Traditions and the Keeping of Family


It would be easy to speak of families keeping traditions – we all have them – some of them silly – some of them profound. Some are inherited from generations, others develop completely independent of what has gone before. What I know, as the father of four (most now grown), is at least two things: tradition is unavoidable in the presence of children who can remember how something was done the year before and traditions do as much to keep us as family (in fact, more) than we do as families in keeping them – and that all of this is as it should be.

Today, my family (today we have my wife, my teenage daugher, and my married son and his wife at home) will make our annual trek to Wartburg, Tennessee, to a tree farm for the selection and harvesting of our Christmas tree. We have done his now for around 17 years. We will also be joined for at least the second time by friends and their growing young family. It’s major.

On my first point: try to change how something was done last year and the sharpness of the memory of youth will challenge the authority of a parent to do such a thing. How things have been done is more important than what a parent says will be done. I have lived with this for years, including, in our family, the last word of Christmas in the home which somehow seems to come from the youngest, unbidden: “This was the best Christmas ever!”

It’s getting harder as the older children will not be home. The event becomes slightly thinner – but even they are waiting for telephoned reports that the Tradition has been kept. They will know, as their own family starts its traditions, that here, at home, all is well and as it should be. And they will feel better about it somehow.

On the second point and this may be more to the point, living in a culture that has so few traditions, it is interesting to see how quickly children (not adults but children) create and cling to tradition. I have noticed that children have no trouble with the idea of repetition. They will watch a video (or a DVD) 50 times in a row without complaint.

I conclude from some of this that tradition is not only normal – it is inevitable. Thus we can only give attention to good traditions and to the greater Tradition which should guide us all. We cannot, without great violence, declare that there will be no traditions. This has been sought through the centuries by various iconoclast regimes (Puritans come to mind the easiest). But they never completely succeed. Today, the descendants of Puritans will seek Christmas trees whether they believe in God or not. The tradition is stronger even than the belief. But the tradition wasn’t given in order to destroy the belief, but to live it out. Only in cultures where great disruptions have occurred do you get the travesty of tradition with no heart. By God’s grace we can have both.

The family is assembling. The tradition will soon clamber into the van to begin the trip. We wait only word from a friend that their youngest child has finished his morning’s nursing. That wonderful tradition will keep us all as well.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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10 responses to “Traditions and the Keeping of Family”

  1. David Withun Avatar

    It brought a big smile to my face to read this. My own family, my wife, my 2-year-old son and I, will be celebrating our first Christmas together (I was deployed to Iraq for the last two) this year, and we have had similar conversations (and arguments, too!) about starting our own family traditions by combining the traditions of the families we come from. My wife and I come from very different cultures (Dominican Republic and Poland, respectively), so it’s certainly been interesting!

  2. […] acordă distincţia [We award you the distinction] cel mai autentic şi personal creator de opinie ortodoxă în sistem online [ the […]

  3. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Thank you so much for your service, David. Welcome home!

  4. Dave Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your post. Wunderbar! Speaking of traditions and Christmas trees…is there a general Orthodox tradition regarding the timing of putting up (and pulling down) the Christmas tree? Anything special about today’s date for you and/or the Church that would have you choosing today to put one up?

    In Christ,

  5. Petra Avatar

    What a great observation, that unchanged tradition in the church is just as natural and necessary as our traditions at home.

  6. mike t Avatar
    mike t

    Fr. Stephen,
    This is a totally unrelated entry:
    I’m writing a basic paper on the differences and similarities of the eastern conceptions of liturgy from that of different western traditions (it could be catholicism, anglicanism, lutheranism)…it’s for a history of liturgy class that I am taking. Can you suggest some starting points? I considered invocation vs. institution, focusing too much on figuring out eucharist vs. mystery, bringing up to heaven vs. (???), etc. I could really use some more concrete examples. The western side can be any tradition really. Its pretty broad, I know, but i was hoping you’d have some insights. Thanks!
    in Christ,

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    Do you know Wainwright’s volume on Christian worship? It’s doubtless one of the best places to start. Excellent articles. In their inception, the Western liturgies should not have been particularly different in any great way from the East. Protestant liturgies necessarily are.

    As for comparing them today. I would say that Eastern liturgies are very focused on God and directed away from the congregation, while the West focuses on the congregation. They theologize about why, but those are very shorthand distinctions. The most obvious example being the orientation of prayer. The priest faces East, away from the congregation (or in the same direction as the congregation) when he leads prayer, while the Western modern liturgies face the people and minimize actions. Action, in modern WEstern liturgies are illustrations for the benefit of the people. In the East, they have significance in and of themselves and act in a sacramental, ritual form, the words of the liturgy itself. If the priest asks God to bless something, most likely he is also making the sign of the cross, and the East would say that the sign itself is sacramental and not merely signifying.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    BTW, we arrived home intact, with tree for home and Church. I am not sure what is commonly done in Orthodox Churches across America viz. trees. We put one up in the parish hall on the Sunday of the Forefathers and decorate it. Many of the decorations were small icons of the various ancestors of Christ (the Sunday School will decorate the tree tomorrow).

    I know that in many Western Churches, the tree is not put up until Christmas, and in some it is erected at the beginning of Advent. In origin, I think the custom is German.

  9. […] Fr. Stephen Freeman has some words which are directly applicable to the matter at hand: …[T]radition is not only normal – it is inevitable… We cannot, […]

  10. Chrissy Avatar

    For my family and I, i found Family traditions within a book i bought for myself and some of my friends called Together: Creating Family Traditions.
    We have tried almost all the recipes together, we’ve started on a few projects, that will be this years Christmas gifts… I can’t say enough about this book as it is so great and has inspired me to create our own family traditions.
    Hope you like it too.

    Cheers & Happy Holidays,

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