As a young mom juggling two babies during the “Cheerios and Crafts” phase of motherhood, I had no idea the long-range impact of a “yes” answer to a question posed by my mother-in-law 14 years ago: she simply wanted to know if I’d be interested in hosting a Valentine Tea Party for my then three-year-old daughter. To me, a mother-daughter tea party meant temporary suspension from diaper duty and laundry, and my enthusiastic “yes” required, oooh, about .01 nano seconds of deliberation.
Having now graduated to the “Taxi Service and Sports Spectator” phase of child rearing, I realize it was an important decision despite the mindless expediency with which it was made. More a brunch than a tea, our annual Valentine gathering has crystallized in my mind the value and significance of establishing family traditions. Traditions have far-reaching implications, and though I’ve written with our Valentine Tea in mind, my hope is
- to seed ideas in you for cultivating and nurturing your own traditions
- to open your eyes to the “everyday traditions” you may not yet recognize
- to realize why they need to be an integral part of your family.
1. Family super glue
Traditions strengthen and bind families. Our Valentine Tea brings together the women in our family, particularly important because we don’t live in the same place. Though there are other times of the year when our guys are welcome, this day is special because it sets aside “girl time” with my sisters-in-law, nieces and a few special friends. We don’t have the luxury of quantity time; I’m thankful for condensed quality time.
(Except my father-in-law–he’s our Chief Waffle Maker, so we allow him entry…for a little while, anyway.)
2. Bridging the gap
Traditions don’t see age differences as chasm but they do add depth. Three generations come together for our annual Tea. As we sit around a table, younger cousins learn from the older; a grandmother is able to share her heart about what’s most important to her; young (and not-so-young) moms think out loud about parenting, celebrate their children’s successes, share their struggles.
All among people who know them best and love them anyway.
I say that with a wink, but the truth is, because people are imperfect, families and friendships are imperfect. It’s good to have reason to get together; holidays often provide the perfect backdrop to share a meal or celebration, mingling the company of those with whom we have shared blood through birth or marriage or faith.
3. Repetition, Redundancy & Recapitulation
Tradition is like a broken record, spinning the same song over and over and over; its beauty lies in hearing the music, not in being stuck in a rut. The word “tradition” is derived from the Latin word “traditionem“, meaning “handing over, passing on”.
The structure of our tea has evolved through the years. In the beginning, it was oriented towards preschoolers:
- since they attended with their mothers, together, they’d make cards for their daddies
- they’d construct a simple Valentine’s-related craft (oh, how I loved the Barney Box when my children were younger–glitter and glue all the way, baby!)
- brunch consisted of heart-shaped PB&Js for the daughters, frosted and sprinkled sugar cookies, strawberry Jello jigglers, Noni’s famous butter mints. Moms enjoyed a more sophisticated meal, but guess who snacked on the kid stuff, too?
Now, it’s geared more toward “young ladies”:
- no card-making for the dads any longer
- no craft making
- homemade waffles with strawberries and whipped cream has replaced peanut butter and jellies but the butter mints are still found in little bowls just about everywhere
The point is, guests generally know what to expect, though adaptation is made to accommodate age shift. Some things have been consistent from the beginning:
- we dress to reflect “special occasion”
- china, crystal and silver are used, a perfect match to good manners
- we enjoy a meal that is as pretty to look at as it is good to eat
- little treats–surcies–are given to each guest; both me and my MIL keep our eyes open year-round to find the “perfect” little gift…sometimes it’s handmade, too
4. The Heinz Ketchup Effect
Expectancy and repetition translate to eager anticipation for traditions. When our Christmas decorations are finally deconstructed and stored away in the attic until next year, I know to expect a phone call from Sarah to discuss the date and plans for Valentine Tea. One of my favorite parts of the tradition is making the invitations; though it’d be easier to have them printed, I can’t bear with losing that personal touch. Even before they’re mailed, though, there’s an air of excitement about getting together to celebrate; I love watching the little girls play; it’s pure joy to see how they’ve grown from party to party; and I delight in the company of my sweet sisters-in-law and sisters in love more than they’ll ever know.
It’s not just me, either; my sister-in-law told me how excited my niece was about the tea, and my heart absolutely MELTS.
5. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em
Tradition for the sake of tradition isn’t very effective. Doing something just because it has always been done is not enough reason to continue it in the future. Sandy, on a post at 4 Reluctant Entertainers, recognized that sometimes traditions do little more than add pressure or rob joy from holidays or special occasions. She recommends considering how you can simplify or modify existing tradition…or when necessary, eliminating ones that no longer serve your family.
In the early years, we invited my daughters’ friends and their mothers to our party; it grew so large, we eventually culled back to make it more a family affair, with the granddaughters inviting only one friend and her mother. The resulting intimacy has enriched the tea (as opposed to diminishing it due to fewer people).
6. Now you see it, now you don’t
Traditions are often thought of only in the context of holidays or special occasions; but perhaps the most beautiful are the things you do as a family every day or on a regular basis.
Recently, I asked a group of high school girls to share their favorite traditions (I believe it was following Thanksgiving). I was surprised several of them didn’t realize they DO have family traditions. When the question was posed a bit differently–“What do you always do at Thanksgiving?”–they recognized eating a meal with family, going to visit grandparents…and even a burping contest IS tradition. It’s what makes their family unique.
Some Facebook friends chimed in with a few more thoughts:
- Blake saw how much the little things have mattered to his own children as they’ve gotten older; that it was less about what it was (going to the beach, Sunday dinner after church or Georgia football games) and more about repetitive, meaningful and one day, cherishable, action.
- Lori pointed out how difficult it was when you lose a family member, to continue with traditions tied to person; establishing new ones can be just as difficult.
In recent years, brunch has begun with my mother-in-law reading from An Invitation to Tea (Teatime Pleasures) by Emilie Barnes, and I think it perfectly concludes my thoughts; I’ve substituted the word “tradition” where Barnes original text mentioned “tea”:
“It’s what happens when women or men or children make a place in their lives for the rituals of sharing. It’s what happens when we bother with the little extras that feed the soul and nurture the senses and make space for unhurried conversations. And when that happens, it doesn’t really matter what [tradition] fills cups or holds the liquid.
It really isn’t the tea tradition.
It’s the spirit of the tea party tradition.”
Tell me about your traditions? I’d love to hear!
I have to say 2 things:
1. I am unbelievably jealous that you can get your family together and do something like this without everyone arguing. I would never have a hope of getting that many generations together without a serious cat fight.
2. I love your point that traditions shouldn’t be reserved for holidays. My mom and I have a traditional shopping trip we go on every year, when the men going ride dirt bikes for the weekend. It is simple, fun and always memorable. I couldn’t imagine not doing it.
Thanks for reminding all of us of the importance of tradition
Why are there no comments here? This post is AMAZING! I am all about family traditions and I think that what we do together and how we shape our children with these traditions is what makes our family unique and closer together. Traditions don’t have to cost a lot, you begin to look forward to them as much as your children do, and it creates the excuse you need to keep those family bonds strong.
LOVE this post, Robin, love it, love it!
I think that traditions are very important and can be wonderful things, but I also think it is important to recognize when it is time to leave them in the past and simple hold on to the memories. Once it become ‘stayed’ or doesn’t really work with your family anymore, it is time to start a new tradition! They can be very fun to start and over time, you find the ones that are truly meaningful are sometimes the tiniest little traditions.
Definitely agree:)! When you share about it, I can see how special it is to you!
I hope that our family creates some similar traditions–we try:)!
What a wonderful thing you do as a family. I like that you picked Valentine’s Day to do it too. The other holidays seem to be so busy, so I bet a lot more ladies can make it on Valentines Day. I am keeping this idea in the back of my mind for when my teeny tiny nieces get just a bit older. So fun!
What a beautiful way to commemorate Valentine’s Day and show those you love how much you care.
I agree with you completely – traditions are not just about holidays. It has always been a tradition in our family that when another family member receives Christ – it is a calling for a night out on the town at the local pizza joint. Silly to some, but very important to our family – we’ve done this with aunts,uncles, cousins, and now we’re doing it with our kids – and they all love it.
This is one of the most well-written posts I’ve ever seen on this subject!
