Every year, millions of families awaken on Christmas morning to open gifts, share some laughs, and gather for an unforgettable meal with loved ones. Tables laden with delicious entrees and all-you-can-eat desserts are what many holiday memories are made of. Certain dishes, be it Mimi’s pumpkin pie or Aunt Sue’s homemade rolls, become standard fare that everyone expects to grace the table. Even where we gather tends to be set. Our family drives to my mother and dad’s house in Arkansas, bringing with us our own mouth-watering expectations.
One year, however, my mother let us all down. Badly.
That Christmas, I noticed a suspicious looking hunk of meat sitting in the turkey’s traditional place of honor in the center of our dining room table.
“Mom?” I called out hesitantly. “Where’s the turkey?”
“I decided to make a ham this year,” Mom said, as she placed dinner rolls onto a holiday platter.
Still scanning the buffet in hopes of finding the misplaced turkey I asked, “You made turkey and ham? That’s a lot of meat!”
“No, I mean I made ham instead of turkey,” she said, rolling her eyes as she thrust the roll-filled platter into my hands.
My brother Anthony chimed in from a nearby room. “What? What do you mean no turkey?” Suddenly, his hulking form entered the dining room with determined purpose.
“I didn’t think anyone would mind,” Mom said with a look of disbelief. “You all seemed to be tired of turkey, so I thought I’d do things different this year.”
“Mom, we ALWAYS have a turkey!” exclaimed Anthony. He looked worried. He even seemed to shrink in size.
“How will we make leftover turkey sandwiches tomorrow?”
“Make a ham sandwich instead,” Mom shot back.
I shook my head in disbelief as the sad reality of our untraditional Christmas dinner began to sink in.
In all our lives, Mom had never failed to produce a turkey dinner. Not once. Not even when she worked third-shift at the hospital. Yet, now we were expected to eat a ham. On Christmas Day. I don’t even like ham. For the rest of the day (and for many years after), my brother and I teased Mom for neglecting our traditional turkey dinner, and trust me, she’s never again pardoned another turkey.
Repeat it once, it’s tradition
Episodes like this are often how we discover unspoken family traditions. When we leave an activity out, failing to appreciate its importance, we discover just how much the missing element meant. I was reminded of this last Christmas season, much to my then 9-year-old daughter’s dismay.
We had moved back to our hometown in northeast Arkansas just months before the holidays. Still settling into a new job and routine, I knew I didn’t have time to make all of our usual Christmas goodies. One day, while drafting a mental list of what I believed I could accomplish and what I knew was impossible, I offhandedly told my daughter we wouldn’t be making the Christmas candies we’d made the two previous years.
“What? We ALWAYS make candies!” she exclaimed in a tone that sounded rather familiar. I could see the wheels turning as she envisioned the chocolate turtles, chocolate covered pretzels, and other sweets that would go unmade.
“We’ve only made them the last two years. I don’t think anyone will notice,” I explained, assuming she thought everyone would miss our candy.
“But Moooom,” she wailed, dragging out the syllable in a way that makes all moms cringe, “we ALWAYS make mint patties. They’re my favorite!”
In that moment, I realized why my mother had thought ham would be an acceptable substitute. Our family had never let her know (probably because we ourselves didn’t know) how important that turkey dinner was to us. For my daughter, mint patties were her turkey. It didn’t matter that we’d only started making them two years ago. In her young mind, it had become a tradition.
Don’t forget the little things
We tend to think of holiday traditions as big events: decorating the tree, going to Grandma’s house, opening gifts. However, family traditions are more often tied to the little things we overlook as habit. It takes changing those habits, due to moving to a new home or experiencing the loss of a loved one, for us to finally see such activities for what they really are — special traditions that create life-long memories of family togetherness.
So take a moment with your family this season to identify some of your favorite traditions. It may be drinking hot chocolate with your kids on Christmas Eve or going holiday shopping with your spouse. It may even be a task you dread, like making dozens of deviled eggs every year, only to bask in the praise received when family members say how good they really are. Then, make a special effort to let your loved ones know just how special those moments are to you.
That’s when little habits become cherished — and remembered — traditions.