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Breaking Enslaving Traditions, Part One

Break Up With Your Anxious Life

When I was a mom of two small kids, our women’s pastor Shelly came to my Mothers of Preschoolers group and talked to us about celebrating Christmas with her kids, and creating meaningful traditions. Every year, on Christmas Eve while they were sleeping, she would wrap her kids’ bedroom doors in Christmas paper, and put a tag on it that said, “To Mom, from Jesus.” Her kids would wake up in the morning delighted that once again their mother had affirmed that God’s greatest gift to her was them.

I thought this was delightful and set about to surprise my girls in this way. It went awry. It turns out, it’s really difficult to wrap a bedroom door, especially quietly. Both the kids woke up and grumpily called out, “Mom! What are you DOING?” I abandoned the attempt. In the morning, when I explained it, they thought it was lame. So that tradition has not caught on in our household.

Because, in our household, the traditions we keep are the ones that work, and the ones we like. A few activities have moved from the “It’s not Christmas without our annual {insert tradition here}” category to the status of, “Does anyone feel like doing {insert tradition here}? No? Okay. We won’t.” Things that were absolute magic when the girls were babies are no longer particularly exciting and that’s okay. Certain movies we watched every year might make it on the TV as background noise while we wrap presents. And extended family gatherings have changed a lot as our siblings have married, had kids, divorced, dated, etc. Now our daughter is dating and that’s another wild card in the mix. So, we hold things loosely.

This flexibility gives us freedom as a family. And it’s a freedom I didn’t really experience in my extended family growing up, even though I loved going to my maternal grandmother’s house for holidays. My mom is one of six kids; there are 13 first cousins in my generation. So, it was big, loud, silly and fun in a lot of ways. But there was also an undercurrent of stress and competition. For one thing, everything had to be exactly the same year after year. The same order of ceremonies, same fancy and wintery clothes -- even if it was very hot, as it often is in Southern California in December.

And the same recipes. I mean the exact same recipes. The recipes were old-school, with some ingredients that might be unpalatable to modern tastes, like lard for the piecrust and turkey gizzards for the stuffing. And though the ingredients were listed the quantities weren’t, so getting the Thanksgiving stuffing to taste exactly the same as last year involved culinary alchemy and also a bit of swearing. My mom sometimes wondered aloud if my grandma left out the measurements so no one could cook the things as well as she did. I don’t think that’s true? But it might have been. Then, around the table, we would critique if the food was a good as last year.

Now that I’ve been a mama for almost 19 years and a married woman for 23, I have a different perspective on how we used to celebrate. Aspects of my extended family holidays were compulsive and inflexible. I’ve conducted some cousin interviews about this, and those who are even interested in the conversation have come to the conclusion that our traditions were, in part, a way for our parents to prove themselves to their parents. Cooking was tough; the house was sparkling; there was only one right way to wash dishes, etc. These were acts of ritual sacrifice, of worship. And unfortunately, my grandparents, the gods, may not even have been attuned to this; and so, they made capricious despots who bestowed praise and love with aloof inconsistency.

If my extended family had a motto, it might have been, “We are a family that does things the hard way.” The hard way was how we proved allegiance.

Jeff and I have kept a few traditions from my family and his, but we’ve blazed our own trail. If we had a motto around holidays, it would be, “We are a family that knows each other, rests and celebrates.”

We don’t always get it right. But our special days are defined by these three things:

  • Having something in the celebration that everyone in the family enjoys, and respecting the emotional limits of each family member

  • We have a lot of down-time on actual holidays. Christmas Day is a time to recover from the season, or, if it’s going to be jam-packed with celebrations, we rest the day before and after. Rest also includes simplifying food, avoiding huge crowds, and reducing presents.

  • We celebrate a lot of life, not just the command-performance days (a term for national holidays that my CODA sponsor made up and I love it). We celebrate small accomplishments and the change of seasons. And within the holiday season, we celebrate things like creativity and beauty. Our house is kind of an on-going workshop/craft fair in December and that’s how we like it.

I love reflecting on how many different ways there are to celebrate holidays, especially when we remember that the word means, literally, “holy days”: days set apart as significant and celebratory. Traditions and rituals give meaning to our lives, so it’s good to be intentional about what they mean, and the intention behind them. My family system was not unique. I’ve taught boundaries lessons to hundreds of women and had countless discussions with young mothers about this: the holidays can become space where we hold each other hostage to generations of expectations. Parents that were slaves to their parents’ approval on these days pass that burden down to their kids. And I think it needs to stop.

This actually mattered a lot to Jesus. He spoke a lot about the religious leaders who took sweet rituals meant to point us to God, and made them burdens for the people to carry. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and broke the Sabbath when his disciples were hungry. In one of his final acts on earth, he took what was a Jewish rite of proposing to a woman – she accepted the promise that he would come back for her by drinking from the cup he presented – and made it the symbol of his New Covenant with us, his bride. We take communion in many different ways according to our traditions, but it is always to remember a sacrifice of love.

And that’s what I hope our family traditions, and yours, will be: centered around love. Not keeping up with our neighbors, not to keep up a random generational standard – not performative in any way. Instead, let our rituals point us back to knowing and loving one another, celebrating what is beautiful in this life, and resting in the truth of how beloved we are.

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