Thanks for sharing your heart and thoughts on this subject. 🙂
You’ve inspired me today. (Not only to anxiously await my one thousand dollars, but also to think more on tradition.) It really does matter and can be such a beautiful thing. It’s tricky to start meaningful traditions in the “cheerios and crafts phase of motherhood,” but it’s something to strive for as a priority for me.
Behind on my blog reading, but someone twittered this and here I am. This is a great post Robin! Wonderfully written and just plain good stuff.
I also think it’s important to recognize what events are great fun and could easily be made into an annual/monthly/weekly event/tradition. Sometimes the most unexpected/spontaneous/unplanned things are the biggest hits.
This makes me miss living close to family. Even though we have ‘traditions’ in our little family, they are not TRADITIONS that are larger than just us. There are many things that I remember from my childhood that just aren’t possible now that we are scattered all over the country.
Traditions are the things we hold on to when everything else seems to be slipping through our grasp. They’re the things that bind us together even when time and circumstance force us to live far apart. In my case, it’s what defines my family, what makes me tear up with pride as my wife sets the table on Friday night and teaches the lessons her mom taught her to our daughter.
They’re the difference between a family that works and a family that…well, isn’t much of a family. I could write a book on this, but I don’t want to blow up your web host. Just wanted to thank you for sharing this. Beautifully said and oh so resonant, as always.
Could not have said it better! I adore traditions and am probably in the extreme where I try TOO many b/c I want everything to be special! 😉
I still have Tevye in my head. In fact, I pretty much always seem to have a Fiddler on the Roof song in my head. lol
Friday night pizza & movie at our house. Christmas Eve devotional & new pjs for Christmas opened on Christmas Eve. Blueberry muffins for birthday breakfasts. Why? Tradition!
This post meant a lot to me, Robin. As a China-adoptive family, we are exploring ways to incorporate Chinese culture into our lives… when neither the husband nor I grew up with those holidays. We are learning, more than anything, that food and family remain central to traditions from around the globe.
Great post on traditions..they can enhance the family life with special memories and can burden if not used wisely!
I found my thinking cap. 🙂 And, sheesh, the more I hear about your Valentine Tea, the more I want to be adopted into your family.
Tradition just for the sake of tradition is definitely missing the point. My MIL (who has many personal struggles) tends to overdo everything and have 15 different elaborate traditions for every holiday. I think she’s trying to hold on to some of the joys from the past, remembering the days when her kids were small, but clinging to the past that hard doesn’t benefit anyone. It just adds stress & complication to family gatherings.
I do like your point about the everyday things that you do as a family. As I was thinking about my own family’s traditions when I was a child, one of the memories that popped up is praying before meals. We ate every dinner together as a family (unless Dad was away TDY) and we would take turns saying the prayer. I had even dates, my brother had odd dates, and my Dad took every 3rd day. This gave us all a chance to pray on behalf of the family, while still learning & being led by Dad as he continually taught us how to pray.
(And now my hormonal pregnant self is getting a little sniffly thinking about that!)
1. Lest you think we’ve got it all together, one of my most held-to
traditions is taking pictures three times/year (beach, Easter, Christmas).
EVERY year, every instance, my children make me pay dearly for it.
2. So glad you keyed in on that! Once we begin looking for “routine”
tradition in our lives, we see how omnipresent it is! 🙂
Ha, Amy! You happened to comment within minutes of my posting it! I’d like
to think that’s why there weren’t comments when you read :). Thanks for
your kind words, and I love that you’re in sync with my thinking here. It’s
good to be intentioned when you’re shaping family habits through tradition,
Jingle, agreed–keeping a tradition intact just for the sake of always
having done it before, is ridiculous. When it loses its significance, it’s
past time to reconsider. I just had a thought–sometimes tradition has a
beginning and ending point; when I was younger, for a season we’d watch the
Hardy Boys and eat Arby’s (Hardee’s??) on tv trays. I wonder how many
episodes we actually did it, but I remember :).
Lizzie, I think if you think about it a while, you’ll see how much you’re
already doing by way of tradition. I’ve read enough of you to know you’re
interested in creating meaninful moments for your family :).
