Corrections or additions?

This article by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,

1999, and is being reprinted for this Internet edition. All rights reserved.

Of those Family Traditions: Meg Cox

I grew up in a family with 11 brothers and sisters

— and parents who created family traditions as matter-of-factly

as they put food on the dinner table. For the most part the rituals

of the Fagans were a seamless blend of my mother’s and father’s sensibilities,

but the burp ritual — although its anthropological history has

yet to be traced — has my dad’s perverse sense of humor written

all over it.

Here’s how it went: although burping was not considered generally

acceptable by family standards, it was acknowledged that occasionally

burps happen. At my house, when burps happened, everyone had to put

their thumb on their head and shout, "Excluded." The last

one with a thumb on his or her head was the pig. You can imagine the

scene. It wasn’t a ritual that we shared with the general public (although

dinner guests were expected to participate), and it was one tradition

I thought I had left behind — until my husband and I baby sat

my three nephews one weekend.

The five of us were at the dinner table, and Andrew let out a belch

so sonorous that my thumb instinctively flew to my head. Abashed,

I started explaining. No need. The boys’ faces lit up in recognition,

their thumbs were already on their heads, and they were gleefully

shouting, "Pig, pig," at my slow-thumbed husband. Chris, the

oldest at age 10, flashed me a brilliant smile. Their father, my brother,

had died the year before, and the boys deeply missed his loving silliness.

The burp ritual reconnected a circle for us all — it was going

to be okay, we were all still part of the Fagan tribe.

In her generous book, "The Heart of a Family: Searching America

for New Traditions That Fulfill Us," Princeton author Meg Cox

explores the significance and power of family ritual, and shares some

of the hundreds of traditions — in all their various shapes —

that contemporary American families have developed to help them celebrate,

mourn, renew, and strengthen themselves in our fast paced society.

She will talk about her book and creating rituals at Barnes & Noble

on Thursday, July 29, at 7 p.m. Everyone attending will receive a

special family ritual calendar for the year 2000, illustrated with

woodcuts by Janet Payne, the book’s illustrator.

Cox opens her book with the words: "I wrote this book because

I needed it." When she and her husband began to think about having

children, she worried that she might not know how to be a good mother.

Both parents were independent people, focused on their careers. Could

they make a real family for a child? What would that take? The questions

terrified her until, one day, she woke with an answer. "It sounds

goofy," Cox says, "but I literally woke up one morning and

said, `Rituals. Family rituals. If I can figure that out, then I’ll

be okay.’ And at the same moment I thought, `Oh, that’s a good book!’

I had been looking for a topic for a book for quite a while. It all

came together."

Cox, a journalist and avid researcher, began her background

research on two levels. Intent on writing a book that was both intelligent

and anecdotal, she searched the Internet and libraries for anthropological

and psychological studies on the role of ritual in families and child

development. In the end, she reviewed more than 50 books and reports

and found that her instinctive drive to learn about and create good

family ritual herself was solidly backed up by research findings.

The first section of the book, the "Why," describes what she

found: good rituals are essential components to a healthy childhood.

"They’re beginning to realize that strong, positive, family ritual

is one of the factors that helps to create resilient children —

children who have a sense of security and identity in the world,"

she says. "One study found that those college students who came

from families with a strong base of common ritual had a much easier

time making the initial transition into college life." Another

series of studies that tracked children from alcoholic families found

that even in those troubled families, those children whose childhood

had included strong, positive family traditions were far less likely

to become alcoholics themselves.

The second type of research involved identifying and interviewing

a diverse selection of family experiences, representing multiple cultural,

religious, and even geographic experiences. Cox soon realized that

locating those families would be far more difficult than the more

scholarly research. "I wanted families that were really, really

good at this," Cox says. "I was looking for rituals that were

distinctive and thoughtful — as well as things that were contemporary,

like seatbelt-buckling rituals, or rituals for dropping your kid off

at the daycare center. These are important in today’s society, but

these were rituals that your grandmother wouldn’t need." The traditions

and family rituals of more than 200 families from across the United

State are included in the book.

The search for families began on the Internet with inquiries posted

on various message boards. Online groups like Moms Online — which

allowed her to post an essay about her research that included a return

questionnaire — were also helpful. Print resources also provided

leads. An article on holiday rituals in Parents Magazine — also

including a questionnaire — generated another 400 responses. Cox

received contacts and supports from other sources as well, ranging

from the editor of Reunion Magazine, the publishers of the Chinaberry

Book Catalog for families, to consortiums of religious educators.

Eventually, Cox found many of the core group of families reported

on in the book by word of mouth. "Every time I found a family

that was really good for this project, I’d ask them if they knew any

other families who celebrate with these types of rituals. I also found

that some of the families who were best at creating and celebrating

family ritual were those who had missed out on ritual themselves as


Cox describes her early life in the suburbs of Cleveland as a "typical

’50s childhood. You could set your watch by when my dad came home

from work every night — except when he was at Kiwanis." Yet

she identifies herself as one of those people who missed out on ritual.

