Did the family you grew up in have many traditions?
Mine didn’t seem to and I was always drawn to families who had their own quirky ways of doing things and who rejoiced in the group identity which formed around these annual, weekly or sporadic habits; Pizza every Friday night, meeting up with cousins at a favourite summer holiday place or enjoying the same Christmas breakfast every year. Eating turkey at Christmas dinner the same as everyone else wasn’t enough for me – I wanted something that was particular to our family. Ever since my husband and I realised we were going to be together for a long time, we very naturally started to build family traditions together and these have just multiplied as our family has grown.
So why bother with traditions? This blog is all about creating a home and family environment where children are best able to learn about our faith and, we hope, to make a commitment of their own at some point. Where do traditions come into that? And, if they can play a role in that aim, how do we start to create and maintain traditions that are meaningful to us?
So here’s the bottom line for me.Family traditions create a shared identity. And if our children feel bound to our family and our family’s values, the hope is that they will return to these values as they grow.
Traditions also create security and are a reminder of our faithfulness to each other and of God’s faithfulness to us as we mark the passing of another week, another season or another year. They remind a child that they belong to this strange little tribe (who maybe, let’s just say, go visit a pig farm on Mummy and Daddy’s wedding anniversary each year), that they have a place in this world where they as a unique individual belong, Because a kid from another family just wouldn’t know how to light the candles for Shabbat or where to go for the best blackberries with Grandma and Grandpa.
The Bible, of course, is full of traditions. In fact the Old Testament is full of instructions for annual festivities, all aimed at remembering the story of God’s faithfulness to His people. The Almighty seems to think this stuff is important! Passover – remember you were set free from slavery. Succoth (the feast of booths) – remember My provision for you in the desert. Sabbath – remember I created you to rest and celebrate as well as work. And then, of course, in the New Testament, Communion (or Eucharist or Mass or the Lord’s supper) – remember I died for you to save you! As often as you break bread or meet together.
These celebrations all have things in common – they require physical participation from those present, usually including eating (I like it!). Passover includes cleaning the house thoroughly to purify it and a meal which requires full audience participation in the story of the Exodus. Succoth involves constructing a shelter to remind the participants of their time in the desert and Sabbath includes means a complete break from the work of the week. Again and again, there is a return to a story, the story of God’s faithfulness.
I don’t personally believe that all family traditions have to be faith-related although, with Advent and Christmas coming up I’ll definitely be considering how to make those times Jesus-focussed but it makes sense to put our main energies into celebrations which have meaning (next month our family will be celebrating our own version of Thanksgiving – I explain why here). It doesn’t make a jot of difference to my daughter’s eternal destiny that we always bake a strawberry cake on her birthday. It does build a sense of excitement though and reassures children who over all have very little control over their lives, that some things will remain constant.
Of course, traditions have to start somewhere. You may very naturally adopt those of your childhood or those of your partner’s but what if these don’t exist or fit or appeal? What if the traditions create sad memories or are inappropriate to your new family? Let’s bust some myths.
You can’t start a new tradition on purpose
Er, actually, you can! If you remember traditions from your childhood then someone started them at some point. It may have been an accidentally repeated act or a decision born of necessity but someone decided one year or one time to do things that way and repeat it. You can consciously choose to do the same or repeat something that was a good experience for your family. (Tip: I sometimes write down after something like Christmas what worked well and what we’d like to avoid doing again!). It could be something as simple as eating a pack of choc chip cookies with a half bottle of champagne on the anniversary of when you got engaged because that was what you ate on the original occasion.
Traditions feel embedded right from the word go
Actually, not really. From experience some new traditions feel odd so don’t get repeated. And sometimes you think “This would be great with some tweaking.” Think about why you want a tradition in that place and then just try something and see how it goes. This is particularly easy with small children who will have, at best, hazy memories of previous years. Hey, they can rarely remember what they did at school!
Traditions just happen
Actually, they can often take some planning and organisation, Our Jesse Tree tradition which we started last year took quite a lot of work but I was motivated by its aim (to give Pigwig an overview of the Bible during Advent) so got organised and did it. Sometimes you put in quite a lot of work for something to fall like a lead balloon. C’est la vie. Hey, even putting turkey on the Christmas Dinner table takes some effort, right? You also don’t have to do them EVERY year for them to be a tradition. Last year we had a “Shepherd’s Picnic”, a simple tea of bread and cheese under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve (so helpful with the kitchen in full production mode for the next day!). We can’t do that this year as we’ll be joining my in-laws but that’s OK. We can take it up again the following year. There are weeks we miss Shabbat. It doesn’t ‘break’ the tradition.
You have to be totally original
So, here’s a secret. Half our family’s ‘quirky’ traditions are borrowed from other people because I thought they’d work for us to. Half the rest were happy accidents. We went to Jimmy’s pig farm (it’s a visitor attraction in Suffolk) for our 3rd wedding anniversary for fun so decided to repeat it as it was a great trip for our growing tots. Many other ideas I’ve pinched from books, blog posts, friends or mish-mashed together from vague memories. You don’t have to be totally original for a tradition to be totally awesome.
Traditions can never change
Some will need to. That same sadness I feel as I fold a beloved but outgrown piece of clothing for the last time before it’s given away is something I’ll feel as we outgrow some of our traditions. But new ones will take their place and others may be taken out again to enjoy with the grandchildren one day. We now have an annual trip to go blackberrying with my parents in the same spot we picked them as children ourselves. Seems we did have some traditions after all.
They have to be complicated
There are possibly going to be some big productions each year – Christmas, Easter, Advent, birthdays maybe – but traditions can be very simple and even simplifying. If you know you’re always going to have pizza on Friday night, that’s one less decision to make a week. If you always have a specific cake for someone’s birthday, that decision is made for you. Our Christmas Eve shepherd’s tea came out of a need to make Christmas Eve special
despite the fact it is a long haul in the kitchen and house for me as Mummy/Santa. If you’re in a season where you need simplicity, create simple traditions or simplify those you have. Some traditions can otherwise become negative. I used to love buying the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve with my Daddy on the first day he had free from the office but it was also the only day in the year where I ever heard him swear as he would later try and work out how to wedge the tree into a bucket with some old bricks and get it straight! (Free tip – use lots of rolled up old newspapers placed vertically round the trunk of the tree. Once watered they swell and jam that tree in place so it’s not going anywhere as well as creating a reservoir to keep your tree fresh. Genius, huh?)
They have to make sense or be serious!
While it’s great to have some thought-through consciously-crafted memory-making experiences that build your child’s knowledge of their faith, creating a child’s sense of identity or belonging can simply be about having a giggle together or doing something really fun that you all enjoy.
Our family always decorates our Christmas cake with marzipan mice. The story behind this is that I’d always wanted cake toppers as beautiful as my mother’s. Unfortunately, hers are vintage 1940s cake toppers from Germany so the chances are tiny I’ll ever find any to measure up. Because neither of us were keen on icing, my creative new husband made marzipan mice for our first Christmas together and, nine years on, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without our marzipan mice, the little eyes added using a fondue fork and some treacle! Children love traditions with a story and they particularly love the year they are old enough to make a mouse, help hide the Easter eggs or help decorate the Christmas tree for the first time (even if Mummy is writhing in a painful struggle against her OCD tree-decorating tendencies!!!!)
And don’t forget the almost daily traditions such as tricking Daddy into coming back for one more bedtime kiss and sneakily licking his nose instead! It’s the little things that bind a family together.
So, what traditions do you have or wish you had in your family? Which do you treasure? WHich do you wih you could change?