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Spring 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 1 · pp. 39–48 

Rituals and Family Strength

John D. Friesen


In this paper, family rituals, consisting of celebrations, traditions and routines, are defined and described. The stages of ritual development and six functions of rituals are presented and illustrated. A typology of family ritual development which has utility in the assessment and treatment of dysfunctional families is described.

Rituals have multiple functions in the family.


In the last decade a resurgence of interest in the family has occurred in all segments of society including government, the church, professional and business organizations, the media and educational institutions. Along with this growing interest, numerous recommendations have been made on ways to strengthen the family. Many of these recommendations are being implemented in all parts of the world as the movement to strengthen families gains momentum. In this paper, a central yet often overlooked method of strengthening the family will be analyzed. Rituals and ceremonies, as described in the following sections, are effective agents in promoting family health and well-being. Not only {40} are rituals a primary mechanism used by the family to conserve its paradigm, they also store and convey the family identity from generation to generation.


Family rituals may be defined as behaviors or activities involving most or all members of the family which occur episodically, have a symbolic meaning for family members, and are valued by the participants so that they would like the activity to be carried on in the future (Imber-Black, et al., 1988). Rituals reflect family traditions and are related to cultural, religious and ethnic perspectives and practices. Rituals “remind us that communication can be symbolic, that form gives meaning, that repetition promotes learning and that the past is embedded in the present” (Wolin, Bennett, 1984:402).

Despite differences in ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, rituals are universal to family life. Three types of family rituals can be delineated. All families celebrate holidays or rites of passage which arise from their religious, cultural, or ethnic origins even though the number and quality of the celebrations varies considerably. Similarly, all families practice traditions that symbolically represent their families and that connect them to previous generations. In addition, all families report family routines which most clearly reflect the unique interactions of the family.

Family Celebrations

Family celebrations are rituals in which the family observes holidays or occasions that are widely practiced by the culture and are special in the family. Occasions such as funerals, weddings, baptisms, bar mitzvahs; religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter and the Passover Seder; and secular holidays such as New Year’s, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving are family celebrations. These rituals are observed broadly by the cultural groups and provide an opportunity for larger group identification for the family. By repetition over time, they also contribute to family stability. Because of religious and cultural differences, couples in mixed marriage in which spouses have different legacies and belief systems may experience considerable conflict around celebrations. Such conflict is particularly evident during Christmas and Easter. {41}

All couples must negotiate the procedures and format their celebrations will follow. It is not unusual for newly married couples even within similar cultural and religious backgrounds to experience considerable stress around how to celebrate. In fact, one woman recently stated, “My brother-in-law maintains that people should not get married until they’ve discussed Christmas” (Wolin and Bennett, 1984:404). Celebrations can be full of stress and conflict because the spouses have not adequately negotiated procedures to be observed during the ritual.

Family Traditions

Family traditions are activities which are less culture-specific and more unique to each family. They are not necessarily celebrated annually, although they occur regularly in families. They are more moderately organized than celebrations. The events included in this category are summer vacations, visits to and from extended family members, anniversary and birthday customs, parties with special food and music, participation in community events, and activities with kin.

In contrast to family celebrations, family traditions give the family the responsibility of determining how they will celebrate the event. The element of choice in carrying on traditions allows family members to express their values and beliefs about the event and how it will be celebrated. By adherence to traditions, the family makes a statement about their identity—about who they are and what seems to be important in their life. By use of traditions, the family expresses its beliefs about how decisions are made, who is included in the decision-making process and whether decisions are child-centered, democratic, or autocratic.

Family Routines

Family routines are rituals which are most frequently enacted but least consciously planned by the participants. They are the least deliberate and yet the most evident in the family. They include activities such as regular meals, bedtime routines for children, customary treatment of requests, leisure activities, discipline of children, everyday greetings and goodbyes. These rituals organize everyday life and define family roles and responsibilities. {42}

In many ways, these activities are taken for granted by the family, and members show surprise when they are viewed as rituals. They are often perceived by members of the family in a matter-of-fact perspective; and yet routines offer the opportunity for families to express their common identities and their shared beliefs.

