Traditions: creating identity
A husband was watching his wife prepare a leg of lamb one day. She used a meat-saw to cut off several inches from the shank bone. When she finished, he asked, ‘Now, that is interesting, you cutting off the shank bone that way. Does it make it taste better?’
She replied, ‘You know, I don’t really know why I do it except that my mum always did it this way, and she taught me to cook.’
The man couldn’t stop wondering about it, so he went to his mother-in-law and asked her, ‘Your daughter cuts the shank bone shorter before she roasts a lamb. Is there a reason for this?’
The mum said, ‘I don’t know why I do it except that my mother taught me. I’m curious too. Let’s ask her.’
They went into the living room and approached the elderly lady who was wastching television. When asked the same question, she burst into laughter, ‘Oh dear, it’s just because my pan was too short!’
That little story illustrates the power of an unquestioned tradition. Whether good or bad—or in the case of this story, just plain unnecessary—how often do we carry traditions without evaluating the value and meaning behind them?
Feelings of Security
It was almost a decade ago. This particular year it was my ex-wife’s turn to enjoy spending Christmas with the kids. I had arranged with their mother to let me call our little ones early that morning and wake them to our special holiday song. For seven Christmases prior to the divorce, the kids had awakened at 7 a.m. to a joyous carol and Daddy shouting “Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas!”
My kids stumbled to the phone. It only took a moment for the fun music to cut through their sleepy haze and illicit a giggle or two from their lips. Before long I found myself turning down the music and speaking in quiet tones about memories of past holidays. We talked about being together next Christmas. What started as a rather exciting wake-up call quickly became a tender moment between the kids and I. After listening to them squeal over the gifts I mailed, I said I loved and missed them and hung up.
Holding traditions—however lame—is important to the security and well-being of children who have been uprooted due to divorce or separation. Whether you live with your kids or not, a parent needs to be diligent in helping his or her children keep a sense of identity and belonging. Let’s face it, we shouldn’t expect our ex-spouse to continue holding to traditions that could be painful or even irritating to keep up. So what can parents do to insure a tradition continues when everything seems to work against that?
How important is the tradition?
First, you should review the importance of a tradition. Is your Boxing Day backyard cricket game truly a tradition, or really just a habit? Make sure your traditions play a role in providing each family member—including you—with a distinctiveness that breeds identity.
Count the cost of keeping it, versus ditching it. Is it something you feel obligated to fulfill each year because your parents did it with you? Trying to keep your own memories alive may not be a valid enough reason to make it happen for your own kids. The same goes for a religious tradition. Sometimes those can feel so important that it causes us to condemn ourselves if we skip it.
If a particular ritual is an important part of your family history, you may merely need to adjust it. Tweak the tradition a bit to fit the new lifestyle of your separate homes. If it’s possible, discussing its importance with your ex-spouse can help. It could be you need to postpone that New Years Eve karaoke until your children are with you again. Perhaps you need to mail something to them ahead of time so they can do it without you. Is it the same as being there? No, but the effort will make its point.
Today my son and daughter are grown, but they still recall that special song every year whether together or apart. It helped them feel secure, defined our family and had a small part in giving us our uniqueness. Yet remember, your ex also has traditions that don’t include you. It’s not all about you and the kids. There’s another parent involved and they are learning to adjust traditions too.
Creating new traditions
You will be surprised at how quickly old traditions fade into oblivion when new memories are birthed. Quite by accident one New Year’s Eve, my children and I invented a brand new tradition by mutual consent. Now there’s an idea—let the kids decide for a change.
My son and daughter were excited to be up so late. It was five minutes before midnight and we were alone watching the countdown on television. I made soft drink ‘spiders’ (soft drink with ice cream) and we snuggled together on the couch. ‘This is the best New Year ever, Daddy,’ grinned my daughter, ‘Let’s do this every year.’ The rest is history.
Remember kids need even more time to adapt to the traditions of new partners, step-parents or siblings from blended families. We cannot expect immediate acceptance of new traditions especially if the child is older. I was a teenager when my mother died, still it was hard for me to see my father’s new wife settle into our home a year later and plan a beach picnic for Anzac Day instead of our traditional backyard sausage sizzle.
Neither my father nor his new wife had a clue of my bitterness. Step-parents and siblings need to introduce new ideas gradually. Many times, you may have no idea what story or memory is linked to a special tradition. The last thing you want to do is appear like you are trying to snuff-out someone’s memory. Try asking them first, never assume a child is okay with replacing a favorite ornament of a deceased or divorced parent. Remember, it’s about security and a sense of belonging for them.
Whatever you decide, do it with the purpose of providing a warm and familiar blanket of identity. Traditions don’t always have to be deep and meaningful. Some of the most fun are the ones that hold no special memory except that fact that it’s just plain crazy and you do it every year. Some traditions will be outgrown but that’s life. However, they don’t have to be forgotten. Talking about them is all you need sometimes to stir up a warm discussion.
As my children became teenagers, the day came when I couldn’t wake them on Christmas morning with a mere ‘Ho Ho Ho.’ The loud music eventually became obnoxious and I had to let the tradition rest in peace. Now I live halfway across the world from them. One is married, the other in college. We Skype each other on holidays. Maybe for kicks, I’ll send that special Christmas song to them via iTunes or Youtube. Just to bug them.
By Tez Brooks
Tez Brooks is a freelance writer and father of four. He lives in Melbourne with his family.