Another hazard, Ms. Coale says, is "when families get into a pattern of empty rituals, occasions that are meaningless, but the family insists on doing them anyway."
Such inflexibility flies in the face of "one of the keys to rituals," Ms. Coale says, which is that "they have to meet the changing needs of family members."
Ms. Imber-Black, for example, remembers a family whose Christmas gatherings became strained and hollow after the death of an adult child. No one would talk about how miserable they all were until finally, "one of the grown children took it into his hands to make a picture album of the son's life and to set it out where everyone could see it and talk about how much they missed him. It broke a huge taboo."
Ms. Imber-Black says she marvels at how rituals can encompass "multiple realities." She cites the obvious examples of ethnic and religious differences.
But sexual orientation can also assume a role in the rituals of new family configurations, Ms. Imber-Black says: "If they can't go home to their own families of origin, a lot of gay and lesbian families form communities with other gay and lesbian couples and make them their families."
Rituals may even provide a kind of moratorium on any disapproval over gender orientation, Ms. Imber-Black says. If it means spending a festive time with their grandchildren, she explains, even unyielding grandparents can often swallow their qualms over which partner in a lesbian household is playing Santa Claus.
But wherever there is tension among families, "we urge people not to try to make relationship changes at the holiday table," Ms. Imber-Black says. The rule of thumb, she says, is "no major changes at the holiday table, unless you want to be remembered forever for the year you ruined Christmas."
Holidays bring out the best and worst in ritual behavior, Ms. Imber-Black believes. "Whether it's through food or family symbols, it's when we find out what connects us to what has gone before us, and when, in a broader sense, we think about our connections to human kind."