By Pieter De Wit

Finally, the holidays are lurking around the corner! Here in Northern Europe, it is the time when the temperature outside drops, the first snow starts falling. We all gather close to warm our hands and hearts beside the open fire in the presence of a nicely decorated Christmas tree. Every year, we tend to spend this time in a fairly predictable way, but not necessarily because we consciously choose to do so, but because our parents and grandparents and the generations before them have been passing down these cultural family traditions forever. 

A family tradition is a social habit that is recreated, year after year, which encourages everyone’s  involvement and strengthens family bonds. 

When I was a child, I would spend Christmas Eve in the local church, taking part in the nativity scene, dressed up as Joseph, on his way to Bethlehem. On Christmas day we played board games beside the Christmas tree, and in the evening we always had fondue. And of course, it wouldn’t truly be Christmas in our house without us all watching the  Mr Bean Christmas movie

As well as our family traditions, in Belgium, where I’m from, we also have many local and national ones. Things such as walking to the bakery on a Sunday morning and buying pastries, holding a student cantus at university, eating sweet fritters at the local fair and breeding the world’s fastest pigeons.  On New Year’s Day, in most Christian families, children write a letter which includes their resolutions for the coming year. They read this letter to their parents and godparents in exchange for treats and rewards. Cute, right?

The Importance Of Traditions

On my birthday, when I was little, I had to stand on a chair, and my family would dance around me in a circle. At the end of the song, they were allowed to pinch me for the same number as my age. Afterwards, I had to puncture a balloon that was filled with some money or candy. I can remember not only looking forward to my own birthday, but also to those of my siblings, and enjoying getting revenge on those who pinched me too hard!

When families share certain habits and traditions, it brings a sense of comfort and security. Sharing traditions creates a connection and gives members the feeling they are part of something, which is one of the most important human needs, according to Radha Agrawal, the author of Belong

Psychologist Marshall Duke found that children who were more aware of their family history through storytelling had higher levels of self-esteem. They also showed lower levels of anxiety, fewer behavioural problems, and could better face educational or emotional difficulties. It is also worth noting that besides the well known cultural traditions like holidays, small traditions or shared habits on a day-to-day basis are equally important to re-enforce family identity and values. 

Breaking With Bad Traditions

As a teenager, I wanted to escape from some of the old-fashioned traditions and break free. I decided that a traditional—and from my perspective boring—life of studying, work, marriage, and kids were not for me. So when I graduated, I went to Australia to live my own life and be free. In my  teens, I was already very health-conscious and didn’t want to drink alcohol. But as in most countries, you are expected to drink at parties,  birthdays and other occasions. 

While it’s great to partake in national or family traditions to strengthen the bond between family members or friends, I also think it is important to break away from habits that don’t serve you anymore.

When traditional values are deployed as an excuse to undermine good behaviour or even human rights, we must develop an open, flexible mindset and put our ego’s aside. Human Rights Watch revealed that traditional “values” are sometimes used to justify forced marriages in Afghanistan, virginity testing in Indonesia, “honour crimes” in Iraq, and marital rape in Kyrgyzstan. I think we can all agree that such “traditions” should be discarded as soon as possible. 

So should we just blindly go along with all these different traditions? We’ve learned that they are an ideal way for bonding, and I owe many of my precious childhood memories to traditions around birthdays and holidays. But just like our society, our practices need to evolve along with modern times. Before you defend old traditions, remember the Bruce Lee quote: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own”

For me, I hope to keep celebrating Christmas with my family, playing board games beside the Christmas tree and having fondue. But I’ll add a healthy dessert and discard going to church dressed up as Joseph. That’s one tradition I prefer to pass on to the next generation!