Michelle, I’ll have to again credit my MIL for the timing; it was her idea
and I ran with it. In retrospect it was a FABULOUS idea, and you’re right
about the “good” timing. You’ll have so much fun encouraging your nieces to
do this! 🙂
Karen, did you see my tweet after I read yours? Thank you for your sweet
words here (& there) :). I love your “salvation” tradition! Celebrating
with pizza is an unexpected (to me) way to commemorate stepping into new
life, but…I LOVE that your family consistently does the same thing. THAT
is a tradition unique and significant for your family (thanks for
sharing…there might be some who snag your fun idea!).
You know, Heather…sometimes traditions begin without you meaning for them
to become traditions–you do it once, then again, and again, and before you
realize it, a tradition is established. Yes, I think it’s crucial to be
intentional, but that being said, I think some wonderful traditions evolve
on their own.
Phyllis, I hear ya about the “behind on my blog reading” thing; I shall
never catch up and I’m resigned it at this point. At least I know there’s
always something great waiting on me to read, ya know? You’re so right that
a spontaneous occurrence can translate to a wonderful tradition. Simplicity
is key; so is knowing your family. 🙂
Headless Mom, s i g h…scattered extended family can make it tough; that’s
why some consistent traditions when you ARE together is important. I’d
encourage you to realize that even among your little family traditions are
“right there”…and they’re just as vital as the “larger” ones :). Maybe
you could draw friends into something that would become a memory marker for
your family. I’m thinking about Easter here in TN; several years my husband
was on call at work and we couldn’t travel to visit our family. Instead, we
invited several families who live here for Sunday lunch after church. They
couldn’t be with their families, either, so we celebrated together.
Whenever we’re “stuck” here apart from our family, our plan is to invite
them again :).
Carmi, I thought if you saw this post it might resonate with you :). I
smile that you’re such a “black sheep” in your family, daring to be
different (in the best of ways). You’ve spoken to the things I’ve written
about here at other times, and it’s clear your children will delight in
family tradition because you and your wife have instilled that in them.
Bravo. As always, thank you for your generous comments.
Oh amanda, is “too much of a good thing” too much in this case? ha! It
says a lot about you that you care enough to make everything special! Love
Malia, you get it (and I’m smiling ’cause I can’t get that song out of my
head since posting it either!)! LOVE how you’ve worked tradition into the
every day AND in the special occasion! Wanna come celebrate my birthday
with ME next month? Oh, how I love blueberry muffins!! 🙂
Tonggu Momma, wow, without spelling it out, you’re right! FOOD and FAMILY
ARE central to tradition! They aren’t necessary, by any means, but they do
seem to often be key. It’s wonderful you want to incorporate Chinese
culture into your lives…it demonstrates a heart who considers others more
highly than yourself. Lovely :).
Sandy toe, well said. You have the gift for summarizing thought better than
just about anyone! A few words that convey much :).
Jeni, what a fantastic memory you shared; now THAT was wise intention by
your parents! At the time, I’m sure you didn’t realize it’s
significance…but now? It helps you see how you can affect your own
family. lovelovelove that! Also, good points about clinging to that which
is no longer meaningful or effective; and the sad truth it can be counter
productive. It’s blessing to be able to see when it’s time to move on….
(glad you found your crumbly thinkin’ cap!!)
I love this. I think I should bookmark it and come reread it every now and then. 🙂
I’m the person in my family that instigates and holds us all to our traditions. I hope I raise my children with a love of traditions (the same or otherwise..) It makes me sad to think of them not continuing in family traditions once I’m gone. I’m going to stop thinking about that now. 🙂
Amber, I firmly believe they’ll value what you truly value; particularly if
you just LIVE it and don’t cram it down their throats 🙂 ;). Knowing your
children, your family, your friends WELL assures that you create traditions
that MEAN something to them, ya know? I’m so glad you’re an instigator!!
EVERY family needs at least one of those! 🙂
I agree that traditions can be the glue. I know that’s a short comment – I really did read through your post and think a lot about it. But my brain doesn’t have much more than that on a lazy Saturday morning! 😉
You perfectly described why family traditions mean so much to me. While things have changed some over the years, we still have several meaningful traditions that I couldn’t do without.
Thanks for sharing!