There were five of us- three wide-eyed girls and two moms- sisters-in-law bound by heart – waiting with bated breath. We were crowded together in the kitchen while the men- my dad, uncle, and older cousin, caught up over apple cider, crackers, and cheese in the living room. My fully Italian Aunt, her shiny black curls pulled back neatly, her apron tied and smoothed primly, was about to unmold the layered Thanksgiving jello.
I don’t remember the first year. No, it wasn’t until perhaps the third year that we all recognized the tradition that had grown quietly and steadily, year after year, until it was large enough that we took notice.
Thanksgiving was split between our two family homes- alternating each year. But whether it was our house or theirs, there were things that were the same. Each year, the menu was robust and delicious, the fanciest dishes graced the table and we wore fancy clothes for the occasion (I remember because it was one of maybe three times each year that I was required to wear tights). The house was always cleaned top to bottom with a diligence and fervor not seen at other times of the year, and of course we all pretended that it pretty much stayed that way. There were candles and appetizers, cheerful discussions and cousin-reunions, anticipation and merrymaking.
To my child eyes, it was perfection.
But then, the jello.
Because everything took such care,such planning, and because my aunt and my mom were so skilled at making this beautiful meal, it became such a delight to watch this one piece of the day- the unmolding of the layered jello- slide out of the form and land on the lettuce-laced platter, always failing in one way or another.
Maybe one layer wouldn’t set. Or maybe one side of the domed top would cling stubbornly to the mold, unwilling to let go until pried away unceremoniously by a spatula. Or maybe they would try to set the jello in the warm water just a bit longer, to make sure it would release properly, only to see the top layer melt.
Maybe the first year, it was frustrating. Planning and working and waiting, all for this one moment that couldn’t be hurried or rushed or completed out of sight and hid away as if it never happened. But by now, we all anticipated the event. Laughter or awe -we knew it would be one or the other. To succeed in a perfect layered jello salad would bring gasps of wonder- we had seen so many fail! And, of course, we could all tell the gory details of the failure – here’s what happened this time!
It had become, for us, a tradition. Not the fancy kind, but the quiet, unplanned, anticipated kind, the kind of magic you can’t purchase at a store or pull up on pinterest one year. It was the way it was – it held the magic it held- because it was ours- it had a history, and roots, and connected us to last year and the year before that; to each other and to family.
Of course, this is a silly example. A jello salad isn’t profound or deep or life-changing.
Really, it was one light-hearted melody nestled in the great symphony of the day- one we all knew by heart, passed down through the years and played again and again. Bright shiny morning with crisp fall air, hugs and family, stories and questions, turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes with the tiny marshmallows, candles, laughter, pie, driving home in the dark, leftovers reheated and enjoyed all quiet weekend long, always, always.
As I get older, and the rush and pressure of the holiday season hunts me down earlier and earlier, I am struck when I think of what made this season truly special to me growing up. I know my mom and my Aunt probably tried new things. Surely they did. But I don’t remember the novel, the new. I remember what happened again and again. I remember feeling comforted in knowing the menu, the routine, the plan of the day. I remember a feeling of the season more than the season itself.
And it strikes me that in this frenzied world where we can have anything we want- anything whatsoever – there is this quiet thing that cannot be bought: tradition.
Tradition never goes on sale for Black Friday or gets put out before Thanksgiving. Traditions are unique to each family but also connect us to each other.
And here’s the more interesting part- we hold the keys to the magic of tradition.
“Because children have abounding vitality, they are in spirit fierce and free, they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say “Do it again”, and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.” -GK Chesterton
Maybe we make the holidays too hard. Tradition doesn’t have to be complicated to be meaningful and wonderful. Think back to the most meaningful traditions of your childhood. Where do your best memories lie? More than likely, they are tucked within a few special, repeated traditions. The puzzle pulled out each year, the movies watched again and again. This certain cookie, that certain playlist. Copy of annuals
And so it will be with our children.
We always think it’s something new, something different, something bigger that is needed to make this time special. And the anxiety of all that pressure – to find the right new thing, the right bigger thing- weighs down on us as we go through this season especially.
But, oh, my friend, we hold the keys to the magic. A child says “read it again,” both because they desire the repetition and also because they lack the ability to do it for themselves. In the same way, the traditions that we repeat, that connect us to the deeper meanings, that create environments which comfort, rejuvenate, and call us to worship, are ours to build.
This magic is not complicated or expensive. The condition of your heart, the melody of your home; the song we play again and again, that they are able to learn by heart, that is what they learn and love. The quiet, the expected, the ritual, the simple traditions bring the comfort and joy.
Making Traditions More Reasonable – A gift for you
There is so much going on in our daily lives that the idea of adding “more” to any season seems like too much. And yet, the very nature of this season- one of celebration- feels anything but simple. After all, a symphony is a complicated work of art.
But it’s not the intricacy of the season, nor the abundance or fullness that concerns me. It’s the it’s never good enough feeling that we all get when this time of year rolls around. We lose our anchor, lose our way, and the purpose and meaning behind the season gets lost with our shopping cart on aisle two.
On top of that, though I have (mostly) the same recipes year after year for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Christmas cookie baking, each year I found myself hunting down the recipes scattered throughout my old recipe books, or maybe searching for them on the internet (was that the one we liked?) and trying to piece together my menu (was that all we usually make for Thanksgiving? I feel like I am missing something…)
Write it down.
I’ve started making myself something I call “Annuals,” which are simply notes on recurring events in my world. The beautiful thing about traditions is that they come over and over again. We can bring forward our notes and wisdom from the years before. What worked in my home last year? What was too much? What made it special?
These annual notes have become a small gift to my harried, anxious self as I prepare for each season. I have used these notes to start giving myself margin when it comes to these bigger celebrations. I write down things like what we ate on the week leading up to Thanksgiving and what kind of preparation work I did ahead of time. I’ll write down how big the turkey was and if we had enough leftovers, how many rolls I made, and if I missed having real candied yams or not.
As I aim to bring more peace and leisure into the season, spreading out the work, the planning process becomes more and more important. I really want to have the “feel” of the traditions in our home be more anticipation and celebration and less anxiety and hurry.
My original “annuals” are ugly, scrawled-on, scratched-out and re-written three times notes- and this is my humble attempt to try and synthesize my Thanksgiving Annuals into something beautiful and more usable, something I could share with you- so you can start keeping annuals in your own home.