Being Traditional in an Untraditional Family

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.  ~ Gilbert K. Chesterton


My family has a tradition for the holidays that seems to be unique among all of the wonderful and varied customs that society has come to label as “Tradition”.  You see, our tradition is — we’re rather untraditional.  For me, one who greatly values customs, ritual, patterns – TRADITION – this fact was rather hard to accept.  After all, traditions are passed down through the generations.  So, where did I get my love for all things traditional when my own family really doesn’t have any traditions?  Or, is our very “untraditionalness” [sic] a tradition in and of itself?

I can’t say we’ve never done the same thing twice, because we have.  But, nothing we’ve ever done is so set in stone in the traditional sense that it meets the definition of “tradition”.  I think those of us who value traditions find comfort in them.  With traditions, we know what to expect.  There is no fear of the unknown, no fear of change.  Traditions or rituals are comforting to me for these reasons.  I was always a tradition-oriented person.  But I don’t know why, because one would think that a person develops a love of traditions from experiencing them.  In my case, that’s not true.  It’s not that my family didn’t care for traditions, they just didn’t care about them enough to adopt or preserve them.  Which left me longing for traditions!  I was jealous of families in old movies that celebrated the holidays with special foods, events, or items passed down from generation to generation.  In my family’s case, we may have adopted some customs for a few years, but it was never so dependent, so essential to the holiday that gave it the required “tradition” label.  So my memories of the holiday traditions of my family seem a little schizophrenic!

For Thanksgiving, we had a tradition of the big meal with all of the great Thanksgiving foods like roasted turkey, Mom’s stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuts, etc.  I suppose that this feels like the most “traditional” of any holiday meal to me.  But, we were not so strict about where we celebrate, or when.  For two years, we celebrated by going downtown to see a show instead of our usual meal, which we probably had, with all of the trimmings, on another day of the week instead.  Some years my brother didn’t join us, other years one of his friends or one of mine did.  One year, my parents, their friends, and my priest-friend’s mother celebrated Thanksgiving in his rectory, because it was his first holiday as a priest and he was “on call”.  Some years we ate at my brother and sister-in-law’s house, and one year at her parents’ house.  For the last few years, I have had the meal at my house.  And every other year, my oldest niece celebrates with her mother’s family, so we usually have two Thanksgiving meals so we are all together at some point.  While the food may be familiar, the locale is most decidedly not.

Christmas is the holiday most associated with traditions, but once again my family never really decided on any one thing to “adopt” forever and ever.  Meal menus changed every few years.  Sometimes gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve, and sometimes on Christmas Day.  For several years, we’d have a Christmas movie marathon. (But not the “usual” Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life – we watched Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street, and Christmas in Connecticut.)  Sometimes the tree was up and the house was decorated, and sometimes it wasn’t.  For several years, my parents’ street adhered to strict decoration requirements, and the street looks fabulous as everyone had the same lights and design.  But, none of these things stayed for more than a few years.

What always stays the same?  The reason for all of the celebrating – the religious meaning of Christmas.  We’d always attend Mass, but there was no tradition as to whether it would be the Vigil, the Midnight Mass, or on Christmas Day.  Going to church was the important part, not when.

I’ve developed a few traditions on my own over the years – certain songs must be listened to, ornaments are collected as I travel, and the holiday season must be celebrated with family and friends who are like family to me.

So, we don’t do the Seven Fishes, or Wigilia, or gather around the piano to sing carols while chesnuts pop in the fire place, or bake tons of cookies every year.  All of those traditions sound like a lot of fun, but I have fun anyway in spite of not celebrating in traditional ways.  The holidays used to make me sad – perhaps I put too much stock in fancy traditions and what I did not have.  But by remembering what I have every year, and remembering the Love that makes it all possible, the Christmas holidays are truly joyous.  That is my tradition!

[Written for the 61st edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Traditions!]


1 thought on “Being Traditional in an Untraditional Family

  1. Wonderful, Donna. Thanks for sharing your insights into your feelings about your family’s ways of celebrating. I think that is what draws many of us to an interest in our roots, as you mentioned: a longing for the traditional ways that we think we might be missing. In fact, as you so beautifully stated, the true meaning behind the Christmas season is the important thing, no matter how our way of celebrating may vary from year to year.

    A wonderful Christmas season to you!


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