It's the morning after Thanksgiving, and I'm huddled under the blankets, thankful for a day to sleep in. I'm vaguely aware that my son's up and padding around the living room. And then I hear it, loud and clear. My home is being visited by "The King." Yes, Elvis Presley.
"I'll have a blue Christmas without you," Elvis croons. Even in my sleepy condition, I smile. The Christmas season has officially begun at our house. You see, we have a tradition that we can't play holiday music until the day after Thanksgiving, and then only after we've listened to Elvis sing this song. It's our signal Christmas is on its way. It's a goofy little tradition; I'm not even sure how it got started. But it's one we simply can't break.
The Value of Tradition
In the musical Fiddler on the Roof , the townspeople sang of traditions that helped each person understand his or her place in the family, in the village, and in society. In Old Testament times, God asked his people to hold annual festivals to remember what he'd done for them. For example, Passover memorialized the tenth plague God sent, which allowed the Israelites to be freed from slavery in Egypt. These celebrations served several purposes: They reminded people of God's provision of food, safety, and guidance; they turned people's hearts back to God; and they gave older people a chance to tell the younger ones about the great things God had done.
Traditions do the same for us today, as we pause at Thanksgiving to thank God for his provision and care; as we gather at Christmas and New Year's to tell stories with loved ones about "the good old days"; and as we use minor celebrations to express the joy of knowing God day by day.
Traditions are entwined in our lives. We think of the big celebrations at holidays as traditions. Mom always cooks a turkey, Aunt Jane always makes the sweet potato casserole (you know, the one with the marshmallows melted on top), and Cousin Henry takes a picture of the table before anyone's allowed to sit down. There are also smaller traditions we often take for granted, such as praying before a meal, putting candles on a birthday cake, or kissing loved ones before leaving the house. Big or small, traditions add richness to our lives. They give us common ground with others. They give us touch points, times and events to remember fondly. They help us feel secure when things around us aren't.
The Community in Tradition
As I asked others about their traditions, I found women enjoying traditions that bring them closer to their loved ones. Some women return to the same vacation spot with family each year. Others sing the same song with their children before bed each night. One woman and her husband read aloud to each other on Sunday evenings. Two sisters watch old black-and-white movies on Saturday nights while nibbling their way through a huge chocolate bar. A single woman told me how each year on her birthday, she invites her dearest friends over for a special meal she's prepared. After the meal, she gives each friend a gift, something that reflects each person's value to her.
Our family has a number of traditions, many silly and some significant, and they too bring us closer. On April Fool's Day, we let our son, Tony, set the table for our evening meal any way he likes. I've eaten out of a wok while stabbing bits of food with those tiny prongs most people use to hold steaming corn cobs, while my husband has dug for his dinner in a pitcher using a medicine spoon. Every year Tony challenges us with this foolish tradition that inspires lots of laughs.
Also fun, but a bit more significant, is our New Year's Eve tradition of creating a time capsule from an empty oatmeal container. We decorate the outside with colorful wrapping paper and label the lid with the date. Then we fill the capsule with pictures, school papers and artwork, nametags from camp, ticket stubs from plays, wedding and birth announcements, ribbons from the spelling bee, and anything else from the past year that fits inside. We complete the capsule with a letter to ourselves, reminding us of what happened during the year, both high points and low. We seal the capsule (okay, we just put the lid on) for a year, and then we open all the previous capsules and pour over the contents.
Our time capsules give us a chance to see how we've grown—physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally — over the past decade. Some capsule items make us laugh, such as Tony's recipe for coffee cake he wrote in first grade. It uses about 22 cups of sugar and several more cups of "oul" (oil). When we see the hospital bracelet from when my husband, Mike, had surgery, we remember how people cared for us and how God provided during that hard time. We pull out pictures of ourselves posing with friends and recall the fun we've had, the ways our friendships have deepened, and the bad taste in clothes we used to have. It's a joyful time to reflect on God's care for us over the years.
Many women like to keep alive traditions started by earlier generations. My parents started a tradition with the five children in our family that we all look back on fondly. On our tenth birthday, they gave us "Tenth Year Happiness Pills." They ordered empty gelatin capsules from a pharmacy, then put in each one a tiny slip of paper on which they'd written a gift, such as "Breakfast with Dad," "No dishwashing this week," or "Mom will read to you." Each Sunday during our tenth year, we'd open one of these capsules and see what gift we'd enjoy that week. When our son, Tony, was about to turn ten a few years back, I went to the pharmacy to order my box of empty capsules. I wanted to pass this tradition on.
Over the years, I've borrowed a few traditions from friends as well. My friend Marcia told me several years ago about how she'd tuck "hugs" into her daughters' pockets before they left for school each day. All she really did was grasp a bit of air in her fingers, then shove it into her daughters' pockets—an invisible hug. I liked the idea so much, I began doing this with my son when he got to the age where it wasn't cool to hug mom good-bye in the school parking lot. Even though he's now in his early teens, he still asks me to tuck a hug into one of his pockets each morning in case he needs it during the day. It's a tradition that lets Tony know I'm thinking of him throughout the day.
The Purpose Behind Traditions
Traditions are fun, and they serve a great purpose in our life. But what do you do when the tradition begins to mean more than the people involved? Is there ever a time to stop a tradition? Can we bear to hear our children or friends say, "But we've always done. . ."?
In the Bible, Jesus noted that traditions weren't always in the best interest of those involved. Some religious traditions were becoming rote and overbearing. For example, God set aside the Sabbath as a day of rest. But the religious leaders created a vast number of traditions that made figuring out how to rest difficult. In , Jesus confronted the Pharisees for following the traditions without following God.
Similarly, we sometimes put a tradition before those we think it serves. For example, when I was growing up, my mother loved to make a huge Christmas meal. Yet on Christmas Day, most of the family wanted to play with new toys, put together puzzles, and just relax. As the day went by, Mom would get more frustrated by our lack of help. After a few years, we finally agreed as a family we'd all pitch in to make a huge meal at Thanksgiving, then on Christmas we'd have something ultra-easy such as sandwiches or pizza. It let Mom have the meal that was important to her sense of tradition, while allowing a new tradition to begin on Christmas—one of relaxation and family time.
If a tradition has gotten out of hand in your home, think about letting it go. Or suggest a new, easier activity instead. Traditions should be cause for celebration, not groaning and complaining.
Enjoy the traditions that keep you close to those you love. Create new ones to celebrate occasions big and small. Trim the traditions that get in the way of joy. Then every now and then, take a moment to close your eyes and cherish the memories traditions have brought into your life. I've been doing just that as I hum along with Elvis Presley in the early hours this November morning.
Amy Nappa, a best-selling author, lives with her family in Colorado.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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