Every family has holiday traditions and rituals regardless of religious or cultural affiliations. Some of them are based on strict interpretations of religious texts and others are based on quirks of history and family lore. Most are tied to specific celebrations like Christmas, Hanukkah or Diwali and others are connected to life events like birthdays, weddings, funerals, last day/first day of school, and others.
Our family is just like yours in that we have a collection of rituals that we bring out every year like our Christmas boxes full of decorations. Like the decorations, some are hand-me-downs and others are new and created by us. Some traditions are better left behind as our families evolve and change size and shape.
When I was a kid my grandparents all lived fairly close to us. My dad’s parents would come to our house for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and then we would drive to wherever my mum’s side of the family was gathering.
I, of course would eat some chocolate and candy Christmas morning as well as a hearty breakfast. All that food and no small amount of excitement and a slight tendency towards motion sickness provided us with an additional Christmas tradition. Namely me puking in the car.
This is a tradition that my partner and I have decided not to continue. Thankfully our kids have more or less agreed with our decision.
We don’t live in close proximity to parents on either side of our family and so this means more conscious efforts on our part to ensure that our kids have regular contacts with their grandparents. It also means that events like Christmas require a little more logistical effort on our part when we decide where we will celebrate every year than it would if our visits or our parents’ visits didn’t require overnight stays. As a result our holiday traditions are different that those that we experienced as kids. There is one holiday tradition that I won’t give up on, even though sometimes it would be easier.
Following World War II, my grandparents immigrated from Britain to Canada with their 18 month old daughter – my mother. My grandfather came ahead to find housing and work and my grandmother and my mum came later – by ship and then travelled halfway across the country by train from Halifax to Toronto where my grandfather had found housing. Shortly after, they sponsored friends of theirs who ran the butcher shop at the top of the street back home in England. The two couples originally lived in the same neighbourhood in Toronto. My grandparents lived in that community for the next 50+ years and their friends moved away from Toronto and lived in a variety of communities in the region. They remained friends and got together regularly throughout their lives. One of the traditions that developed from this friendship has outlasted the original couples.
Every year on boxing day (the holiday the day after xmas for my non-British commonwealth readers) the two families get together for our shared Christmas celebration. I am not sure exactly when the tradition began. This is a tradition that has lasted 60 years and possibly more. We are now on the fourth generation of family members who participate in and carry this tradition forward. Not everyone can make it every year as many of us have conflicting family obligations or just holiday exhaustion from year to year. As with all families the size and composition shifts and changes with deaths, divorces, marriages, births, adoptions and new relationships.
This year we had the largest and most comprehensive gathering in ten years. It was an awesome and strange event. I am the oldest cousin in my generation and even though I am forty years old I still think of myself as one of the kids at this annual gathering, because I always have been. I think of years past racing remote-controlled cars in an empty banquet hall, my first experiences on a snowmobile and the swarms of people and heaps of food. This is a gathering that I have always associated with my childhood.
This year I realized that I am now one of the grown-ups. Partly because we had a few people there this year that I haven’t seen for ten years. One in particular was my cousin who has been living and working in another province. When he left he wasn’t long out of high school and still a kid in my mind. He has returned as a highly skilled tradesman and very obviously an adult himself. His sister, my youngest cousin, got engaged recently and this was our first opportunity as a family to toast her and her partner. She is not too far off my age when I got married so it seems that my little cousin is now also grown up. With my kids there and another kid from the other side of this combined clan, I realized – or perhaps it finally sunk in -that I am now the middle generation in this gathering. I am as much a part of its future as I am of its history.
Family traditions and holidays allow us to gather together and take stock of the family. The younger generations provide their life updates to one another and to the older generations, get advice and be challenged in what they are doing. It is an opportunity for passing wisdom and knowledge through storytelling. Sometimes those are general stories about a time when… and often they are stories that help to ground us in where we come from and who we are. After the gathering of the clans we absorb those stories into our identities and return to our lives for another year until it is time to return once more to gorge ourselves on food and family.