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The Abiding Power of Sacred Family Rituals
“What is the best thing I can do as a parent to bring our family closer together?” . . . “How can I best strengthen my child’s faith?” As scholars and researchers of family and religion, questions like these are sometimes directed our way. Our two decades of interviewing about 200 very strong, “exemplar” families of various faiths from around the United States have revealed some answers to these difficult but vital questions. Across religion, race, and region, mothers and fathers (and their children) have emphasized the power of sacred family rituals. Drawing from the diverse families who taught us, we explore, explain, and illustrate why sacred family rituals matter, with the hope that your family and ours will more effectively harness this power in our own homes and families.
THEME 1: The Costs and Challenges of Religious, Family-Level Rituals
Rituals require structure, effort, organization, and flexibility in families. Often, family-level rituals present enough challenges that resolving the accompanying conflict is an integral element of success. Many contemporary religious families reportedly struggle to maintain meaningful rituals and sacred practices due to the competing challenges of life from myriad outside forces. There are also challenges from within the home, including the reluctance of children to participate. Jackie, an African-American Methodist mother of three daughters, reported:
You know what we try to do? And it kinda works. We get our kids to sit down at the table with us and we have a little Bible study and have some passages read around. And we just talk about their day, about something that’s bothering them. Someone will read a scripture or explain something that they’ve heard in church . . . so that they will have a base that they can build upon. But sometimes they’ll say, “Mom, we don’t want to do that right now.”
Mitchell, a Baptist father of seven, similarly explained that although their weekly family night was important to him and to his wife, there was often resistance from their teenagers:
There’s always the challenge of . . . let’s really make this relevant and helping [our children] see the usefulness. Sometimes I think [the resistance is] because of the pressures of their schedule, they’ve got homework, they’ve got this or that. (Sometimes) we need . . . to say, “Okay, listen . . . we can spend time complaining about this or we can actually have some meaningful time.” And . . . I think for the most part, when we do have those times, they do appreciate it. [But there are] challenges….
Mitchell’s 18 year old son, Byron, then interjected, “[We] might not always enter into it with the most willing attitude, but it’s definitely a blessing at the end.” Reports such as Jackie and Mitchell’s remind us that family rituals are, often, rituals in overcoming resistance. The balance can be a delicate one—if there is too little structure and commitment and the ritual is likely to die. However, it is also possible to push too hard. Research has found that while some religious family practices seem to facilitate marriage and family relations, “compulsory” family worship can sometimes be counter-productive. Several parents addressed the tension between actively engaging versus blatantly forcing children in connection with family-level rituals.
Rachel, a Jewish mother of three (including two teenagers), explained:
We do the same rituals for our holidays and all our Sabbath activities and you know, a lot of times we have to nag the kids and pull them into things, but if we don’t do something or if something is missed or if we say, “We are not going to do Shabbat,” they say [with excited animation], “What do you mean we’re not doing it!?!”….They’ll get mad that we don’t do [Shabbat]. They’re upset because life is not the way it usually is. They get upset if we don’t hallow [the Sabbath]. It’s very interesting. Sometimes they act like we are annoying them by dragging them through the ritual but if we don’t have it there for them they get upset by it….The religion provides a lot of strength and comfort and structure.
Patricia, an LDS mother of six (with just one child still at home) said:
Family home evening, is a family get-together on Monday night when we have fun and play together, [and pray together], and teach the children. When our children were very young, we used to think, “Why are we doing this? This is crazy, they are not listening to a word.” And now, as adults, they will come back and say, “Family home evening was so wonderful!” [Laughter.] You don’t realize the impact a lot of things have when you are doing them. . . . We have also done a lot of summer vacations and family reunions. They used to fight us tooth and toenail every summer, and now the one who fought us the hardest will do anything to be there. It’s payday, you just have to hang in there.
One common theme between Rachel and Patricia’s reflections is the effort required. Note the language of these two mothers (e.g., Rachel’s statements that “we have to nag them or pull them” and “they act like we are annoying them by dragging them through the ritual,” and Patricia’s reference that her children would “fight us tooth and toenail.”). A second common theme is the (often less evident) meaning of the familial religious practice to the children. In Rachel’s case, this did not become apparent until she suggested not carrying through with Shabbat observance. In Patricia’s case, the power of the family home evening ritual did not come to her attention until literally years later. In connection with both the effort required and invested in ritual, as well as the subsequent outcome, we note sociologist Douglas Marshall’s statement that “The strength of Belief/Belonging created by a ritual increases with the Effortfulness its practice entails.” From this vantage, challenges to ritual, if met by the necessary effort to overcome them, serve to magnify a ritual’s power. The repeated testimony of these diverse families is that in ritual, as in weight training, difficulty and strain are benefits in disguise.
THEME 2: Studying the Sacred Word Together – Family Scripture Study
For several of the families we interviewed, studying or reviewing scripture or sacred text together was a meaningful religious ritual. Natalie, a 14-year old LDS daughter, said:
[Mom and Dad] know the scriptures really well, which helps them in their lives. And then we have scripture study every morning so . . . they help us [and] . . . are teaching us that too. The gospel plays a huge role in their lives, which therefore plays a huge role in my life, ‘cause they teach it to us.
