on traditions {a holiday installment}

Okay. It’s getting ridiculous. This topic should not be so tough to tackle! Here’s a fourth and final stab.

What I want to talk about is traditions.

What I want to say is:

I always thought that the older I got, the more traditions would matter to me. Instead, I find it’s the opposite.

It’s not that I don’t care.

It’s just that…I guess…maybe I don’t care!

(That’s not as snarky as it sounds.) (I’ll explain.)

Last year, with My One Word Curate, I reflected on rituals: What have we outgrown? Which ‘traditions’ are TONS of work for [mostly just] me? Is there still magic in this? Do we love this? Would anyone miss it if we skipped it this year? How can we update this so it’s meaningful for all of us?

In the letting go of some pieces, and the ‘editing’ of others, I found myself having the merriest in many, many years.

So it’s safe to say I do care. I just care…differently…than I used to.

I used to think…up ’til ’21!…that it rested on me to carry on every special moment, every meaningful memory, and every last action that went along with it, believing that’s what made the season complete. And I know I’m not the only mother whose primary purpose in doing so is for her children.

Which does matter to me. A lot. In our plugged-in, long-distance, largely ‘disposable’ culture, it matters to me that my kids will take pieces of our traditions that matter most to them, wherever their own paths ultimately lead them. I can see, already, what some of those pieces are (some more traditionally traditional than others): shoes out for Saint Nicholas Day. Snacks and one gift after church on Christmas Eve. White nightgown and candle crown on Saint Lucia Day. Doughnuts for the Macy’s parade. The annual drive-around-looking-at-Christmas-lights. (We have to have candy canes + cocoa, Elsa will say. We always have candy canes +cocoa for that. Actually, we had them once. So, now? We always have to…!)


The always of traditions.

It brings me to memories of my own childhood traditions. Rewind to the the rhythms of the 1970’s:

For so long that you could say “we always used to…” we always used to make the 3-hour drive to spend Thanksgiving in the house where my dad grew up. Late November meant Route 17 to Waverly…stainless steel serving bowls on the Formica-topped kitchen table…and the delicate 3-D tissue paper turkey as centerpiece every year.

Swedish Christmas Eve always happened with my mom’s side, at Aunt Geneva + Uncle Bob’s, a half-hour from home. My Gram brought her giant steamed pudding pot; Cousin Laurel made korv; Melanie, glögg. At least three rice puddings were set on the table. And my grandpa made the biggest (and only!) dent in the sill.

We always spent New Years Eve with friends my parents met in birthing class for their first babies–boys, both of them. On December 31, The Karl Family would arrive late (they were always late! every year! it was part of the tradition!); the parents would do whatever parents did; and the kids…we were, what, 4-,5-,6- years old…we played board games and dress-up, put on ‘shows’ and ‘plays,’ toasted with virgin strawberry daiquiris. That was NYE.

But…guess what?!

The way we always did Thanksgiving…the way we always did Christmas- and New Years Eve...?

It wasn’t actually always. At all.

That was our Thanksgiving tradition. For a long time. But then my grandparents moved; they did not age well; things were never the same after that. And come to think of it? We didn’t join in on Swedish Christmas Eve ’til I was almost a teenager! Before that, my mom [always] sang in the choir so we spent Christmas Eve at church then went home to put out cookies + milk. And as for New Years Eve, I can’t remember more than three that we spent with The Karls. Maybe the weather was bad one year…or someone got sick…maybe the tradition just fizzled? I wonder if my parents remember.

The other big thing about it is this:

The tradition’s not less because it’s not always.

The memories are pure delight. They fill me up. Make me happy! It’s fun to reminisce: Remember Jim’s movie recorder he put on his shoulder every Christmas Eve, before anyone else we knew even had one? Remember the statue on the side of the hill on Route 17, heading to Grandma + Grandpa’s? Was it Charlie Brown? Do you remember? We always sang Over the River + Through the Woods on that drive…

While I get that part of tradition is the ‘always’ piece…the repetition…I glean from my childhood (and from my joy-filled season last year!) that–

…it’s not the doing part of Tradition but the feeling part that matters most.

Feeling…filled up. Filling others up. Inviting. Being invited. Sharing. Laughter. Remembering. Enjoying. Surprise. Anticipation. Relaxation. And even, dare I say, evolving!

By replacing the tradition of how we *do* ______ with how we *feel* when we do _______, what’ll happen?

I already know.

(And that’s the tradition I want to pass on.)

6 thoughts on “on traditions {a holiday installment}

Add yours

  1. Your post reminded me of a commercial from years ago, where a family is making a traditional roasted chicken dish in which one drumstick is cut off. Why? It’s a tradition — but then we see that the matriarch who first made it that way did so simply because the baking dish she was using was too small, so she cut off the drumstick to make the chicken fit. It’s a kind of silly example, but I think the point is that there are plenty of things we do that are traditions simply because we’ve always done them, but what we’re often missing is the reason why. That’s not to say we should throw out all traditions, but if one doesn’t seem to be working, I don’t think we should think twice about starting a new one.


  2. I love this – The tradition’s not less because it’s not always
    I have a family (husband and daughters) who resists change to traditions. And I am longing for, aching for, change. This post is giving me courage to suggest something different, simpler, this year. Thanks Carolyn


  3. The struggle with all of this is very real, isn’t it? I have been contemplating this very thing since mid-October… but really thinking about it once November hit. Reframing my thinking has been so helpful… what fills me, what gives delight to others, yes – sharing, yes – laughter. And all those things do not necessarily flow from all the Christmas Accoutrements… it is a work in progress!


  4. Brilliant post! You followed the breadcrumbs until you got to the treasure–the essence of traditions. When I look back at holiday traditions of my past, I experience memories of sadness as well as excitement, joy, and being filled up. as I’ve aged (well beyond many of you), I’ve let go of more and more traditions, because I found them exhausting, stressful, full of obligations or empty. So holidays are now pared down to the absolute essentials–peace of mind, rest, and a deep connection with myself, nature, and my spouse. I try to do what makes me most loving.


    1. Moriah, I’ve never heard anyone put it so eloquently–“I try to do what makes me most loving.” Wise words for every day of the year…’try’ being the operative word, more some days than others!


  5. Oh beautifully put. We women put so much on ourselves. My Mum worked herself ragged at Christmas, and Dad maintained he hated Christmas because there was too much and everyone was too tired. My best piece of advice is less is more, and check you have batteries for everything!


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