“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
It’s a tradition. We play Clue on Christmas Eve. We do that because ... well, because we like it, I suppose. It’s fun and usually Molly wins, which would make you think I’d like to discontinue the tradition, but I don’t.
There’s something about the tradition that warms my heart and signals to me it’s the holiday — even if we don’t actually celebrate ON Christmas Eve. Twain’s quote really hits home with me. There isn’t much to justify the tradition, and that seems to make it even harder to think of getting rid of. I wonder, what traditions bring you comfort and perhaps bring others angst?
“Where’s the cranberry sauce? We can’t have turkey without cranberry sauce!” It was the first Thanksgiving my mother had lived in her new home near my family after more than 30 years living in the place she and my daddy raised my brother and me.
A retirement home with a wonderful dining room meant a full menu of dinner options for Thanksgiving, and I wouldn’t have to wash a single dish. Everything I could have wanted to eat was available until I asked for cranberry sauce. “It’s over on the table with the salads,” I was told. I looked and couldn’t find it. I explained that my idea of cranberry sauce was that it would be in the shape of a can with ridges on it.
I was quickly informed they had fresh cranberry sauce, made from scratch — no ridges needed. I was 40 years old, and though I couldn’t really justify why the style of cranberry sauce was important, I knew I couldn’t just get rid of my tradition. The thought of giving up what brought me comfort was frightening.
Traditions can provide comfort and great memories later in life. I’ve asked several people about traditions that they love. Trips with several generations, date nights for married couples, daily trips to a favorite coffee shop are all treasures.
On the first day of school each year, my brother and I always stood beside the mailbox to have our picture taken. I continued that tradition with my own children, with them standing beside our front door. It’s a treasure to look back at old pictures and see the changes through the years. Yes, traditions can be treasures, but they can also be treacherous with all of their trappings.
“Joe, my family always has Labor Day at the lake. Everyone comes; we have a parade, a pie contest, and a prize for the most patriotic outfits!” Poor Joe. Lisa’s family traditions were definitely full of trappings, and that was the part he hadn’t planned on when he said, “Will you marry me?”
“We simply must have Granny’s Pecan Pie on Thanksgiving, and the dressing must be made with cornbread made from scratch.” Granny’s Pecan Pie that Aunt Judy makes every year doesn’t seem to allow room for the new recipe Lynn found, which she thinks folks will love. She is afraid to break with tradition.
We bring a lot of traditions with us into a marriage, and we make many new traditions, but when they are like cement blocks that weigh everyone down, we need to reconsider their value.
I have been so fortunate that neither my parents nor my in-laws held traditions over our heads as I began life with my husband. I know how fortunate we’ve been because I’ve heard some of your horror stories. Maybe this year is the year you cut your family some slack.
Several years ago, as Mother’s Day approached, I could feel and hear the tension in the voices of my family. I played the ultimate Mother card and put a stop to all the stress. A text message went to my family, letting them know that they were off the hook. “If you have time to have a cup of coffee, great. If you can just find time to call or text, great. I don’t qualify your love for me based on where you feel you can spend your time for one day.”
Life is busy, they are busy adults, and I don’t doubt for one minute their love for me. You can do that — let people off the hook. It might surprise you how much more genuine their wishes seem to be. It might mean changing traditions the world has placed in your life, removing the trappings that have encumbered your relationships.
Hank Williams Jr. sings about family traditions, and while it’s a fun song for a crowd, the words are not so happy. It’s also a good reminder that not all traditions have to do with the way we celebrate a holiday. Some traditions are ingrained behaviors. It’s easy to blame your parents for why you lose your temper, use slang terms that are unkind, cheat, or any number of less than attractive actions. The traditions you choose to continue because your parents or grandparents always did those things belong to you.
When someone says, “Why do you do that?” you can stop saying you’re carrying on an old family tradition and remove what doesn’t serve you or those you care about. Just because it’s what you grew up around doesn’t mean it’s right.
Breaking with tradition signifies that life has changed, and we must change with it. When someone dies, we might find that the simple phone call that came every Sunday afternoon or the dinner on Thursday nights is suddenly gone, and we must find new things to do with our time.
When my daddy died, we looked at doing things differently for the holidays, and I’ve heard from many people that they have needed to find new traditions in times of loss. Like the preacher in Tom Sawyer, we might not be able to justify keeping our traditions, but they can still be hard to let go. When you make the break, though, it frees you and those around you.
To paraphrase an old friend, life isn’t better or worse as we go along, it just becomes different. Maybe as you break with tradition, different is the best thing you can be.
Lucky for me, not every tradition has to be broken immediately. At the next holiday meal, the kitchen staff delivered a very large can of cranberry sauce to our table. There was enough cranberry sauce for everyone, and more importantly, they let me know that the small things that matter to me also matter to them. That’s a nice tradition to keep!
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.