Her father was a school administrator. Her mother (to whom the book

is dedicated), explored multiple artistic options, from sign-painter

to puppeteer (with her own television show for a brief time), but

spent most of her time raising her brood of two adopted and two biological

children, and coping with a chronic illness. In her introduction,

Cox notes that although she always felt her parents’ love and support,

they were not big on family outings and celebrations, leaving her

"desperate to learn how such things are done."

Although she doesn’t recall her family life as having too many traditions,

a family member recently reminded Cox that her interest in creating

meaningful ritual had started much earlier. It seems that when her

younger sister turned 16 without having been kissed, Cox, then a high

school senior, decided to do something about it. The night of her

sister’s birthday slumber party, Cox arranged for a group of senior

boys to line up on the family deck where each kissed her sister —

on the mouth, she adds. "My sister says that it was the best thing

that I ever did for her. She was shocked that I hadn’t included it

in the book, but I had forgotten all about it!"

With a BA in English from Northwestern under her belt, Cox put aside

her plans for graduate studies in English, and instead landed her

first job as the farm editor for the newspaper of Newark, Ohio (where

her father had grown up). Laughing, Cox says that she used her only

journalism contact to get the job — her Uncle Lester who had been

the eighth-grade teacher of the paper’s managing editor. At the age

of 24, she followed her college boyfriend to Chicago, where she interviewed

with the Wall Street Journal. Impressed with her coverage of farm

issues (and with her basic knowledge of commodities), the Journal

offered her the first reporting job that opened up, and she continued

to work for them for 17 years.

She met her husband, Richard Leone — a former New Jersey state

treasurer — 11 years ago, and they have been married for seven

years. They have been living in Princeton since their son Max, now

four and a half, was born. Their own traditions as a family, many

borrowed or adapted from families interviewed for the book, have already

begun to evolve.

"A family tradition says to children in a way that is much stronger

than words that family — that they — matter more than

anything else," says Cox. "When it is included in a ritual,

what you say to a child, to each other, carries a much greater authority,

has so much more weight to it."

The "Ten Good Things Rituals Do for Children" discussed in

the beginning of the book, alone, should be enough to send any parent

(or grandparent, godparent, aunt, uncle, family friend) into the bookstore

or library for help beefing up their own family’s traditions. Cox

points out that these rituals not only help create a sense of identity,

but they teach values and practical skills, provide comfort, help

with problem-solving, teach a family’s heredity and culture, creates

memories, and generates joy. Some of the most profound rituals Cox

discovered were those that had been created to deal with grief —

particularly the death of a family member.

In the "What" section of the book, Cox offers a rich survey

of family traditions for celebrating the holidays and seasons from

New Year’s through Kwanzaa. There are also family festivals, ceremonies,

special rituals for all types of occasions, and a special section

on rites of passage. The last section of the book, "How,"

offers families suggestions on creating their own rituals, a chapter

on when rituals need to be changed, and a discussion on living a ritual


"Celebrating family rituals doesn’t solve everything," Cox

says. "It doesn’t mean you’ll have a happy life or that bad things

are never going to happen to you. But it will help your family pull

together and feel a sense of shared identity. If your child has a

problem, a ritual won’t make it go away. You’ll need to address it

directly. But with a ritual you’re going to start on much stronger

ground — and with a wholeness, a healthiness in your family —

that’s going to make it possible to get through all sorts of things."

And what about those "black sheep" in the family — the

little anarchists who chaff at performing any family rituals that

make them seem uncool? Is there any value in making them participate?

Cox answers with an adamant "yes," and cites the Vogt family,

which had a weekly family night that included religious elements,

but also passed on principles of peace and justice. In the book Cox

describes one of the exercises they did to explore issues of racism.

"Every family member but one wore a blue paper arm band. The family

members take turns ostracizing the only person wearing an orange arm

band, leading to a discussion of how racism feels to its victims."

Their oldest daughter, in particular, hated everything about these

weekly meetings. When Cox contacted her, as a Yale sophomore, she

admitted, "now that I’ve gotten away from my family and given

it some thought, I realize that if I ever have a family, I’ll want

to do the same thing. I think it really did help to shape my values."

Cox, now a freelancer, remains busy with her writing. One current

project is an article for Parents Magazine on family rituals that

celebrate the millennium. She’s also working on a feature about baby

boomers and retirement, and how they celebrate turning 50.

She remains committed to writing about, and sharing ideas on, ritual

in our lives. "I think this is part of what’s going on in this

country right now. People are feeling frustrated — at sea and

alone. Certain bonds to the extended family are loosened. People are

less apt to be going to a religious institution, so they’re struggling

with their spirituality. The fact is, we all need ritual in our lives."

Even, I might add, if they’re just rituals about burps.

— Tricia Fagan

Meg Cox, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, 609-716-1570.

The Princeton author reads from and signs "The Heart of a Family."

Free. Thursday, July 29, 7 p.m. Cox welcomes ideas from readers

regarding New Year rituals. E-mail her at

Corrections or additions?

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— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

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