A small group of our friends that does a regular dinner and book club had been reading Strings Attached, and our presenter wanted to give us a little taste of "the mother country" since the subject of the book was Ukrainian. I had no idea there would be a demand for authentic Russian food in our very "white bread" area, but our host found a little Russian deli not too far away. We feasted on borscht, meat dumplings, a creamy potato/vegetable salad, Ukrainian bread, and cabbage rolls with meat and sour cream filling. I felt like I was eating a dinner of Russian comfort food even though many were delightful new flavors to me.
Why do we crave tradition--the familiar tastes, customs, music, culture, dress? When I moved away from my home state there were a few familiar things I constantly craved: Nielsen's custard, eclairs from Dick's bakery, pizza from Robintino's. I ached to recall the gorgeous rainbow of clouds as the setting sun reflected off the Great Salt Lake and then darkly dipped behind Antelope Island. I missed the familiar roads and views. Although these weren't necessarily traditions, they were customs and familiarities that I felt were a part of me.
Christmas is the time of year we seem to pull out all the traditions along with our boxes of stuff. One little treasure passed down to my family was a cd set of a radio play from 1937, "The Cinnamon Bear", that was a favorite of my mother-in-law as a child. She gave it to us when my kids were small, and every year after Thanksgiving we'd pull it out and listen to the cute and goofy stories of Jimmy and Judy bungling their efforts to find their Christmas tree's silver star in a magical fantasy land. We don't listen to it every year, but the little references have become part of our family's vocabulary, like a joke we all get while saying hardly anything.
I think women often seem to be the keeper of the hearth with passing down traditions. Growing up, our Christmas had a very reliable pattern. Christmas Eve was the dinner for baby Jesus, complete with an angel food "birthday" cake, a nice Thanksgiving-type meal, and a full day of grumbling kids having to polish the silver flatware and dishes--and then wash and wrap them back in tissue and plastic before bedtime. This is a tradition I've felt impressed to continue, even though often my husband and I are the only ones eating the angel food cake. And I won't make my kids polish the silver all day!
Christmas morning was a carefully choreographed event that I didn't appreciate for some years. While I didn't believe in Santa-the-big-red-guy, I also certainly didn't realize everything my parents were doing behind the scenes to pull off The Big Event. My mom would apparently stay up most of the night creating the perfect scene. It was one part interior design, two parts Las Vegas excess, one part controlled chaos.
We each had our own chair that was draped with gifts and a stocking. The room was created with the care of a lovely Christmas store window display. Even if we didn't really need something--even if she had to get stuff from a garage sale to fill in the cracks--what mattered was the perfect presentation that would elicit just the right "oohs" and "ahs" from us as we entered the living room that was softly illuminated by the tiny multi-color lights on the tree.
Thanks to her health-food kick at the time, we did not get to eat cold cereals of sugary goodness and crunchy little marshmallows until Christmas. But each year, we counted on finding in our stockings the little Kellogg's boxes of wonder that were treasured and traded and eaten with glee later on.
How do we decide what we pass down? Why is it important? Why does it matter if I give my children little boxes of cereal in their stockings each year? (And yes, I do!) How does that become part of our identity? Do I lose a link between generations if I don't pass down great-grandpa's this or that?
Over time, traditions change. Something my parents passed down may stop at me. (The window-dressed living room, for one.) But every year we put up the stockings, put each kids' collections of ornaments on the fake tree, eat the angel food cake on Christmas Eve. We keep enacting these rituals because these common experiences tie us together. And that is what we have--and who we are--in the end.