I am on vacation this week on Sanibel Island, Florida, which is the perfect location to write about what’s been on my mind. Tradition.
I have been coming to this island with my family for 33 years. It holds such deep meaning for me. It has served as my getaway, as a place to be with my family and is a place that never changes and that I can always count on. I remember when I was a teenager I would always walk the beach with my Sony Walkman tape player, (if I have younger readers ask someone older what that means) listening to Edie Brickell & New Bohemians,
“I’m glad no one’s here just me by the sea
I’m glad no one’s here to mess it up for me
I’m glad no one’s here just me by the sea
But man, I wish I had a hand to hold.”
Even then I loved my solitude, but longed for connection too. My time on Sanibel Island continually offers me both.
I have always taken tradition for granted because it has always been there. My yearly trips to Sanibel, our holiday dinners, St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, Sunday meals as a family, and so forth. I didn’t know until I was much older that not everyone partook in traditions of his or her own. I began to wonder about how having this in my life has shaped me.
Why are traditions essential? They offer us comfort knowing that we are a part of something – that we are connected, whether to family, our society, or our culture. They are a constant and they are a part of our identity.
Christmas Eve was always my favorite day of the year. Many Italians celebrate with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We would all gather at my aunt’s house crammed into the living room and dining room (no one dared go near the kitchen). My aunt worried about it being too tight, but that was one of my favorite parts. There was nowhere for anyone to drift off to, so I got to observe everyone and not miss a thing. Being one of the youngest I would sometimes hide under the table to listen to the adult conversations.
One room was filled with the tree and gifts, the smells were always the same, and the same people were present except for the occasional additional guest or two any given year. I didn’t even eat fish back then but it didn’t matter; I still loved that the meal was a similar meal to what other Italians were eating all over the world. I enjoyed the desserts and there was always a table full. Even the seating stayed relatively the same, at least for the elders in the family. I, being one of the youngest, was of course at the kids’ table.
I would listen to the conversations and the celebration, and I can still conjure up the voices and the laughter. There were certain parts of the night you could count on, of course the food was at the center along with the holiday blessing offered by my uncle, but there was also a point in the night where all of the kids were sent upstairs to hide in the bathroom to await Santa’s arrival. It is hysterical thinking of it now; it was similar to how many clowns can you fit into a tiny clown car? The bells would ring and we would all tumble out of the bathroom and run downstairs to open the gifts we all bought each other. I don’t think anyone ever questioned what Santa actually had to do with it, since they were the same gifts we all arrived with. I certainly never chose to question it because I never wanted the tradition to stop. There would be a point in the night where my cousin’s friends would arrive for after dinner drinks and everyone would yell out thier names when they walked in, the same as everyone yelling, “Norm” when he walked into Cheers bar on the television show. We would go home around 1 in the morning listening to Christmas carols on the radio and I would be sad to see another Christmas Eve go by.
As time passed and spouses and grandchildren increased we needed to split the holiday into two homes, but we still come together for dessert. My aunt, who was the matriarch of the family and the holiday, passed away on Christmas Eve a few years ago. It makes perfect sense really, since she would never miss the holiday with us, and that would have been the first Christmas Eve she couldn’t have made in person due to her failing health. We went on with Christmas Eve the night she passed because that is what she would have wanted and expected, and because even if it wasn’t spoken, we all felt her with us.
Christmas Eve is a bittersweet day now, but we continue our tradition because it is important. We learn about who we are in part based on where we have come from. We feel connected to each other, to our lineage and to something larger than ourselves. As parents, it is essential to continue and create new traditions for our children, to give them a sense of being a part of the greater whole and to give them something to depend on and take pride in. Traditions are a constant in this fast paced world, that bring people together for rare in person connections. They also provide the opportunity to impart values. Tradition, especially when done with intentionality and thoughtfulness, can be magical, will create lasting memories and will become a part of your life story. Traditions can be created for families or communities of any kind.
I was initially embarrassed sharing about my traditions. Perhaps I feared I would not be relatable to clients who were in pain, if I had this great family that instilled values and traditions. The thing is I still felt much of that same pain, but I just was never sure why. I began to wonder how dark things could have gotten if I didn’t have my family and our traditions providing a sense of safety and connection reminding me that I was a part of something larger. Perhaps offering my stories of tradition can be healing to help others understand what’s possible and what they can create and be a part of at any point in their lives. Although it feels vulnerable, I am committed to embracing, taking pride in and sharing my stories. Ceremony and tradition have always been a part of our history, and in this fast paced world with new technology being created every day, I feel it is critical to continue to create and share these ways of coming together.
Excellent essay, Jennifer. It evoked many great memories of my family’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day traditions.