17 different women, 36 crazy children, 0 babies in utero
Adventures, Advice and Questions from a group of Mormon women who met in Queens, NY and have now scattered all over the place.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

How Do Traditions Become Traditions?

Over the years, my youngest brother has become the Tradition Police in our family, the one who makes sure that we don’t forget any of our established traditions at Christmas time: the usuals like putting out cookies and milk for Santa, and the family-specific ones like reading The Polar Express, lighting the candles on our small Venetian-glass Christmas tree as we listen to Handel’s Messiah, and opening our gifts in the right order, one by one, on Christmas morning. Traditions at Christmas time mean a lot to my family, which is why I find myself not looking forward to Christmas this year.

Because this year I won’t be with my family. It’s the first year that dh and I are spending Christmas without any extended family. And while dh is ecstatic, I find myself getting more and more depressed as Christmas gets closer. Yes, I have my new, small family to be with this year. The family that is my own, that I have chosen, created, and am working to build and nurture—and thank goodness we finally have a child with us to brighten everything. But since we’ve never spent Christmas alone, just the three of us, I don’t know what it’s going to be like. Will it feel like Christmas without all the things that have made up Christmas for me in the past? Although I love my own family’s traditions, and I’m sure we’ll adopt of few of those, I don’t want to just import their traditions. I want dh, dd, and I to start creating our own traditions.

So how does a tradition become a tradition? How does something you’ve never done before become something you do every year for the rest of your life? Obviously, you can just choose what will become a tradition. But how does that act you choose mean anything the first time you do it? How does it take on meaning for the people who create it? Traditions, after all, gain their significance from having been done before.

When I think about the traditions my family cultivated over the years—the ones that caught on and meant the most—they all seem to have an almost ritual-like quality to them. Something we do with the lights dimmed, with music playing, by the light of candles, as we sit together quietly listening to a story or a poem or singing together. Or they’re really fun. Which is why I think that a tradition can’t just be anything. It seems to me that it has to have the quality of a tradition; it has to be something worth repeating year after year, something beautiful, comforting, or fun that people will look forward to. Otherwise, it will just become something awkward and annoying, something that all the kids moan at when the yearly moment arrives. I suppose even the annoying moments can take on their meaning. But I hope that our new traditions can be moments that everyone looks forward to, moments that inspire one of my children to take on the role of Tradition Police, to become the keeper of the family traditions like my younger brother did.

What ideas do you have? I’m not necessarily interested in what traditions you’ve started in your families, I’m interested in how you came up with those traditions, how they got started, how you made them feel special the first time you performed them, and how they took on meaning over the years. Did it happen spontaneously? Were some of them planned? And any thoughts on starting truly Christ-centered traditions?


  • This is an interesting idea to me as well. My mom has tried to start several traditions on her own that really none of the rest of us care for very much. However this might have to do with the chemistry of our particular family--meaning, that I can see how one tradition in particular is a good idea and would probably work well in another family, but with our family it just doesn't gel right and rather than let it go, she still sorta forces the issue--and like you said, it's more annoying than special.

    I think traditions are like, I don't know, a nickname or something. . . the good ones will just catch on. They could be deliberate in some cases, and in others spawn from a random incident that just keeps going. When I think about traditions I want to start, I have to realize some will be more for me but I truly hope that I try to make it more about my family and what they like and what naturally resonates with everyone.
    posted by Blogger miggy at 12/08/2006 05:12:00 AM  

  • Although I have always been around family during the holidays, once I got married, there was a balance of creating our own traditions and embracing the traditions of each of our families prior to marriage.

    One thing I noticed right away was that when we put up the Christmas tree our first year together, we didn't have any ornaments. When our family began to expand, I began a tradition of giving an ornament to each child every year -the types of ornaments selected changed with the interests of the children, although one child had a love of teddy bears and all of her ornaments were bear-themed. I collected some for myself as well, as I have a love of penquins.

    When our oldest child was married, she received an early Christmas gift from us - a box of all the ornaments we had given her over the years. The next child received hers when she branched out on her own in a new apartment. The third child received hers following her marriage.

    Each year while growing up, the children looked forward to see what ornament they would get. We have continued the tradition, including their husbands. It is my hope that this tradition will continue with my daughters and their families. It's a lovely way to remember what was important to each child as they made their way through life's journey. (Note: write their names on the ornaments so there is no confusion as to which ornaments belongs to which child).

    Several years ago we had a "share your holiday traditions" evening at church. People were asked to write down their family traditions which were shared in a booklet. This was a very interesting exchange of family traditions and cultural customs and expanded our knowledge of our how "different but the same" we all are.
    posted by Anonymous HK at 12/08/2006 06:39:00 AM  

  • A side comment-- my husband and I haven't spent a Christmas without family yet-- we've only been married 2 years-- and he is estactic thinking about when we won't have to travel anywhere for Christmas, and I'm sad about it already. What is this about husbands?
    posted by Anonymous terrah at 12/08/2006 07:03:00 AM  

  • Sunny, I feel your pain! We don't make it home for Christmas very often.

    I like what Miggy says...you try them out and some will stick. I guess the hard part is making the effort to keep the good ones and deciding which ones should go.

    We are still experimenting w. traditions, but I would say they are created 3 different ways:

    1. passing along traditions from childhood. for me, this means a big christmas breakfast just like my dad used to make every year and reading the story of christ's birth on christmas eve around the christmas tree. i don't think my kids will have a choice on this, hopefully it will bring comfort as it has for me over the years.

    2. doing new things every year, and repeating the fun things year after year.

