Friday, December 31, 2010

The Importance of Tradition

What is it about traditions and especially those associated with a holiday that make them so important to us?   As I sit here in Japan on New Year’s Day, I find myself reflecting on holidays and traditions and their importance in my life.

My spouse and in-law’s family Christmas traditions (and all their traditions, really) have become something of a legend within the family.  Although all their respective children have pretty much outgrown any real belief in Santa Claus, they still expect all of us to observe every ritual that the family has ever instituted!

The kids want stockings from Mom H.filled with the same tchotchkala from time immemorial that only a Sitto (Arabic for Grandma) can find, John and the kids want to get their tree, make cookies and have turkey on Christmas Day (I believe John has taken years of videotape and each tape is certain to look almost identical to the other ones – except that we keep getting older!).

Of course, NO Christmas is complete without a fruit basket from George & Andrea (which I love, by the way, both for the contents and the smile it brings to Ed's face!) and Andrea’s über-delicious baked goods!!

Indeed, any holiday without Andrea’s famous Chocolate Peanut Butter cake sends my nephew David into conniptions!

For Ed and I, we have our expected Christmas contributions as well from the annual Advent boxes to painting ceramics with John and the kids to the whole side of prime rib (when we host Christmas Eve) that Ed proudly and expertly roasts and places on the table.

In years past, we’ve made annual gingerbread houses – and talk about tradition!  When the kids were younger, it was a must to have the houses and we made them come Hell or high water – oddly enough, there was always more Hell than high water. 

I remember vividly a Christmas where I was deathly ill and Ed and Gail came to the rescue to put together the gingerbread ski chalet from Sugarplum Hell.

I lay dramatically dying and nauseous from the cloying smells of gingerbread and royal icing as I tried (in futility) to direct construction! 
Indeed, anytime I want to belly laugh, I just recall Gail and Eddie holding on the 2 lb chalet roof made  of ¼ inch gingerbread in our 1000 degree kitchen.  They were wrestling with the structure, willing and cursing the liquefying royal icing to set up – which it finally did after it was secured with straight pins!  Who says lawyers and doctors can't work together?!

Family traditions provide great value, and the value lasts far beyond the moment. The value of a tradition isn't in completing the ritual; the value comes from what it provides for those who participate – and I realize how important it is to participate fully.  As Ed often says, “All in – or all out”.

I am realizing that traditions provide stability. Activities that are observed year in and year out become a means by which family members can build trust and security. Regardless of what else may happen, the traditions will not change. So much in our lives these days is temporary and traditions help keep us from drifting apart regardless of what might be happening in our lives individually.

Family traditions provide something for every person to hold on to and to rely upon and as I embrace Ed's family traditions as they were my own - so does he with mine and my family's and it is yet another element in making our relationship a strong and fulfilling one that I know I can always rely upon. 

Growing up in military-driven household for my first 12 years between Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Hong Kong, the only traditions I grew up with that were consistent were Asian New Year and attending an Embassy sponsored Christmas dinner during the years in Saigon where the dining room was converted into something out of a Dickensian Christmas on steroids.

In fact, I think I just now realized where my strong attachment to Christmas began – it was pure magic.  Christmas to me has always been spectacularly magical and wondrous and full of happy, laughing children ‘believing’ in the magic, the splendor, the over-the-top wonderland that is at the heart of Christmas both secular and religious.

For many years, I surrounded myself with the ‘Believe’ Santa Claus and regardless of the house where I lived or the situations I faced, I always made it a point to carry on the traditions that I held dear. Some of these traditions have changed as my life has changed but these traditions gave me a foundation of familiarity in places and circumstances that were unfamiliar and sometimes disconcerting.   Christmas, I realize now, provided an anchor of normalcy in times of chaos.

Also I see how traditions give families and people within them a sense of identity.  They are one of the things that make families unique to other families.

When I think back on my Midwestern childhood Christmas traditions, I recall that my Aunt Tess always made an Ambrosia Salad and that my Uncle Clyde always made peanut brittle – the BEST peanut brittle ever, too! The Ambrosia Salad was a ubiquitous holiday item but the peanut brittle was ONLY for Christmas.

For me, it was what a normal American Christmas in my father’s family was, but as I think back on it; I am sure there are many who don’t even know what an Ambrosia Salad is!! Ambrosia Salad and peanut brittle then, was for me, the crowning glory of Christmas. For others, it is probably an anomaly.

Although Christmas traditions may have some basic commonality with other families, each household still has their own way of living out those traditions. That is what is so special about them. Each family's unique twist is what gives that family its identity and helps the members bond with one another. Ethnic foods, decorations, special activities, all help families become distinctive.

Over the 15+ years spent with the Hamaty’s I now can’t imagine a Christmas without kibbe and a variety of other Lebanese foods and of course, the magnificent whole roasted side of Beef Primus Costae!

For most families, traditions are important because they provide continuity between generations. It can be difficult to keep up with extended family members these days, and of course it is impossible to touch those who are long gone. But traditions create a bridge between the young and the old, between the past and the present.

All of us have holiday memories. I know people for whom Christmas and other holidays are something that is dreaded rather than anticipated for a number of reasons; from the loss of a family member during that time to a myriad of other personal reasons.

I think that for me, Christmas and other holidays are times where we can really create life-long memories and connection with our families - or with those who are in essence our families - in creating memories by presenting a special gift, a fun event, or a creating a moment when it seems that all of life has come together and we hold it in our hands.

Whether it is my own holiday or Ed's - I revel in the tradition and in the memory-making.  It is an honor and a true joy for me to be included and I absolutely cherish the memories that I contribute to - they are as precious to me as they are to them.

We cannot plan all of those magical moments for our families, many just happen in the course of the holiday celebration. However, I believe that through creating and maintaining family traditions, we can offer stability, identity and continuity to our loved ones while strengthening our own bonds with each other.

We can look to the past and remember fondly those who are no longer with us. We can enjoy the present, knowing that we are building strong families and relationships and we can look forward to the future, when we will sit by the fire in our homes and tell stories of our Christmas traditions.

I think it’s time to bring back the Ambrosia Salad!

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