With the holidays approaching, I find myself thinking a lot about traditions. I wonder what traditions my children will remember when they are older. What will they think back on? What will they say when asked the question… “How did your family…?” What will they look forward to every year or recreate for their own children someday? For some reason I spend a lot of time thinking about this every year at about this time. I even feel a sense of pressure to start to create something that is uniquely our family, our tradition, and I wonder if I am missing the mark.
The dictionary defines tradition as:
1: the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc, from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice;
2. something that is handed down;
3. a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting;
4. a continuing pattern of cultural beliefs or practices;
5. a customary or characteristic method or manner.
When I reflect on this I realize that traditions that are attached to holidays are only a small piece of the puzzle. Tradition helps us define who we are, who our family is and where we came from. But it also helps us define our current place in the world. When someone asks us “Who are you?” much of our information comes from the traditions handed down to us by our parents, and that is much bigger than an annual trip to the pumpkin patch.
Of course traditions can be about unique and meaningful things that families do together, marked by a time of year or holiday. One of my favorite holiday traditions, eating hotdogs after finding the perfect Christmas tree every year, can be traced back to a car breaking down. Who knew that my parents’ random decision to stop for hotdogs while waiting for a ride that day would start a tradition that their grandchildren would still love. Those types of yearly traditions can’t be forced or contrived or planned. They just happen, maybe even accidentally, because it’s our family.
But maybe most traditions aren’t as grand as that. Maybe it’s the smaller, less notable traditions that actually mean more in the long run. Maybe it is the traditions that happen on a weekly or daily basis that actually define family life, and maybe these traditions are just as important. I often find myself longing for the camping trips we always took when I was kid, while my husband mentions regularly that he misses the Italian dinner his mom made every Sunday night. Ask me what stands out about my childhood, and I will immediately reminisce about my family reading together every night (well into my adolescence when I was much too cool to admit to enjoying it). These types of things were not necessarily meant to be traditions, yet they came to define our childhoods. They created a feeling of safety, of love, a pattern of expectation that helped define what it meant to be in our family. They are what we look back on fondly and they are what makes each family unique and special.
As my children get older I already notice them start to find comfort in some of our family routines. Reading in bed every night, the silly song we sing after every bath, the weekly dinner with the grandparents. These things don’t necessarily spell out tradition to my adult mind, but to them, they are the things that define our family. Of course some of these will slowly extinguish themselves (I hope we are not still singing that bath-time song when my kids are 15 and 17…), but on the other hand some of them might just stick and form the building blocks of what my children someday reminisce about.
In big and little ways, our children ask for tradition from us. When our children say, “Mama, tell me about when you were a little girl.” They are asking for tradition. When they say, “Why don’t we sing the bath-time song anymore?” they are asking for tradition. These things happen when we aren’t looking, and the meaningful ones last whether we mean them to or not.
Rather than trying to invent traditions that are amazing and meaningful and noteworthy, perhaps I need to spend more time honoring the uniqueness of our family and following the family rituals as they arise on their own. Making the effort to keep Sunday night Italian night, reading in bed even when we are all tired, singing the silly bath-time song as long as it still makes us all giggle, camping every chance we get and, of course, eating hot dogs after finding the perfect Christmas tree should remain top priorities. Other than that, maybe I should just wait and see what develops in our family.