Trey and Rischelle’s LDS family also held daily family scripture study but offered a less idyllic report on their teenager, Cyndi. Trey explained:
Cyndi complains that [our study] lessons are boring sometimes . . . and I’ll admit a lot of them are boring. But every once in a while it just clicks. You know, everybody’s interested and everybody has questions and it’s a real feeling of oneness as a family. It just kind of all comes together…Those are the times that I think, you kind of have to live through all the boring stuff, and keep doing it, even though it is boring, and then occasionally [when] it really clicks and . . . those are the ones that [are] really special.
In some families, the most salient examples of family scripture study were not daily but were connected to annual holy days. For many of the Jewish families we interviewed, the most poignant scriptural recitation and reading took place as part of sacred rituals such as the Passover Seder, where God’s sparing of the children of Israel and their liberation from slavery are revisited in narrative and with several symbols. One mother, Rachel, related:
A Seder is telling a story. . .You tell the story and you remember. . . . Mostly, [in] our family we take turns reading through the Hagaddah, [then] we say [scripture-based] blessings together.
For Jasmine, an African-American Methodist teen, and her family, Christmas sparked a family scripture study with elements that are similar to those reported by Rachel. Jasmine said:
[There is a] ritualistic nature of the things that kind of bring us together. Like every Christmas, before I get to open any presents, we always read the Christmas story; and it’s not because we don’t know the Christmas story. We can all recite it from memory . . . but [what’s important is] just being together and reliving that story every year. And it’s not even necessarily [just] the religious aspect of it. I think it’s just because we’re all together . . . and we can appreciate each other in that way.
Note that Rachel and Jasmine emphasize at least three shared central elements:
(1) Story (both mention it multiple times),
(2) Remembering, (“You tell the story and you remember,” and “We can all recite it from memory…we [are] reliving that story every year”), and
(3) Unity (“we take turns reading…then we say blessings together,” and “[it] brings us together…[what’s important is] just being together…we can appreciate each other”).
While annual remembrances such as Seder and Christmas were the scripture-infused rituals that were most salient to some, many other families talked of less dramatic but more frequent scripture study rituals—in many cases, these were daily. One of the more striking examples was offered by a Jehovah’s Witness family with two children.
Jennifer (Mother): When the kids were younger . . . our family study was reading through the Bible. Each kid read out loud through the entire Bible. It took about three years. . . . We used all different Bible translations.
Mark (Father): And . . . we discussed it.
Jennifer: And then when Nick did it, then Erica started doing it. . . . And we did it as a whole family. So the whole family, we have listened [to] both of our kids read the Bible out loud from beginning to end.
An Arab-American Muslim mother named Asalah similarly explained her family’s approach to studying sacred texts together:
[After] saying prayers together as an entire family, most evenings . . . we read from the religious books [The Koran and Hadith (teachings of Mohammed)] and talk about Islam and the values, which in your daily life you can sometimes forget. [It serves as] a reminder to everyone again [and it] is done as a family.
Elise, an LDS mother, reflected on the value of daily scripture study in her family:
One of the most important [sacred practices] for me is [reading] scripture verses. . . . Each night we gather together and we study from the scriptures, and each child who can read [will] take turns reading verses from the scriptures and when the kids don’t understand something they’ll stop us . . . and it’s wonderful opportunity for us every day to teach them a little bit more, and to find out what they know. We never cease to be surprised at how much they are already picking up and how much they understand. And doing that every day is something that I hope will continue to instill . . . what we believe.
As we revisit the common elements from the annual rituals mentioned previously, we note that although the powerful narrative element of the Seder or Christmas celebration may be difficult to capture on a daily basis, the two earlier identified elements of remembering and unity are clearly integral in these daily scripture-based rituals. In connection with remembering, Asalah says of their families’ Koran study, “In your daily life, you can sometimes forget. [It serves as] a reminder”). In connection with unity, the participants reported, “We did it as a whole family,” “[It] is done as a family,” and “Each night we gather together.” We note that in the narratives from the three different families, the word we appears nine times, while I appears only once. This is significant because the singular first-person is typical in our interviews, but this is not the case in parents’ discussion of family rituals. Our participants’ discussions of family rituals seem to convey and invite unity, we-ness, and relationship.
As we conclude our discussion of families and the sacred word, we note that in families where scripture study is important, an underlying theme is that what is taking place is, in some ways, more than the reading of a sacred text. It is a time for motivation, discussion, learning, and worship; but perhaps above all, it is a time for hearing the sacred word together. Belief and Belonging are infused and interconnected. We now move to our third and final theme. (A fourth theme, Connecting with the Creator: The Power of Family Prayer, will be addressed in a future Meridian article.)
