Why rituals are important for expat families

Why rituals are important for expat families

Our Charlie Brown tree, 2006.

When I was little, my brother and I would carefully lay our stockings at the foot of our beds on Christmas Eve. Christmas stockings had a very specific purpose in our house: they kept us occupied for several hours so Mom and Dad didn’t have to get out of bed at 4:00 a.m. (That’s why there was always a book in our stockings — how devilishly clever of my parents!)

When I had children of my own, things were a little different. There were still books and stockings (there will always be books and stockings), but the books were under the tree and the stockings were laid by the fireplace. The kids — bless their impatient little souls — waited until we were all awake and gathered together before the stocking unstuffing began.

You’ll note that while these different Christmas rituals have much in common — they both involve stockings and books — it’s the ways in which they differ that make them unique to each family. We all have these little family quirks, and they serve a much greater purpose than granting parents a few more hours of sleep.

Rituals are like blueberries

Psychiatrist Steven J. Wolin and anthropologist Linda Bennett have identified several types of family rituals:

  • Family celebrations are rituals surrounding special occasions or holidays that are commonly observed in the family’s culture. Every recurrence of the celebration reinforces the family’s place within that culture and strengthens the stability of the family.
  • Family traditions are specific to each family. They don’t come with “rules” imposed by the larger culture, so it’s up to the family to decide how each one is marked. This personalization makes traditions more meaningful, because it lets the family fully express who they are and what they believe in.

Rituals are like blueberries: they’re the antioxident superfood of family health. They provide family members with a shared history and a sense of belonging. They reinforce and maintain religious and cultural traditions. They allow us to spend quality time together. In short, they cement the bonds that make families stronger.

Don’t leave home without them

Family rituals are especially important for expatriate children. These kids are bombarded on a daily basis with different values, attitudes, and beliefs, to the point that they often become overwhelmed and confused by conflicting messages. Having family traditions and celebrations helps anchor TCKs within their family’s culture and value system, and minimizes the internal conflict that arises as they form their personal identities and establish their own beliefs. They provide a sense of togetherness and security that is so important for kids (and adults) in a crazy, high-speed world.

Abrupt changes within a family — moving overseas, for example — can lead to interrupted rituals. Sometimes rituals are abandoned because they get overlooked in the messiness of establishing a new life, but often it’s due to the impracticality of maintaining them in the host country. If the host culture doesn’t recognize certain religious or cultural holidays, for example, it can be difficult for expat families to celebrate them. The goal in these cases is to practise flexible rituals, which are adjusted to accommodate changing circumstances while keeping the core meanings intact.

It’s not about the Christmas tree

If you were to unpack your beloved December tradition of chopping down a Christmas tree, for example, what would be at the heart of the ritual? Lugging a prickly 7-foot Scotch pine back to the house through two feet of snow? As fun as that sounds, I’m willing to bet that stripping the ritual down to its essentials would reveal the simple desire to prepare for a special holiday surrounded by the people you love. Everything else is just detail.

If we embrace this idea of focusing on the fundamentals, the pressure to maintain the status quo instantly vaporizes. So although you may be living in a country where conifers are scarce, it’s still possible to keep the crux of your Yuletide tradition alive. Pick out an artificial tree together, or decorate a tropical houseplant while you all sip hot chocolate in tank tops and flip-flops. Feel free to play Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas” if that’ll get you in the mood. Years from now, this unexpected reworking of your usual tree-trimming routine might be one of the fondest memories of your time in The Hot Country. It might even survive subsequent moves — including the one back to your homeland. Because the healthiest family rituals — like the healthiest expats — are able to adapt to changing conditions and bloom where they’re planted.

The Christmas tree in the photo was ours when we lived in Bordeaux. We called it the Charlie Brown tree, after the line in the animated Christmas classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in which Linus says “I never thought it was such a bad little tree…. Maybe it just needs a little love.” We couldn’t look at that scrawny tree without laughing, and it remains one of our best expat memories.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Adjustment, Culture Shock, Identity, Third Culture Kids and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why rituals are important for expat families

  1. Erin says:

    Your post was aptly timed as we celebrated the Belgian Sinterklaas today, but before 5am, in the southern US (this time). We carry this little bit of happiness from our time there and, it turns out, tradition requires Lego Advent Calendars (we mix holidays:)). It’s fun to have those traditions that are just ours. Thanks!

  2. That little tree looks like the one we had for our Xmas in Cuernavaca in 1972. 🙂

  3. Sine says:

    Maria – how very fitting this post is!! I just about killed (killed!) myself doing the annual Advent calendar delivered by St. Nicholas on the morning of the 6th of December, plus stuffing the boots with presents, even though I’m in the midst of packing up an entire household to move overseas. I was SO tempted to skip it this year but when our youngest (10 years old) asked me with big eyes if I thought St. Nicholas was coming this year, a couple of weeks ago, I knew I (he) needed to make it happen. And what practical gifts he brought – dollar-bills wrapped around chocolates. It was so worth it and that’s why we need kids to keep us honest about traditions. Even though sometimes I curse myself for every starting them…

  4. Sara says:

    Actually one Christmas in Venezuela, there was terrible flooding and the airport and all roads leading to the airport were closed. We had planned to go home for Christmas that year so did not get a tree or do any decorations. In the end we could not leave and we had to get a small tree and make our own paper decorations. We still have those decorations today and every year we hang them on our tree and it reminds us of that special Christmas. 🙂

  5. Kris says:

    Why we hunt down Pringles chips for stockings each year because I received my own can in my stocking as a TKC in Haiti years ago. “But it’s tradition!!!” is said throughout the year in our home.

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