Traditions: Cornerstones, Hassles, or Non-Existent
Some traditions give us warm fuzzy feels while the mere mention of others has us reaching for bottles of aspirin and antacids. This season in particular I want to share some thoughts on traditions and the importance of keeping family get-togethers light and fun.
As a child you learn about the meaning of tradition; as a youth you learn the importance of keeping traditions; as a young adult you begin to learn what traditions are valuable to you and your loved ones; as part of a couple you learn about the need for balance; and as a seasoned couple you find out about the shelf life of traditions.
Dictionary.com defines tradition as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation”. Wikipedia classifies tradition as “a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past”.
For me the word tradition has always been a word with some weight to it. I have felt overwhelmed and tied down by traditions. Traditions happen to be the cornerstones of religion and society. They can be tangible or intangible. Family traditions follow much the same pattern and weight but family traditions are a little easier to let evolve and grow with needs and expansion.
When I was the president of my sorority in my junior year of college I felt the burden to keep traditions sacrosanct. I did not want to be the person involved in letting an organization fail. The following year as a regular “sister” who was preparing for her wedding, while handling a senior thesis and graduation, I felt the need for flexible traditions within my sisterhood. Now as an alumna, I have imparted advice letting the next generation know that the important thing about a sorority is to remember why everyone wanted to be sisters to begin with. That some traditions need to evolve while others traditions are the foundation/cornerstone of an organization.
To quote the bible, and the Byrds, “To everything there is a season…”
A good number of people learn about traditions from an early age. As we grow we learn that traditions can be something we look forward to or something we dread.
Admittedly when I hear the word tradition I think of Fiddler on the Roof with Tevye singing Tradition. This song has many meanings for me including describing how traditions were handled when I was a child. In my house growing up traditions meant the need to follow everything “by the book”. This can be rather stressful at times. Most events revolving around traditions I looked forward to with childlike glee. Others I would beg my mom to let me just stay in my room. The latter was my experience with Thanksgiving.
Once upon a time Thanksgiving meant big family get-togethers with a balance of responsibility shared between the adults who attended. Events like that I could get behind and love but like most things traditions evolve and not always for good.
At some point Thanksgiving became a holiday we shared with my dad’s parents. They would travel three hours south to see us and the holiday was always ripe with tension. My mom always felt like she had to be perfect and serve the perfect meal. Between the tense energy for her need of “perfection” and my hatred of being the child who was supposed to be “seen and not heard” by her grandparents, I always wanted to just spend Thanksgiving alone in my room.
Other than the enjoyment of watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as a family, Thanksgiving was no more than a hassle for me as a child. I am excited that Thanksgiving is no longer this way for my family. The parade is still a BIG part of our day, as it means Christmas is right around the corner, but we can be more relaxed and flexible now about how we choose to celebrate.
As a young couple Rent-a-Dad and I learned the need to find a balance between his traditions and mine. Some family traditions overlapped while others were drastically different. A balance was needed even for the traditions that seemed as if we grew up in the same household.
A good example was Christmas Eve. Both of our families celebrated gift exchange on Christmas Eve. So we couldn’t easily be at both his house in Missouri and my house in Maryland at the same time. The best compromise did not come within the first years of our relationship or marriage but later as foster parents.
Ever since becoming foster parents we have learned that not everyone knows traditions can be positive experiences so there is a need to share the traditions we value and why. We have also learned to remember that some traditions are important to hold onto while others have a time and a place. Sometimes letting go of one tradition is just as important as preserving another. As families form and evolve, it is also important to remember that traditions do the same thing. Traditions have a lifecycle: point of creation; a point of evolution; and a time to retire.
Christmas is a time filled with traditions and is a time that reminds us most about the need to be flexible.
DCS wants foster parents to be flexible about their own plans to make room for the children coming into their homes. Sometimes this is easy as gift giving and tradition sharing. Other times are more difficult. When re-unification is the goal, DCS will ask foster parents to put their own holiday plans on hold to ensure a child spends Christmas with his/her birth family. This often seems unfair.
It is important to remind DCS that your traditions matter too. Before you decide to hold fast to your traditions, first talk with the birth family.
Our experience has shown us that when you ask birth families to share their traditions they are more flexible than you thought they might be. They can also be open to hearing about your own traditions so they may start something new with positive memories.
When working with birth families remember to be flexible in your own traditions as you help build new ones.
Parting Words on Traditions
Over the past three years we have learned so much about sharing our own traditions and creating new ones.
As the grandchild of a French/Italian American, I have learned that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not just about turkeys or hams. That there is as much of a place on the table for homemade meatballs and pasta as there is gravy and mashed potatoes.
As one half of a married couple who are also foster parents, I have learned that traditions are not just about keeping memories alive or something you see on TV but are about the love and time you spend with family. Traditions are not (just) about specific dates instead they are about moments shared. In terms of gift giving, Christmas is still Christmas whether it is spent on December 25th or another day that week.
As a foster parent, I have learned that sharing traditions can help heal old wounds for birth families and yourself. Creating new traditions also have the same effect.
As a parent, I have learned that the messy moments in life mean more than all the perfect ones. From the baby who loves to roll around in the wrapping paper to the cat jumping into the tree. Deep breaths and laughter can guide you through the rough spots. So can reminders about boundaries and how family can be helpful.
Also as a foster parent, sometimes DCS is not the biggest push for flexibility or the opposite. Don’t be afraid to let your own family know you may need time, space, and their understanding as you work with the system.
So this holiday season as you are running around gift buying and focusing on the traditions dear to your family, remember to cut yourself some slack. That creating the perfect moment is tenuous and often unattainable. Focus on the happy messy moments, no matter how small (time or space), as they are the ones you will always remember and hold dear!