Holiday Rituals are a Rush

On campus, there is a palpable feel of “I can’t wait to get home for the holidays!” In the past few days, I’ve overheard more than a few students chatting on their cells with Mom or Dad: “Can’t wait for Thanksgiving!” Or a friend from home: “Let’s go out when I’m home for Thanksgiving!” As I rode the bus with 132 students last week to our community-based learning site, the 20-minute ride felt like 20 seconds as students chatted excitedly about their stories, plans and hopes for the upcoming holiday.

Since I’m a family studies researcher, images of Thanksgiving rituals get me excited.

And not just for my own family’s cozy Thanksgiving rituals, which include a Wednesday evening pre-Thanksgiving feast at Buca. Yes, you read that correctly. My husband, kids and I want to be sure we’re not at all hungry on Thanksgiving Day. Our extended families live too far away to visit and my kids know I hate to cook. Instead, we’ve taken to pasta and aioli the night before so that by the next day we are less sad about missing our mothers’ turkeys, Aunt Angie’s green bean casserole with the crunchy topping (which is totally disgusting anyway) and Aunt Carol’s turkey-shaped cookies with candy corn feathers. Instead of stuffing and turkey, our little four-pack enjoys a warm fireplace, homemade cinnamon rolls and the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade, erecting the Christmas tree and hauling boxes of mostly homemade and all memory-rich ornaments out of the attic.

Besides my own comforting rituals, I get most excited about imagining the joy that my colleagues and students are anticipating as they head off to their own holiday traditions this week. In the next day, many students will take an exam or two, turn in a paper or two (or three) and then head off by train, plane or automobile for an extended weekend with friends and family. For feasts and football. For time to put down their computers and put their feet up. For volunteering with Meals on Wheels. For conversation. For relaxation. For anticipation of the next big package of holiday rituals just around the corner.

This year in particular – maybe because our economy is encouraging all of us to re-prioritize – I’ve noticed students looking forward to the upcoming holiday with unique gusto. I get the sense they know more than ever, and deeper down, what we ritual researchers have taken decades to discern: Rituals rock. They bring stability and a sense of predictability to our lives. They enrich our families and connect us over generations. They give us something to look forward to, provide time for loved ones to communicate and, simply, bring us together. Most ritual researchers believe that family rituals (and I’m not just talking about the big holiday ones here) have more positive effects on families than almost any other single type of family interaction. Whoa. That’s a rather weighty statement. As one of those researchers, I believe it’s true.

So, as you head off to be with whomever you call family, or donate your time and talents to those in need, or eat pasta or your Aunt Angie’s green bean casserole with crunchy onion topping, take a moment to pause. And enjoy. Because rituals – no matter their shape, size, location or duration – enrich us. And not only with calories, but the soulful goodness that comes only from long-term, satisfying relationships.