Christmas is a time for families, friends and loved ones to come together. It also affords a rare opportunity to freeze such social gatherings in time by building long-lasting traditions. The traditions people value are what anchors them as they go from past to present, present to future, say family experts.
"Traditions provide an opportunity to build a touchstone for why we have a holiday in the first place," said Dr. Juli Slattery, an author, family psychologist and broadcast co-host for Focus on the Family. "They provide a sense of cohesion."
Slattery said holidays like Christmas find most people drawn together by families. A key reason for this, she said, is the innate human need for belonging. Without having a place to call home, she contends, any celebration can feel extremely lonely.
"Families share traditions as it gives them a sense of comfort and unity," Slattery said. "It's an unconscious reminder that they belong with their families and it brings them back together again."
Slattery said her family always reads Christmas stories and bakes cookies together. They also hide the baby Jesus from the family nativity scene, and the first child who finds it opens the first Christmas gift. She said she recommends families start such rituals on their own given they foster familial strength and ease conflict.
The Rev. Mike Fox, a Christian marriage coach and author of Marriage for Today: A Practical Guide for Couples, says efforts to build bonding lead to more intimate relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, during Christmas time. They also offer an opportunity, he said, to retreat from the hustle and bustle and focus on family and God.
"From Genesis to Revelation, marriage and family has purposely been stamped by God himself as the most important aspect of life – after all, we are his 'bride' and the 'family of God,'" he said. "Christmas is thus a time to reflect on Christ, his birth and who he is to us presently, and a time to relax, slow down and spend time to gain closeness in our marriages and families."
Donald Heinz, a professor of religious studies at California State University and the author of Christmas: Festival of Incarnation, said reflecting upon the birth of Christ was essential during the Christmas season. His family thus attends holiday church services every year, he said, regardless of their location. Such a philosophy has led him to Christmas sermons in London, Berlin and Beijing.
"Christmas without a churchly celebration seems like a dinner without food, a caroling party without the music," Heinz said. "The Church has as its mission – the celebration every year of the birth of Christ. This will only continue if Christians commit themselves to it. For me, it's the heart of it all."
Dr. Bruce Forbes, professor of religious studies at Sioux City, Iowa-based Morningside College and author of Christmas: A Candid History, said even simple acts can solidify one's faith and family. When he sees his son every year, for instance, Forbes says they purchase a new nutcracker together. They also attend a Christmas service every season, he said, where they sing "Silent Night" at the end with no light besides candles.
"Christmas is the coming of God into our lives," he said. "That's why it's such a season of joy and comfort."
Perhaps the most important part of Christmas traditions, Slattery contends, is the fact they prepare us for praising God year-round. Whether with family or friends, she said, Christians should count their blessings and enter the new year focused on following God more devoutly.
"The true meaning of Christmas is that the messiah came," Slattery said. "God doesn't call us to a season of worship but a lifetime of it. The best thing you can do during Christmas is use it to think about what you'll do the rest of the year."