As the holiday season is upon us, many of us are forced to take part in and reflect upon family traditions. The word “tradition” somehow supersedes any logical relevance, joy or pertinence to those actually participating.
If your family is anything like mine, labeling an activity as tradition is basically a justification for practicing antiquated, if not sometimes barbaric, rituals that honor the oddities of our ancestry. It is why we drag a Christmas tree, sometimes for miles, from the annals of the forest every year; why I must use the same kitschy decorations from my childhood; and why a holiday just seems incomplete if I haven’t made a batch of my Fall-Down-Real-Soon-Now Eggnog.
I also embrace this by campaigning to implement new traditions in my family as the years go by. When there is protest, I merely say, “It’s tradition,” and all questions seem to cease.
My grandmother was a child of the Depression yet felt compelled to bake us cookies at Christmas time each year (no doubt a frivolous joy to someone who uses a spatula to clean out a tuna can). She maintained a strict 2-to-1 chip-to-cookie ratio, used ‘heart healthy’ margarine so she wouldn’t need another quadruple bypass, and baked those things to the consistency of a cinder block.
Even when I lived in Europe, she would post them to me in old Folgers cans with the slowest postal service possible. I’d receive them sometime in February. They had a half-life of about eight years, so they still had that fresh-out-of-the-oven-for-too-long flavor of charcoal.
Recognizing that such annual pilgrimages of behavior have somehow contributed to my balanced character and flexible palette, I am exploring opportunities to instill similar tradition in regular intervals. The holiday season is a veritable gold mine of opportunities. This is also synergistic with the poor baking skills I have inherited.
Some of my traditions are less culinary. Every Thanksgiving, I gather up a random group of friends and whoever has the title of “boyfriend,” and go for a trail run. Regardless of injury status, associated pain or treacherous conditions, we run through the mountains to my mother’s house. Upon arrival, we demand coffee and a ride back to our cars.
I am certain my mother is particularly fond of this ritual because she starts inquiring the night before about number estimates and estimated time of arrival. It’s the only holiday I see her dressed up with makeup applied by 8 a.m. Once, she tried to discourage our annual run-to-raid Mom’s by serving us buttered coffee with salted butter (an impressive laxative – just what a group of runners needs), another discomfort we’ve embraced in the name of family culture and heritage.
The purpose of such rituals used to escape me, but then I read that when we suffer together with other humans and share an experience of commiseration, it reduces the suffering and increases our ability to bond to others. Regardless of how dysfunctional your family is, with enough traditions you will enjoy an unbreakable connection to relatives near and far. Whether you like them or not.
It is true that rituals and traditions are a part of human nature, perhaps because they offer a sort of familiarity and an anchor – a place we always can go home to without going home. It is also how I include those who have long left us in our season. When I bake trays of dental-threatening pastries this Christmas, my grandmother will still be leaning over my shoulder with a stern look, suggesting I use Egg Beaters to improve my cholesterol. And in traditional form, I will say I did.
“These cookies taste too rich,” she’ll say as she reaches for another.
As far as I know, there are no rules against improving on traditions.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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