When I think back on my childhood I think in sort of two sections. The first up until adolescence and the second after like the start of high school. I’m from a middle-class midwest family. We did all the same things that everyone did every year for holidays and birthdays and such. We had family birthday parties and baby showers. Weddings happened at the local community hall. We had cook-outs (which I have since learned are very different from BBQs in the south) in the summer for the 4th of July and Memorial Day. And Father’s day, and Mother’s Day. We drank cheap beer, baked cutout cookies for Santa, and colored eggs for Easter. It was normal. Nothing crazy different for the most part. But as a child, it always felt really exciting. As I moved into my teenage years it always felt like a letdown. I became aware of how little time we were doing anything fun on Thanksgiving and that there was a lot of prep for about an hour or so of good times. Similar to other holidays. Lots of prep, for something that was over fairly quickly.
I also became aware of things that we did differently from other families. My mother always made and decorated our birthday cakes. I didn’t realize that wasn’t something everyone’s mom did. When we were young for Thanksgiving and Christmas we (the kids) would put on a small show either before dinner or opening gifts. Often we sang songs or played them on instruments as we learned to play. That was also something I realized didn’t happen in every family. My grandma had special potatoes that she made for almost every event that was the highlight of the meal. Christmas Eve, we spent with my mom’s family. Christmas day was spent with my dad’s. We had vacations with members of my dad’s family during the summer pretty regularly. Including camping - though in truth I don’t know how often we did that, just that I remember we did at least once.
As I got older some of those things changed. At some point, my mom stopped making those birthday cakes. Likely because I didn’t want them anymore though I am not sure. We stopped singing before meals and those meals at the table became more potlucky and buffet-style instead of the sit-down. Part of these changes I’m sure were from age. Kids just get older and I’m fairly certain my sister and I were like any other teen and thought a lot of things could go away.
Part of the reason for the changes were changes in the family. Divorce, new marriage, etc force you to change things and adapt. So activities you did frequently before are no longer possible to do the same way. Then the kids grow up all the way and marry, have their own kids with another family that needs to have holiday time spent with too. New traditions start, some end, and a few special ones keep going.
Well, I never really worried much about any of that when I was a young adult. I honestly just didn’t consider it as a thing at all. It just never occurred to me that things like that were all that important. I mean, they are nice. I have fun, it’s cool - but if it doesn’t happen it’s all good. I show my love for my family all year, right? But I’ve come to realize the real value in these things and understand that they actually are important.
See, not only did I move out of my house but I moved across the country to an area I had no family. Right after I had my first baby.
It was really hard.
Now when I was a young mother and still married I did a lot of the things my family did. I mean, it’s just what you do. I made and decorated birthday cakes. We colored eggs and carved pumpkins every year. We had sit-down meals for Christmas and Thanksgiving. But even early on some of those things weren’t the same because of the move across the country. With no family close those sit-down meals for Christmas and Thanksgiving just felt like regular meals. Memorial Day and Mother’s Day and Father’s day and the 4th of July were all just us, doing what we did every other day and calling it special because of the day.
And even when we would travel for Christmas or family came to see us it was still not the same for me. It didn’t have the same energy. Something I’ve now come to realize as the same meaning.
After a few years, I became aware of this empty feeling. And for the life of me couldn’t figure it out. And then one day I realized it was because every day seemed like the same day. Christmas, Easter, even Mother’s Day, and Father’s day just weren’t the same anymore because of that move. It took me years to figure out that was a large part of why I felt so depressed all the time. It literally felt like there was no reason to do anything. So began my very long internal journey on meaning and purpose. And while I read all the books and did all the research and tried to find ways to create tradition it’s actually been my daughter that has helped me clearly figure out why this is important and how to make things have meaning. My only regret was that it took me so long to figure it out.
Then I got divorced.
After divorce, just like any significant change, everything shifts. Being a single parent is hard and many people, myself included, find themselves turning into machines. You just have to get shit done. So you do. All of it. All the time. And very quickly, without realizing it, you fall into this space where the only thing you care about is completing the task, not why the task matters. Or even if it does.
It didn’t help that I was already a little wired for this. I’m effective, efficient, and enjoy being productive. That works, until you completely burn out. Mostly because you just aren’t thinking about things and being deliberate with anything. You’re just checking off boxes. Pretty soon even the boxes that are supposed to be special become mechanical. Like carving pumpkins and setting up stockings.
And then one day a tiny little dot appeared, planting a seed and giving some clarity on what I was missing and how to fill that space. My now partner, (boyfriend at the time) was showing my daughter how to make salsa in the kitchen. And explain why you made it the way you do. You hold the knife like this because...hold the tomato this way so that...we need to add lots of cilantro so it...and on. I sat there at my kitchen island watching this with a small smile and then a small frown. I realized I didn’t do this with my daughter. I had been wanting to feed her. And I did, every day. Good food. But I didn’t do this. And somewhere inside I realized it was significant.
