It’s not a new idea. For centuries, probably since people gathered in families and clans, it is the elders who have been the keepers of a people’s history and the teachers of the young. In old times when elders were less able to contribute their labor, they were valued because they kept the stories. These days, we seniors are often still working and sometimes still actively parenting either our own nearly grown children or our grands. But we still have an important role in passing on the family traditions lest they be forgotten. It’s serious business. By continuing family traditions, we bind our children to the family’s past and help prepare them for the future.
Traditions are part of the mythic sense of what makes a family unique and special. Sometimes they are a very big deal like observing a religious holiday with a three course meal unique to the day. Sometimes they are little gestures like bringing out a special tablecloth on birthdays. Large and small, they add up to what makes our family different from every other. When children feel a strong sense of belonging to something larger than themselves; when they have a sense of who they are within a family, they bring that positive identity with them out into the larger world.
My friend Tessa’s grandparents came from Greece at the turn of the century. She admits she doesn’t think much about it one way or another most of the time. But when Easter rolls around, she doesn’t feel like the day is complete unless breakfast includes a red hard-boiled egg nestled in the middle of a braided loaf of sweet bread. Someone once tried to tell her, “Ah, come on. It’s just a red egg.” No. – It’s not. It’s a connection to her family’s past. When she makes the bread, she remembers the yeasty smells of her grandmother’s kitchen when Easter baking was going on. She remembers her grandmother’s arms around her as she showed her how to braid the loaf. She recalls the joy she felt when her grandfather regaled the family with stories of what it was like when he was growing up. She wants to do no less for her own grandchildren.
At Judith’s home down the street, Passover is the big event of the year. Her mother-in-law, Ruth, keeps kosher, something Judith hasn’t felt up to doing. Ruth arrives three days before Passover with pots, kitchen tools, and plastic sheeting. Together, they scrub down the kitchen, cover the counters with plastic, and unpack the dishes that are only used for the Passover holiday. As they work, they enlist the kids, like it or not, to fetch and carry and scrub and then to help chop and mix and stir. It’s a time for singing songs in Yiddish, for telling stories of the family’s past in 19th century Poland, and for passing down recipes and family folklore. No, Judith doesn’t see this as a massive invasion by her mother-in-law. She sees it as an important opportunity to engage her children in their heritage.
Traditions give us a way to share old memories and make new ones. Repeated year after year, they mark the passage of time and provide an element of predictability in an unpredictable world. Passing them down to our grandchildren is an essential part of tending the family’s heart.