How we commemorate family milestones matters

While “smells and bells” aren’t everything, embracing pomp and circumstance can help make memories last.
Our Faith

The siren call of doting grandparents and a much more affordable cost of living lured my husband and me to migrate from Providence, Rhode Island, where he was completing his Ph.D., to rural Pennsylvania during the early days of the pandemic. Now, three years later, as he at long last approaches his graduation, we have spent the past several months considering whether to mark this educational milestone by embracing the pomp and circumstance of an in-person event or by celebrating more simply at home.

We know that in the grand scheme of things this decision doesn’t actually matter all that much, but it has felt weighty nevertheless. Why, I cannot say, but we have debated the merits of either verdict ad nauseam.

In favor of staying home: We’re exhausted and not feeling especially celebratory. It has been a hard couple of months for my husband (his dad died and our dog died) on top of a tough few years at large (the academic job market is bleak; so is life for all of the non-owning class under capitalism). The effort involved in attending the ceremony, not to mention the expense, is not insignificant, and summoning the energy is a task neither of us feels equipped to undertake.

In favor of going: Hassle for the sake of experience is pretty much my shtick. I firmly believe that novelty fuels memory, so I tend to say yes to festivity and activity that fall outside our normal routines and rhythms, regardless of my mood in the moment.


Given my typical ways, it was unusual for me that in this instance of deliberation avoiding the inconvenience of in-person graduation seemed as enticing as constructing family memories. On the other hand, I suppose it is unsurprising given the general feeling of emotional malaise that has characterized my consideration of most life activity these past few months.

My husband’s graduation isn’t the only milestone we are trying to figure out what to do with right now. I’m also graduating with a master’s degree in social work and, alongside that, leaving the job I’ve had for the past eight years and starting a new career path as a therapist. In addition, we’re adding a third child to our family unit. On top of these big, specific changes, we’re going through slightly more amorphous shifts as we settle into a new community (we moved this past fall) and enter a new stage of family life (two kids in preschool versus home all the time).

Objectively, I can say this is an eventful, exciting phase of life, and I want to honor the transitions. But as I feel toward attending my husband’s graduation (in a word: blah), I feel in general. I’m tired. My usual enthusiasm for doing all the things is being seriously outweighed by my desire to nap whenever the opportunity arises. I’m also overwhelmed by the prospect of making the most of all the occasions. We are reaching so many significant milestones, all at once, and I’m burning out on celebration. With the burnout comes a loss of creativity and momentum, and even if I felt clear on my desire to celebrate, I’m at a loss for how to do it.

And yet I know that commemoration of milestones matters in that it provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the past, to give thanks to God and the humans who have carried us to the moment, and to consider our hopes and goals for the future. With this in mind, I am once again turning to our faith for guidance, examining how the church honors and celebrates its important moments, from sacraments to feast days to liturgical seasons.


A couple of years ago, I read somewhere that the Catholic Church recommends using live greenery in Advent wreaths, and while I’m usually one to roll my eyes at recommendations like these I was moved by the explanation of why. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Human minds and hearts are stimulated by the sounds, sights, and fragrances of liturgical seasons, which combine to create powerful, lasting impressions of the rich and abundant graces unique to each of the seasons.”

This rings true to me, as it probably does to anyone who has some nostalgia around the sensation of icy air conditioning blasting your face upon returning indoors after hours in the summer sand and sun or the sound of jingle bells ringing on crowded town streets during the month of December.

In addition to creating lasting impressions, engaging the senses elevates the feeling of gravitas and meaning in a moment. That’s why, even though all it technically takes for a baptism to be valid is water and words (albeit very specific ones), most of us aren’t taking the utilitarian approach of baptizing our children in the dirty dishwater. A typical baptismal rite involves prayers and oils, infants in gowns, godparents and parents surrounding a font, and joyful music. These things don’t make the baptism—God’s grace suffices—but they call attention to the importance of the moment.

I listened to a podcast recently discussing hospitality, and I found myself guiltily disagreeing with the host who said something along the lines of, “People want to see you; they don’t care if your house is clean or the dinner tastes good. So I invite people over and serve hot dogs on paper plates, with the clutter of kids’ toys everywhere.”


While I understand—and indeed partially agree with—the host’s impulse to prioritize relationships over attempted perfection, I do think something is lost when attention to detail is abandoned. And I think that the Catholic Church does a good job of honoring both sides of this equation. The central tenets of the faith can be distilled pretty narrowly to a set of core beliefs outlined in the Nicene Creed, yet no small amount of intellectual and creative resources have been devoted to developing and implementing the so-called “smells and bells” that make Catholic liturgical life so rich and satisfying.

My husband and I ended up deciding to take the family trip to Providence to attend his in-person graduation festivities, but for what it’s worth, my feelings of magnitude around this particular choice decreased as I considered the church’s ancient wisdom surrounding celebration of key moments. It seems that whether or not we “do the big thing” matters less than the care we put into making the milestone stand out from the ordinary routines of daily life with details like a thoughtfully crafted toast, a curated playlist, the special tablecloth, and time set aside to give thanks for the grace that brought us to the occasion. Elevating the moment matters; Catholicism shows me how. 

This article also appears in the September 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 9, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Jason Dent


About the author

Teresa Coda

Teresa Coda works in parish faith formation. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young daughters.

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