Leisure activities during evenings or weekends provide families with the occasion to establish meaningful rituals. This could involve an established pattern for supper with well-delineated roles and responsibilities for all family members in the preparation and cleaning up of supper dishes. It might involve a family time of reading and discussion together with Bible study and prayers. In addition, joint decisions could be arrived at through the use of a family council in which all family members can freely express their opinions. Such routines provide an opportunity for the parents to express shared values and beliefs and transmit these to their children.


Rituals may be divided into stages which are descriptive of their development. Roberts points out that rituals consist not only of the actual performance or ceremony, but the whole process of preparing for it, experiencing and reintegrating it into life (1988). For example, the Easter ritual involves a period of preparation: Lent food preparation, religious forerunners such as prayers, musical events and Bible readings. Then there is the actual celebration on Good Friday and Easter Sunday; and finally the integration of the experience into life and the return to work. In line with this perspective, Van Gennep has divided rituals into three stages (1960). The first stage is “separation,” which involves preparation and disseminating information about the ritual. This first stage is as important a part of the ritual process as the event itself. The next stage is the “event”: people actually participate in the ritual and experience themselves in new ways and take on new roles and identities. The third stage involves a “reintegration,” during which people are reconnected to their communities with the new status. It is important that all three stages are fully experienced and integrated into the ritual process. {43}


Rituals have multiple functions in the family and in the culture (Grimes, 1982). In the following section, these functions will be examined.

(a) Rituals make changes manageable.

Rituals have been used for centuries to mark changes in the ongoing social structure and in the individual and family life cycle transitions. Rituals that mark transitions are often identified as transition rituals and delineate such change events as war and peace, the change of seasons, childbirth, transition to adolescence and/or young adulthood, graduation, leaving home, marriage, retirement and death.

An example of a transition ritual is the wedding ceremony, which marks a particularly important event in most families. In the wedding ceremony the parents “give away” the bride to the groom symbolizing their “letting go” of the daughter from the family of origin. The children are now recognized as achieving independence and the wedding marks the beginning of a new nuclear family. The parents’ relationship to the children changes as a result of this act. The children now have autonomy, they leave on their honeymoon and begin a new life together. The community of witnesses is invited to endorse the transition and to express support of the couple in good times and bad. In this way, the wedding ritual signifies the changes in status of the bride and groom and the beginning of a new family unit. The wedding clearly demarcates the boundary between the old and new status of the young couple.

(b) Rituals facilitate the transmission of values and beliefs.

Not only do rituals mark significant changes, they also serve as the vehicle for the transmission of values and beliefs. Rituals carry religious and cultural meaning which has been passed on through the generations. In this sense, rituals maintain the traditional forms of culture and religious experience and help people construct maps of reality which are rooted in the past but experienced in the present.

Easter, for example, is celebrated annually and marks a core element of the Christian experience. It also contains multiple meanings based upon ethnic, cultural and religious practices. It is not sufficient only to talk about Easter as a historic event. Its true religious and personal significance may be found primarily in experiencing Easter, including the preparation {44} for it, partaking actively in it and integrating the experience into everyday life. Participating in each stage is important in fully experiencing the significance of Easter.

(c) Rituals contribute to a family identity.

Rituals may also be viewed as contributing to the development of a family identity. Families, like individuals, have identities. Individuals in the family may have certain beliefs about themselves which are generally recognized and applauded or alternatively may be scorned. Such beliefs may relate to the family’s achievement, career aspirations, wealth, poverty, physical appearance, communication styles or coping mechanisms. Each of these qualities or characteristics reflects the family identity.

Family rituals are the vehicles through which the family identity is delineated and transmitted to future generations. The choice of rituals, the underlying meanings contained in the ritual and the intensity of family involvement in the ritual are significant markers of family identity. They provide family members with a sense of history and rootedness as well as a future perspective.

