Poring over nearly three dozen clinical studies of family rituals -- stretching over a period of 50 years -- a group of psychologists has just published its findings, to wit: Family rituals large and small contribute to children's health, school work, personal identity and overall family stability.
Syracuse University Professor Barbara Fiese, a psychologist who led a team which cataloged events such as family holiday celebrations, reunions, birthday parties, prayers, even "Sunday dinner at Mom's." Most family rituals, according to Professor Fiese, become permanent and positive memories for us. She said, "Rituals involve symbolic communication and convey 'This is who we are.' ....The individual may replay it in memory to recapture the positive experience." They also create a sense of continuity and a sense of heritage, as in "This is how our family will continue to be," according to Professor Fiese.
The Fiese team released its study just as a very large number of Americans are in the process of carrying out clusters of rituals associated with Christmas. For children there are the trimming of the tree, gazing at packages, putting out milk and cookies for Santa and the nearly unbearable anticipation of Christmas morning and the opening of presents. And, in countless churches on Christmas Eve, there are also the children's reenactments of the birth of Christ. The symbolic message of the babe in the manager -- love -- is not lost on the children.
For many, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinner are occasions for family reunions that are repeated year after year. To this day I think back fondly over many decades to Christmas Eves at the home of an aunt and uncle, where four generations gathered. There was a huge dinner, then a showing of movies -- all comedies -- which our uncle had rented for the occasion. One year, when the eldest of the cousins in our clan was married, he took a movie of the newlyweds running to their car with all of us throwing rice. The next Christmas Eve, Uncle Emil ran this film for all to see, then ran it backwards -- with the rice coming back into our hands -- to the hysterical delight of us young ones.
For adults there are other rituals: hearing a recital of Handel's "Messiah," the soaring architecture of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" or Berlioz's sublime "L'Enfance du Christ." Or it may be attendance at a midnight church service, to contemplate the birth of the son of God, sent to redeem us humans from the sins we have committed and will commit.
While Jews do not recognize Christ as the Messiah and Muslims respect him, but consider Muhammad as the ultimate prophet of God, none dispute that Christ's presence on earth resulted in profound changes in the course of history. Whatever one's religion, Christ's message remains universal: It is one of love and it embodies both respect for others and self-respect. Giving gifts at Christmas time is a symbol of love and respect. The size or expense of the gift is secondary to the thought you have put into its selection, knowing that it symbolizes these things.
"Peace on Earth; good will toward men" is a phrase that will be repeated many times over the next three days. Alas, not every one believes it, for there are some in this world who are evil (al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein come to mind), but if all people of good will keep this in the forefront of their minds throughout the year to come, collectively they will make the world a better place.