The Fall 2011 Generations issue is all about rituals. The journal’s content was on my mind as I gathered with family and friends this Thanksgiving. I began thinking beyond the fun and food, and looked more toward the larger meaning of holiday events. What are our cultural and family traditions, and how did my grandparents benefit from developing these rituals?

The significance of our family traditions mattered not only to my grandmother, but to the rest of us as well. She started our “Thanksgiving Brunch” years ago when her children began splitting time between their spouse’s families and their own during the holidays. It was important for her that the whole family get together during the holidays and without the stress of having to be in two places at once. Many of the rituals we perform during Thanksgiving (the time we eat, the food we serve, the location where we gather, the family photo) started with my grandmother and added meaning to the holidays.

But what meaning did our Thanksgiving rituals hold for her? Cooking the Thanksgiving brunch for our family could be seen simply as habit. Yet consider how this made my grandmother feel: making the meal reminded her of the personal, familial, and cultural roles she’s held over the years.  As I think back on it now, she had a specific Thanksgiving ritual. The same food was prepared year after year. Only when the food was ready did she greet everyone (don’t bug her while she’s cooking!). She’d watch her family interact and get their share of the meal before she took any food for herself. When she finally sat down at the table, the eating could begin. Even in later years when she was no longer the cook (and assumed the role of supervisor), her ritual was still performed every Thanksgiving.

Older adults often perceive rituals as a way to build successful families and strengthen relationships. Researchers show that the most positive aspects of holiday rituals are maintaining family contact, togetherness and sharing, making memories, and communication. My grandmother knew that even when she passed away we would keep these holiday rituals alive and continue to see each other for brunch every year. In times of change or struggle, rituals become extremely important because of the continuity, order, and predictability they provide to families. In the final years of my grandmother’s life, keeping to the holiday traditions provided structure for us and for her as we began accepting the inevitable. Our holiday activities over the years left an emotional imprint on everyone involved, allowing each family member to recall positive memories from these events.

For older adults and those of us who study them, rituals provide insight into the lives they hope to live, the types of social and cultural settings they find meaningful, and the experiences they wish to share and turn into their legacy. So when family gets angry because you forgot to bring the cranberry sauce this year, consider why breaking this tradition would make them so upset. Rituals, particularly for those in later life, connect people to something bigger through shared experiences and the meaning that they create. “It’s not Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce!”