(d) Rituals provide support and containment for strong emotions.

A further function of rituals is their provision of support during periods of mourning such as funerals (Scheff, 1979). This is an important function of rituals. During mourning, groups of people join with each other to bear each others’ burdens, share food, wear certain clothes and express certain words of comfort. The experience of mourning is time-limited and the circumstances are well defined, thus creating a feeling of safety and security for the participants. Mourning rituals are often linked to meals or visiting; consequently they may reduce isolation and loneliness, especially during periods of loss as in death.

Bowen gives an example of a family with small children in which the mother suddenly died of a heart attack. Contrary to what the father and mother intended to do, Bowen advised that the children be involved in the preparatory stage of the funeral ritual. This would give the children some time alone with their father and the deceased in the funeral parlor. Some family friends came. The father and children withdrew to the lobby while the friends went into the viewing room. In the lobby the youngest son found some polished pebbles in a {45} planter. He was the one who always found objects to give his mother as “presents.” He took a small pebble into the viewing room and placed it into his mother’s hand. The other children also got pebbles and put them into their mother’s hand. They then announced, “We can go now, Daddy.” The father was much relieved at the outcome of the visit. He said, “A thousand tons were lifted from the family today” (Bowen, 1978:334).

In this example, the father agreed to expose his children to an intensely emotional situation without hiding his own feelings and the pain of grief. The event was the removing of the veil of mystery and uncertainty that often surrounds such situations. The creative act of the youngest child provided the opportunity for the separation process to be initiated with the use of a symbolic object. This object became a concrete symbol of the change in the mother-child bond.

(e) Facilitation of coordination between individuals, families and communities.

The diversity of beliefs, customs and values in the world tend to confuse young people as they move from childhood to adulthood. They often experience considerable conflict within themselves as they attempt to internalize their belief system. Rituals which coordinate family, church and community values are helpful to young people in developing their sense of personal identity.

In the Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah is a classical example of a coordination ritual. The Jewish child in transition to adulthood takes on a different status within his family, church and community after celebrating the bar mitzvah. During the ritual he has to demonstrate competency in the sacred language, Hebrew, and lead the congregation in religious exercises for a short period. The family then bestows gifts on the young man to acknowledge his new status.

The entire religious community is involved in the ritual. Readings are taken from the Torah and symbolic activities are undertaken which have been passed from generation to generation. Past, present and future realities are linked by use of the bar mitzvah ritual.

The transition from childhood to adulthood is facilitated considerably by such activities. They are integrative and lead to more harmonious and coordinated relationships between individuals, families and communities.

Similar experiences can be found in the national ritual of {46} Thanksgiving. In this event, individual preparation is accompanied by religious ceremony in conjunction with a national celebration. In addition, the event is marked as a special holiday in which special foods are prepared. Often the turkey dinner during Thanksgiving represents the symbol of gratitude. The Thanksgiving ritual has become a national custom where religious and personal symbols and practices are interwoven.

(f) Healing

Another function of rituals is to facilitate healing. Personal and relational healing is needed at various stages of human life. Rituals are an important part of the healing process. For example, losses sustained through death or divorce are in need of healing. The support of the church and the conduct of meaningful religious ceremonies are particularly important during times of loss. Family losses as in suicide, violence or unexpected death resulting from accidents and pregnancy loss may especially call for healing.

Sometimes healing by use of normative or prescribed rituals may not fully satisfy the needs of the person suffering the loss. For example, if the clergy giving the eulogy hardly knows the deceased, the funeral may be a hollow ritual. In such cases, the healing process may be incomplete or blocked and be replaced by symptoms that function to orient attention away from the need for healing. Symptoms such as depression or anxiety, for instance, may be connected to unhealed and unacknowledged losses in previous generations (Walsh, 1983). It is important in such instances to have the person re-experience those losses by use of therapeutic rituals. Therapy can be an important experience in restoring personal wholeness and facilitating healing following traumatic losses.


