The Tradition of Traditions
(Originally posted on The Mess That Is Me in September of 2010.)
My favorite three months of the year are right around the corner. I become like a kid at Disney World as the change of weather accompanies the changing of the leaves and the earlier nights. Everything just feels different. The air has a different bite to it. The beach seems to be blanketed with a winter haze and the morning’s demand you stay in bed longer, and I try never to argue with my bed.
Furthermore, these final three months that say good bye to the old while ushering in the New Year are the most traditional-filled months out of the twelve. They are rich in festivities, family and friends.
And that’s what traditions are, long-standing customs that bind families together. These practices are usually handed down generation after generation among groups of people, stirring emotions as the past and present collide, giving strength and hope for the future. In a transient society, they give families something to hold onto as the world shifts around them. Traditions build character as they inspire joy.
The weight gain begins with October, which is stocked with tricks, treats and frights as young and old don their favorite costumes to celebrate the scariest of the holidays. Houses are decorated with ghoulish delight, bringing the macabre to life. Candy is passed out by some and raked in by others as families, churches and businesses all try their best at treating the tricksters. Haunted houses and haystacks, festivals and carnivals, cram up that final week on the calendar for October. Everywhere you turn is a monstrous display of fiendish proportions to make your toes curl and your hair raise.
November, by far, is the calmest of the three and the most reflective. There are no bright lights or outlandish displays of giant decorations. The festivities are subtle and the traditions usually worshipful. Pilgrims come out of history and into window displays as cornucopias become the decorative centerpieces to holiday tables. People trek all over the world visiting loved ones they haven’t seen in forever as flights are booked, hotels reserved and the snoring uncle steals the bottom bunk right out from under you. Tables are burdened with enough turkey to last for several holidays, along with stuffing and sweet potatoes, deviled eggs and cranberry sauce. Everyone has their traditional Thanksgiving fare, even my dad.
While visiting an aunt and uncle in Indianapolis one year while I was growing up, my dad asked the menu for the holiday feast. My aunt rattled off a lengthy list of the traditional food and pie of every kind. Yet, she didn’t mention pumpkin pie. When my dad questioned her about the missing dessert, she replied in a slightly confused tone, “We already have ten pies. We weren’t going to make a pumpkin.” What? No pumpkin pie? Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. It’s tradition. So, my aunt, God bless her, made dad a pumpkin pie and had it sitting on the dessert buffet Thanksgiving Day. However, after the meal was done and my father sat down for his dessert on his plate was a slice of pecan pie. More confused than before, my aunt said to my dad, “Bob, there’s pumpkin pie over there.” He knew it. He saw it. He shoved a forkful of pecan pie into his mouth. “Don’t you want a slice?” No. He had what he wanted. Thank you. “But you asked for pumpkin pie.” He did. It was tradition. “So, why aren’t you eating it?” My dad didn’t like pumpkin pie. It was just tradition to have it. We weren’t invited back for a few years.
Traditions are great for teaching the next generation about faith and family heritage. They help us lock in moments of time and memories. Every Thanksgiving, I can’t help but remember the special ones of the past. One I’ll always remember is my father-in-law and I sitting out on the front porch in giant easy chairs we had hauled out of the house along with the television set to watch the game while Char and her mom finished putting the fixings on the table and the boys played around our feet. Furthermore, as I hang Christmas lights, I think of how I helped my dad cover our house and trees with giant colorful bulbs as I grew up. We even have a Christmas tree we hang outside that Char’s father had made when she was little and was going to throw away. She had such memories of it that we pulled it out of the trash, fixed it up a bit and it hangs from the peak of our house every year. Traditions bring back the past in fond ways.
Another tradition for many at this time of year is Black Friday. Several years back I was sweet-talked into getting up before respectable roosters were awake and braving the violent mobs that swarm the ill-prepared retailers. Starbucks should have vendors outside each of these places. It’s amazing watching the people in line, which is the reason I love to go. I gather enough character descriptions on this special Friday morning to fill Barnes and Noble with stories forever. Char makes J.C. Penny’s our first stop on this maddening bleary-eyed trek because for the past eight years she’s been collecting their small Mickey Mouse Christmas snow globes that they give free to the first 200 customers. We haven’t missed a year since we started I’m sad to say.
We also buy our sons a Christmas t-shirt on this morning or a Christmas tie or Christmas boxers. It’s tradition. We walked through the doorway last year and the first thing out of Zac’s mouth was, “Where’s my shirt?” God help us the year we don’t buy one.
