy lives it is easy to let these little things slide and forget that they can create a special spark of magic in your family.
Rituals are positive things we do in our families that are unique to us and have a secret capacity to bond and strengthen loving connections within a family.
They are so much more than habits – they have a meaningful and often measurable impact on those we love.
Studies show that happy families not only have treasured traditions, they constantly evolve new ones that help them find their way through the inevitable changes of growing up.
Rituals bring a degree of predictability and certainty to something uncertain. They direct our anticipation in a positive direction and prime our brains to make the most of whatever we are about to experience.
In our stress-filled, chaotic world they can be such soothing influences. While sometimes we may engage in rituals automatically and without thought, it is precisely that strength of habit that makes them a source of comfort – especially for children.
Rituals are really important in building stability, predictability, connectedness and enhancing the brain chemicals associated with delight and joy. You probably have lots that you don't even notice!
For example, I have long written about the power of a bedtime ritual that captures how big your love is for your child because it is powerful in building heart connections and helps kids feel safe, loved and secure before they go to sleep.
Welcoming and farewelling rituals can be deceptively powerful – especially in the morning after a major conflict with a strong-willed child!
Some parents leave a kiss in the palms of their kids' hands – mum on the left, dad on the right. Special hand-shakes are often very popular for lads and I still have fond memories of my dad saying 'See you later alligator' and we answered 'In a while crocodile!'
Our family accidently created an end of term ritual when I took the four lads for a hot chocolate sundae after a busy school term. I was relieved that we had survived, they had pretty good reports and no detentions (or, worse, suspensions) so I felt a celebration was in order. It was such a success – that we did it every last day of term.
I found that the last weeks of term were no longer a battle – the boys were counting down to the end of term treat. Interestingly, when the eldest was at uni, he called to make sure we didn't have the ritual until he arrived home.
I recently saw a cute dad-daughter ritual when I visited my niece. Little daughter 'helps' dad shut the chooks away safely at night and beforehand, they do some star gazing. To see this 2 ½-year-old lass throw herself flat on her back on the lawn urging dad to come look at stars was a magic moment.
As a funeral celebrant I've heard people recall many beautiful rituals. One daughter aged in her 40s had clear memories of going around the family farm with her dad singing Seekers songs. Another had similar memories except to Led Zeppelin.
There was another beautiful story of a grandfather who insisted that everyone who watched the football on TV with him wear a beanie and a scarf. There were so many photos of friends and family including a brand new grandchild all wearing beanies and scarves.
The family songs we sing and the favourite picture books we read over and over are among the easiest rituals for parents and grandparents to create. 'Rock a Bye Baby' was my lullaby of choice and it wasn't until my eight-year-old heard me singing it to his baby brother that he mentioned it was an awful song because the baby falls out of the tree.
Sometimes an activity becomes a family ritual with the addition of some food, especially a celebratory treat. A fishing trip with dad might always need to include popcorn, chips or a bag of Minties, for example.
We had many bush barbies on our family farm and the memories of cooking marshmallows at the end was a bonding, fun-filled experience every time. As adults, all the cousins still love to end a bush barby the same way.
Creating rituals is easy and fun and you can start anytime. So as you are rushing through your Christmas preparations this month, don't forget it's these little moments you share as a family that will long outlast the gifts.