According to Webster’s, a tradition is a belief or custom handed down from one generation to another. We all have traditions within our families and communities. Those special, sometimes even peculiar, ways that we celebrate life together and mark the time that has passed. For most of us, we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations. We also share holidays together like Easter, Fourth of July, and Halloween. But it is at this time of year – November and December – that we seem to more intensely cling to the traditions we have established to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whether it’s the chill in the air that makes us want to huddle together, the smells that remind us of the changing seasons, or nostalgic memories that cause us to try to recreate years passed — all these things add to the joy and the struggle of keeping our holiday traditions.
As a child, this time of year usually meant at least one trip back to Laurel, Mississippi, the town where both of my parents grew up and where most of our extended family lived. For a city girl, Laurel was a sweet small town, and the outskirts held dairy and chicken farms to visit. There were grandparents to see, lots of aunts and uncles, and country cousins to play with. And there was FOOD, lots and lots of food; but it wasn’t the usual dishes that mom served at home. There were things like chicken and dumplings, fresh squirrel stew (shot by my dad and his brothers), peas and butter beans, and turnips and other greens. Back in the New Orleans suburbs, this time of year meant spending time with neighborhood friends, keeping the air-conditioner from blowing the tinsel off the Christmas tree, and, of course, anticipating what we would get for Christmas.
As a parent, I was lucky enough to have most of our family right here in the New Orleans area, so holiday travel was rarely required. We tried to balance times with both sides of the family during holiday gatherings. And because we lived next door to my mother-in-law for forty years, my own children were often seen running back and forth between the two houses with their cousins when the families would assemble. We added our own traditions as the kids grew older – baking together the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas; inviting special guests to join us who had no family in town; decorating the tree with lots of laughter and memories to recall; delivering special treats to family friends; Christmas Eve brunch each year at Brennan’s; Christmas Eve church services together followed by gathering the Weaver family for games and gift swapping; Christmas Day lunch with in-laws and cousins, and spending the day teaching kids to ride bikes, skates or skateboards. And then collapsing in a blessed combination of overeating and exhaustion.
But you don’t stay a child for long. And your children don’t stay children for long either. And sooner than you’d like you find that many of the traditions you’ve enjoyed simply cannot be sustained. So you have a choice: you can fight to keep the traditions and grumble when they don’t look the same OR you can give up on all the traditions and mourn the days that have passed. I actually think I’ve done both of these things at different times in recent years. I’ve pushed and dictated my ideas of tradition on those around me only to find out that I cannot recreate the memories I have of years ago. And I’ve mourned and pouted that things look different now than they once did, and, in fact, will never look that way again.
What I believe I’ve come to realize is that tradition needs to be less about the specifics of who, what, where and when, and more about the heart of the holidays. After so many years of inviting others to join our family’s feast, I’ve been the guest at someone else’s table in recent years – and what an honor it was to be included! Rather than bemoaning who can’t be here for Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to focus on gratitude for those who are present, for the relationships we share and for their participation in my life. There is rarely opportunity these days for big gatherings in the kitchen for hours of holiday baking. So rather than dozens of trays of goodies distributed to employees and friends, there is more likely to be dinner sent to an elderly neighbor or two. Those brunches and dinners that were always held on Christmas Eve have had to be rescheduled to other dates on the calendar. And Christmas Day will likely be spent driving to see grandchildren instead of watching my own children play with their new toys.
But where is the reason for struggling or sadness? The recipes and the meals were merely a way to share time together with the people I love. Sharing baked goodies was simply a way to show others that I care for them. Games and laughter and gift swapping can happen anytime we get together. I think the most important thing is to share time together, to show others that I care and to do it at every opportunity.
Life is a series of changes. Change can sometimes be hard, but it doesn’t mean that change is bad. May we always remember the reason behind creating our traditions rather than clinging to the strict adherence to them.
Happy New Year!