THEME 3: Finding Meaning in a Hurry-up World: Sacred Family Rituals
Although scripture study was important to some families, other families mentioned other rituals that held sacred meaning for them. The focus, however, seemed to remain upon a unifying and coming together of the family that centered on faith. A Muslim father, Ibrahim, explained:
In addition to prayer and scripture. . .we cherish the month [long fast] of Ramadan, [be]cause we do so many things together as a family. We wake up in the middle of the night. We sit together, we eat together, we pray together. . .It’s a very, very good experience for us. . .The month of Ramadan has been prescribed to us where every Muslim is supposed to. . . fast from dawn to sunset. So what we do is we get up early— very early in the morning—[and] we have a meal together, and then after the meal, we read Qur’an (Koran), our scripture. And after we do that, it’s time for prayer. We pray together. . . . [I]n the evening during breaking of the fast, again, the same thing happens as during the morning. We all come together as a family, and we eat together and we thank God together, we pray together, [then] we break the fast. . . . So the whole month of Ramadan is a . . . unique experience. We do a lot less of the worldly things and a lot more of godly things than we normally do. . .And especially when you do those kinds of things together every day . . .it tends to bring people together and it strengthens our beliefs and family.
Once again, we see a familial fusion of Belief and Belonging. For Ibrahim and his family the month of Ramadan means “a lot less of the worldly things and a lot more of the godly things”—a month-long resistance to the often frenetic pace of modern life. We have suggested that, often, the best things in life are slow. Several of the families we interviewed, including Ibrahim’s, discussed sacred ritual as a cadence mechanism that provided a “rhythm to life” and that helped to “slow things down when things get too crazy.” Several Jewish families similarly explained how the Jewish ritual of welcoming in the Sabbath (on Friday evening) with the lighting of the candles and the Sabbath meal has added depth to their family relationships. A 17-year old daughter, Hannah, explained:
[Shabbas] means that I don’t have to worry about the usual things. The rest of the week [is a] totally different time. We have Shabbas, and that’s Shabbas—[it is] different. We don’t have to worry about the rest of the world. The rest of the world goes on, but we’re here with our family and our religion. That’s just. . . it’s our time.
Note that although Hannah was in the “me-first” years of teenage life, her description of the familial Shabbas ritual invoked we three times, our three times, and I only once. A Jewish husband named Daniel, summarized, “I don’t know that the Sabbath meal is a religious experience for most people, but for me it’s the heart of religion.”
Aida, a Latina Mormon mother of two, similarly mentioned a family ritual of faith that has some interesting similarities to Sarah and Daniel’s Sabbath meal.
Family home evening is a meeting we have; the whole family, parents and the children. We have the meeting every week [on Monday night]. We sing a hymn, and we have a prayer. My husband or I will prepare a short lesson or teaching from the gospel and [then] our older daughter will retell the lesson in her words. This has had a tremendous impact on her [and her younger sister].
There are common elements in Shabbat and family home evening. First, the time is consistent (Friday or Monday evening, respectively). Second, the event is not haphazard. In fact, the time is consecrated (made sacred or set apart), as formally designated in Judaism by the lighting of the Sabbath candles, or with hymn singing and prayer for Aida’s LDS family. Third, the rituals take place even when life is “crazy”—indeed, the hectic and harried times are when sacred ritual is most needed to restore a sense of structure, order, and reverence to chaotic life. A fourth commonality is that, to the degree possible, all family members are involved. Fifth, a variety of practices are integrated into a single family ritual, including prayer, singing of sacred songs, spiritual teaching, and discussion. For the families of Ibrahim, Hannah, Daniel, and Aida, it is as if several religious elements are being combined week after week to communicate, exemplify, and reinforce the intersection of faith and family as the axis mundi or center of life.
The families we have interviewed have emphasized that introducing, integrating, and maintaining sacred family rituals was difficult work. The considerable benefits for this work, however, included: (1) a time of relaxation and the ability “to breathe,” (2) a better structure and “rhythm to life,” (3) increased physical, mental, and/or spiritual health and quality of life, (4) improved (direct and indirect) parent-child communication, (5) a stronger marriage relationship, (6) a sense of “comfort” and “meaning,” and (7) a personal relationship and connection with God.
In conclusion, ultimately, what seems to matter most is not the specific rituals, but that there are family rituals at all—that a family has sacred, meaningful experiences together. Is there perfection these family rituals? Never. Is there some effort, hassle, friction, and chaos? Almost always. But is there sometimes a spark of sacred, transcendent magic? In truth, it’s rare. But tonight might just be one of those nights.
 This article is adapted and compressed from: Marks, L. D., & Dollahite, D. C. (2012). “Don’t forget home”: The importance of sacred ritual in families. In J. Hoffman (Ed.), Understanding religious rituals (pp. 186-203). New York: Routledge.
 All participants’ names are pseudonyms.
 Marshall, D. A. (2002). Behavior, belonging, and belief: A theory of ritual practice. Sociological Theory, 20, 360-
380 (quote from p. 371).
 A fourth theme, Connecting with the Creator: The Power of Family Prayer, will be addressed in a future Meridian article.
 Adapted from Dollahite, D., & Marks, L. (2018). Mormons’ Weekly Family Ritual Is an Antidote to Fast-Paced Living. The Atlantic, March 29, 2018.