As my daughter grew into her teenage years she started asking for tradition. For culture in many ways. She was looking for meaning and I felt myself start to spin into guilt and struggled with how to help her feel what she felt like she was missing. I am so grateful for her questioning though because it has helped me clarify what it was that we both were missing, why it is important, and how to create it. Now when she asks these questions, I have answers for her. And I continue to build these things for her and the rest of our family.
Here’s what I have learned:
Creating traditions help generate meaning and purpose in our lives so that we feel fulfilled
There needs to be purpose and reason built into your traditions
You have to be on purpose and mindful in doing your traditions
What you do doesn’t matter, it’s why you are doing it that counts
The point is to create memories and reinforce relationships to feel a connection and belonging not to have rules
Let’s look at these 5 lessons.
Human beings often stare up at the sky and look at the stars and wonder - why the hell am I here? LOL
Seriously I don’t think there is a single other animal on our planet that wonders about our purpose. If someone knows of one please let me know. I would be tremendously interested in reading more about that. It’s true though, we really need a reason to do things. Even exist.
The need takes shape gradually as we grow and mature. As children, it isn’t something that really affects us the same way but it’s still there. We are like sponges when we are kids. We just absorb what comes at us and create meaning without realizing it. But when a two-year-old asks “why” they are demonstrating that it’s important, even then. And even if our answer to them is, “because I said so”, there’s a realization of the importance of that need to know. As we continue to get older, our understanding of the answer matures and sooner or later we likely come face to face with the realization that meaning and why only exist if we want them to. Even Fraud wrote about how religion’s great purpose was in providing a reason for existence to us. Because without it we suffer emotionally and psychologically. Therein lies the reason for traditions to exist at all. They help us create a purpose for our lives. And that is REALLY important for us to feel good about anything at all.
Now much like that two-year-old, at some point our reasons need to make sense to us personally. At some point, it’s not good enough for the reason to be “I told you so”. Notice that I said, “to us personally”. We all create meaning and give ourselves reasons based on how we interpret the world. And everyone’s interpretation is different. So a tradition might make sense to one person and be completely illogical to someone else. Cue every argument we have ever had in the history of religion ever. Some people light menorahs, others put up trees. Regardless there is a reason that makes sense to the person or the tradition becomes meaningless.
And that leads us to the next point, when you take part in a tradition you need to do it mindfully. This is one of those little steps that people don’t think about and then they wonder why they feel how they feel. Dude, have you REFLECTED on why you put up that tree? What the hell with the cookies? What is the reason for baking them every year? If you don’t do this your tradition becomes stale and unimportant. It becomes a task, not a joy. You ever gone to Christmas service so many times and then one year you realize you aren’t getting anything out of it anymore? Yep - it’s become a task. You’ve lost the meaning and purpose of the tradition.
Now that doesn’t mean ditch the tradition. But it does mean you need to reconnect to the real meaning of it. Kinda reminds me of The Christmas Carol. Don’t lose the meaning. Reflect and meditate on the reason for your traditions. Spend time explaining them to children, even if they are nieces or nephews. Find the ways it impacts your life, the way you can make it practical, and keep it alive. If you need to look for new ways to reconnect to the meaning in the tradition because it doesn’t matter what, only why.
Remember, when I was young, we did some really specific things. Special birthday cakes, big family meals, singing before opening gifts. It is so important to remember that none of those things really matter because of what they are. They matter because of why they are. It is irrelevant what you did or do. I know that doesn’t sound nice but it’s actually REALLY good news. Because it means you have control and the ability to fill the gap in another way. Any other way. What you do doesn’t matter here. Like not at all. You could do anything and if the why is there it will fill its purpose.
To that end don’t kill yourself with guilt if you aren’t able to exactly recreate something that you had when you were a child. Or even if you have to shift things with your own children because of changes. Remember the point here is to create memories. It’s to connect to something bigger than yourself and build relationships and a sense of belonging. It is not, I repeat, it’s not to have RULES that need to be followed.
Instead of baking cakes, because I just didn’t have time anymore, I started buying them. From a bakery. In fun shapes. This was so hard for me to give up. I literally felt like a bad mother because I couldn’t bake the cakes anymore. But by having my kids pick out everything about their cake we had some shapes, flavors, and decorations I NEVER would have been able to create for them. And my daughter cuts and serves the cake too. Which sounds little - cause it is - but that’s my point. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s the why that matters.
It was about giving my kids something special that would create memories, help them feel important, and part of a family, and explaining to them why we were doing what we were doing.
And if we find ourselves in a place where we need to create new traditions we have to make sure they have all of these elements. The secret to getting that done is to remember what you choose to do doesn’t really matter, you just need to know why you are doing it.
One new tradition that we have been a part of with our family is Friendsgiving. A dear friend of mine started it, and my family has been brought into that group. This is powerful for me and my family because we don’t have a large extended family close by and so this helps fill the gaps. It lets us get together with people we love and celebrate our friendship, the harvest, and changing of seasons, and our gratitude in our lives.
And it’s glorious.
So what are your traditions? How do you celebrate this time of year and WHY are you celebrating? Got a fun tradition to share? I would love to hear about it.
Don’t forget everyone,
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