And Black Friday kicks off the most tradition-filled month of the year. From toy runs by bikers to decorated boat parades on the river, each year brings the same calendar of events. I spend that Thanksgiving week hauling out tub after tub of Christmas lights and decorations to make Griswald jealous. I add to it every year much to my family’s groans and it’s all in preparation for the longest of our family traditions – the giant December First Christmas Party. My parents started this open house tradition when I was a child and when they could no longer do it, Char and I took it over. Food would fill every table and counter top as the house and yard were filled to overflowing. There have been more than a hundred guests in my parents’ house any given Christmas. It was the children’s job to decorate the tree and ornaments went on in any hap-hazard way. Mom would always say, “I’ll fix it later.” But she never did. The kids had put them on as they envisioned and who was she to mess with a child’s Christmas eyes. So, some branches were crowded and weighed down and others were quite bare, but it was done with a child’s love and excitement and Mom could never bring herself to change even one ornament. I never did, either.
The second Saturday of each December finds the family and I sitting in camp chairs and wrapped in blankets along the main road of Downtown Melbourne, a thermos of coffee at my side waiting for Melbourne’s Christmas Light Parade. Friends gather near and little kids cheer as high school marching bands, Boy Scouts and Girl Scout troops, local businesses, clubs and churches lead the way for Santa to come to town riding in a bucket of a wailing fire engine. Candy is thrown, carols are sung and little kids wave their arms off.
In my little town of Satellite Beach, the fire department decorates the fire engine with white lights and someone dresses as Santa Claus. Then the fire marshal along with some police officers escort the engine up and down each neighborhood street playing Christmas carols from their speakers and waving at the kids who rush out to watch the procession of emergency vehicles. Christmas is the time when everyone should act with childlike wonder and excitement.
It was amazing to me when I told people I was doing a piece on traditions, how many people wanted to share theirs. Some of them I even understood. Take John’s, for instance. One year they found a thirty-eight year-old picture with all the siblings in it. Every year since they’ve gotten in the same pose to see how each of them has changed over the years, I understand this tradition because I torture my sons with it repeatedly. When they were still in grade school my sister finally decided to get married. Each boy was dressed in a black tuxedo and marched down the aisle. At the reception they were bunched up around a table and we posed them in the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, and hear-no-evil pose. It was cute. It was funny. At least, that first time it was. Now, they grumble and groan because every couple of years, I put them in the same pose and, with a father’s eye, tear up at the changes. I know they don’t get it now, but they will one day and when I’m sitting in that big library in the sky, they’ll get together in their wheelchairs and walkers and say, “One more time for Dad.”
My side of the family takes a picture every year. On Christmas Eve we all meet up at Texas Roadhouse about four-thirty for a meal of memories and laughter. Before we leave we always get the waitress to take a picture of us around the table for posterity’s sake. It’s the same wooden table with the scattering of broken peanut shells on it, the same empty plates and the same huddle of people. But every year age makes the picture just a little different as do the new additions of family. Even when my parents moved to Alabama with my sister, the tradition held as they would take their picture and our growing, changing family would take ours. In the family album they would go side-by-side and we could still see the changes.
As I leafed through the stack of traditions people sent me. I noticed that several centered on food. On Christmas Eve, Laura’s mom makes oyster stew while LeeAnn’s family has a traditional Spanish dinner with ham, red beans, Spanish rice with pigeon peas and pasteles. For my family it was meatballs at the Christmas parties. My mom had the best meatballs at our December first party and when I met Char I found some that were even better. Her family, like many others I have discovered, holds a huge Christmas Eve party and her dad always made homemade Swedish meatballs that were a food group themselves. When he passed away, Char was put in charge of making them because she had always helped him. For some reason, though, they didn’t come out just right. A couple months later while discussing her dad’s cooking habits we figured out why. Her dad always had a Busch beer in his hand and some of it always went into the food. It was the missing ingredient.
Char’s father, Rich, was all about Christmas Eve. That night was celebrated with family, food and friends and, when his grandkids started coming, Rich just went all out to make it special for them. He would rig a bright red light way up in the trees and have it blinking so the little ones would think it was Rudolf. Then while their attention was on the light, he would sneak out back and toss pebbles up on the roof and jingle a string of bells announcing Santa’s arrival. When the kids were about to explode with excitement, he would come in the front door carrying a giant burlap sack stuffed with presents. “Look what I found by the door.” His face didn’t have enough room for his smile as his grandchildren swarmed him shouting that they had heard Santa and saw Rudolf. Rich brought abundance of Christmas cheer with that tradition.
And the traditions keep coming. Amanda’s family throws carrots on the roof for Santa’s reindeer while Michelle’s sings Christmas carols, closing with “O Holy Night”. Some read “Twas the Night before Christmas” while others read the Christmas story from the Bible. Growing up my family would go to a friend’s open house Christmas Eve and then drive around looking at Christmas lights before attending Midnight Mass. It was the longest church service ever in this child’s mind. Then, we would go home and rush to bed after putting out cookies and milk for Santa. Every red antenna light we saw just had to be Rudolf’s nose.
It’s Christmas. It’s a time for family and magical memories. It’s a time for traditions that reminds us who we are, where we’ve come from and where we are going. Each family has their own and when my children begin their families they’ll take some of ours with them and create some new ones for their kids. Each tradition will have meaning and some will bring those tears of nostalgia that get us through the holidays.