The Evolution of Traditions

Every Christmas Eve, my father’s family would gather at my grandparents’ house, a large farm house that stood on its own 90 acre plot of forestland and fields. A big family arose from their five children.

My cousins and I would sneak away to find mischief. The men would talk in the living room. The women would talk in the kitchen. We would eat a grand feast at the large table that now sits in my dining room. After eating, we would gather at the piano to sing Christmas songs. Eventually, we would retire to the living room to snack on a variety of cheeses and crack open walnuts. “All of our family likes cheese” or “All of our family likes nuts”, my grandfather would bellow sternly. My grandfather always sounded stern when I as a child, and it wasn’t until my grandmother died several years ago that I realized that he was not stern after all. My cousins and I would grow weary of listening to the adult conversations that we didn’t understand. Off we would run to hide under the dining room table or spy on the adults from the top of the stairs. Finally, we would exchange gifts and hugs and return to our separate homes.

These days, I struggle to create that feeling of my grandparents’ holiday gatherings. There is no piano, and none of us play piano anyway. My children’s cousins live far away. There isn’t the wonderful din of multiple conversations as you travel from room to room. Our holiday gatherings are smaller than those at my grandparents’ house – a house which is for sale following my grandfather’s passing two years ago. All that remains of those childhood holidays are memories and photos.

How do you share formative childhood experiences with your children when the people and places that formed it have gone? It is something that I wonder about on Christmas Eve.

The answer may be to take what you can from the past and add your own flair to create a meshing of old and new traditions:

  • We display the bell collection that my grandfather gave to my grandmother over the course of thirteen years: one bell symbolized each of the twelve days of Christmas with an extra bell unifying them. Oh, how my grandmother loved bells. It is a most romantic gift, saying “I know I will be with you for many years.”

  • We save a thin slice of trunk from each Christmas tree and write the major events from that year on the slice. We save the tree slices and display them in subsequent years. My grandparents did this.

It’s not much, but these traditions are a flavor of how my grandparents celebrated the Christmases that defined Christmas for me.

We have added a few things:

  • We buy a live tree to plant in the Spring. We have done this every year since Sunboy was born. We reminisce about Christmases past as we walk around our home and recognize the tree from each year. Two of the trees are particularly special. Both Sunboy and Flowergirl have a special dwarf evergreen tree that is “their” tree, planted the year that they were born. They are planted side by side; Sunboy’s tree taller and older than her tree.
  • My stepmother sewed enormous stockings for us to hang by the chimney. Wonderful stockings that are almost as tall as Sunboy.

  • We make Swedish wassail every year, even though we are not Swedish.

Take the old, add some new. Over time, we drift from our former traditions, even if we cling to a few strongholds that symbolize what a holiday means to us. Soon the celebration looks like a new set of traditions to those unfamiliar with the history of how current traditions evolved.

What was once a fish in the river became a lungfish that can breathe air and walk on its fins. Look at it closely and see the gills which enable it to live in the water. Old meshes with new while essentials remain.

Our children will take it a step farther. Perhaps the wassail will change to eggnog, and the tree planting will be lost. The Christmas bells will still be cherished and the enormous stockings will become a predecessor to all-fabric gift wrapping.

Lungfish leaves the water, loses its gills, becomes a land vertebrate, runs.

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2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Traditions

  1. My dad was/is a minister, so Christmas (Eve especially) was usually rather stressful in our household because dad had to work. We moved away from family when I was 10, so our tradition became inviting people from the church who didn’t have plans or family or both over to our house after the evening service for food and fun. I have adopted that tradition because I cannot bear the thought of anyone (no matter their religion because I KNOW that nothing is open on Christmas Eve) not having anywhere to go or anything to do on Christmas Eve! It’s become something that I look forward to because we once again do not live around family, so our friends have become our family and I love the opportunity to let them know, on a special evening, how important they are to us.

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    1. I love this tradition of inclusiveness, and how you have continued it with your family. Perhaps Pants will continue this with her family some day!

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