    3. making an effort to incorporate new traditions, which may or may not stick. (ie) There is this really cool Mexican tradition a couple of days after Christmas...you bake this special cake, put a small trinket in the batter and whoever gets the piece with the trinket is supposed to have good luck for the coming year...I am probably messing this all up, I've never actually done it and would have to ask dh again...but I would love to incorporate it to add a little Mexican tradition into our Christmas celebration. We'll see how it goes...
    posted by Blogger Jen at 12/08/2006 07:42:00 AM  

  • I was totally the "tradition police" in my family. I was born far behind what my parents thought was their last child, so even though I was actually part of a very big family (8 kids) I was also raised as an only child for much of my life. My family is chock full of traditions (just like those you mentioned - the "ceremonical ones" and the "fun ones") but as my parents got older and there were less children around during the holidays, they wanted to let some of the traditions slide. NO WAY I SAID! Bless my mom for all the hard work she went through so family traditions could continue even though the bulk of our family had already started their own families.

    I think sometimes people find it a relief to celebrate Christmas on their own, because sometimes other people's traditions (in-laws for instance) do not have as much meaning if you haven't grown up with them. It is nice have the opportunity to build new traditions with your own family.

    I also find it interesting that traditions also find much of their meaning through the memories of years past. Each single experience on it's own might not be earth shattering, but the combined memories of years past make it something you want to keep doing.

    As for your other questions, our family traditions have been formed by taking some of my childhood favorites and mixing them with some of my husband's childhood favorites and then mixing in some new stuff I have gleaned from friends, books, blogs (some of which will catch on and some of which won't). I find that most of our traditions take planning. They also take time and work. Sometimes I understand the fatigue my mom must have been feeling after trying to create "memorable" Christmases for so many years. But then I realize what she must have realized too, these are things worth spending time on during the holidays.
    posted by Blogger TftCarrie at 12/08/2006 08:10:00 AM  

  • HK, my family had the same ornament-a-year tradition, only they came from our grandparents.

    tftCarrie, "Tradition Police" must be the role of the youngest child, who is born into a family with established traditions.
    posted by Blogger sunny at 12/08/2006 04:28:00 PM  

  • Sunny, I think this is a really great post. It has me thinking a lot about my life (past, present, and future) and what I love about holiday traditions from my family and what I would like to incorporate with my family now and in the future.

    Dh and I have now spent two Christmases alone. The first one we were in NYC and I had mixed feelings. There was something exciting about celebrating Christmas him, but I also remember shedding a tear at the Rockefeller Xmas tree because it just didn't seem the same as it did in my parents living room. The fun thing (looking back) is that we did start traditions that year - without really meaning to. Having a nice Christmas breakfast, reading the story of Christ's birth, making apple cider on the stove which made our apartment smell amazing. Now Dh loves it when he comes home and smells that apple cider. So I think sometimes you create traditions almost by accident --- meaning, something from your past, or his past, or like Carrie said something you read or hear about, etc., just sticks.

    This is our second Xmas alone and I find us looking forward to these past traditions and with a ittle more effort, trying to start new ones. Sometimes it does feel like a decision ("I want to do a secret santa for a special family" or "I want to make this crafty advent calendar") and maybe it will stick or maybe it won't. Time will tell.

    I guess the best part is that every year we have been together as our "new" family I have become more and more excited about how our family has grown, what our new traditions are, and creating that same sense of tradition for my children.
    posted by Blogger Beth at 12/08/2006 05:00:00 PM  

  • I really like Jen's idea about incorporating traditions that reflect your heritage. In recent years I have been on a search for old traditions that somehow have gotten lost in the family with hopes to reincorporate them back into our family. When I was a kid my mom bought us three kids each a dreidel. Later I found out that my grandfather played the same game even though he was LDS too! We discovered that several generations before my grandfather his family was Jewish and the tradition of playing with a dreidel around Christmas time has just suck even when the family became Mormon. There is just something humbling knowing that generations ago your ancestors were doing the very same thing.

    Revive traditions! Ask your parents or grandparents what they did as kids. I know I would really like to have a Danish Christmas sometime and use passed down recipes and try to eat food that my ancestors most likely ate at Christmas time and read more about the traditions of the Danish people. (Forgive me, I'm a history major so I'm really into digging into my past.)

    Lastly, I say keep your traditions small in number. I know some families that have a billion traditions during Christmas which is cool but I have always liked that my family has only had about 5 core traditions. It has allowed us to be spontaneous and do new things each Christmas without having to break traditions.
    posted by Anonymous Mia at 12/08/2006 07:39:00 PM  

  • Mia and Jen, my husband's family is all German by heritage, and although they don't have a lot of recent traditions themselves, I've been thinking about looking into German Christmas traditions (which have to be rich and numerous, right?) to use as our own. They would be meaningful for the reasons you state--tying us to ancestors and their lives.
    posted by Blogger sunny at 12/09/2006 02:45:00 AM  

  • I echo all that has been said about a collection of memories rather than the event. I think a tradition probably just starts with an idea, and if everybody loved doing it, then you keep doing until everybody doesn't love doing it anymore...
    posted by Blogger Kage at 12/12/2006 06:50:00 AM  

  • One Christmas eve many years ago we were listening to music from the movie "Fiddler on the Roof". We found ourselves inspired by the music of the "Wedding Dance". Somehow we began a family dance that whirled and twirled and had a mens part and a ladies part. This has been one of the funnest traditions of Christmas eve that was so spontaneous and takes no effort to continue because it is dancing and loved by children and adults alike. The end of the dance has everyone on the floor, laughing and tired. Sometimes we must do the dance several times to wear out all of the children. Then we pray and go to bed...at least the children do.
    posted by Blogger Shaleen at 12/13/2006 07:00:00 PM  

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