Various studies have examined the neurobiological impact of participation in rituals [d’Aquili, et al., (1979)]. These investigations show that rituals produce positive limbic discharges which lead to warmth and closeness among people.

Rituals tend to stimulate both left and right parts of the brain so that the “two hemispheres of the brain spill over into each other.” The result may be deep emotional experiences, {47} such as a “shiver down the back.” These experiences have the effect of facilitating personal integration and the feeling of well-being.

Rituals tend to combine both digital and analogic levels of information so that logical and verbal methods of communication are combined with nonverbal symbolic methods. Rituals thus hold a level of meaning and significance that words alone cannot capture.


The quality, level and structure of family rituals vary considerably and may be assessed by use of measuring instruments (Wolin, Bennett, Jacobs, 1988) or by observing the family dynamics. In this regard, families experiencing relationship problems may be (a) under-ritualized, (b) rigidly ritualized, (c) skewed and/or (d) hollow in rituals (Roberts, 1988). In the following section, each of these categories will be described.

(a) Under-ritualized families

Under-ritualized families neither celebrate nor mark transitions. They do not, for example, have holidays and consequently do not experience the family togetherness that accompanies celebrations. Their family life often appears empty and distant.

(b) Rigidly ritualized families

These are families that conduct rituals in a very rigid manner and do not allow for changes despite developmental needs. Such families tend to be overorganized, do many things together, do things precisely on time, eat out at the same places, visit the same people, etc. The family norms are unusually clear and no gray areas are allowed.

(c) Skewed ritualization families

In such families, one particular ethnic or religious tradition is emphasized at the expense of other aspects of the family. Skewed ritualization is particularly a problem in mixed, ethnic or religious marriages where one spouse may not wish to celebrate the rituals of the other spouse’s tradition. A Jewish spouse, for example, marrying a Christian person may encounter considerable difficulty accommodating Christmas or Easter. Interpersonal conflict surrounding the practice of rituals often occurs in mixed marriages. {48}

(d) Hollow rituals

Rituals are hollow when people celebrate them out of a sense of obligation with little appreciation for the event or the process. Rituals become hollow when they lose their meaning, or when the family does not adequately accommodate change, or they become a burden and create stress for the family. They also lose their meaning and become hollow when only one person prepares for the rituals, and the other family members do not actively participate in them.


During the family cycle, there are numerous important events and transitions which take place over time. Often these events are not adequately recognized. Rituals are important and useful ways of assisting individuals and families in dealing with transitions and losses, bringing about healing and transmitting values from generation to generation. The effective use of rituals is one avenue of strengthening families and creating an environment where personal well-being is enhanced.


  • Bowen, M. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson, 1978.
  • d’Aquili, E., Laughlin, C., and McManus, J. (eds.). The Spectrum of Ritual: Biogenetic Structural Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
  • Gaines, R. Beginnings in Ritual Studies. Lanham,, MD: University Press of America, 1982.
  • Imber-Black, E., Roberts, J., and Whiting, R. Rituals in Families and Family Therapy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
  • Roberts, J. “Setting the Frame, Definition, Functions and Typology of Rituals,” in R. Imber-Black, et al. (eds.), Rituals in Families and Family Therapy New York: WW Norton, 1988.
  • Scheff, T. J. Catharsis in Healing, Ritual and Drama. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1960.
  • Van Gennep, A. The Rites of Passage. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
  • Walsh, F. “The Timing of Symptoms and Critical Events in the Family Life Cycle,” in H. A. Little (ed.), Clinical Implications of the Family Life Cycle. Rockville, MC: Aspen Systems Publications, 1983.
  • Wolin, S. J., Bennett, L. A., and Jacobs, J. S. “Assessing Family Rituals in Alcoholic Families,” in E. Imber-Black, et al. (eds.), Rituals in Families and Family Therapy. New York: WW, Norton, 1988.
  • Wolin, S. J., Bennett, L. A. “Family Rituals.” Family Process. 23 (1984): 401-420.
Dr. John D. Friesen is Professor of Family Studies, Department of Counseling Psychology, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

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