The Importance of Holiday Traditions


The holiday season is upon us. For some, the holidays trigger anxiety and stress. For me, Thanksgiving and Christmas are reminders of family -- the smells of the kitchen,the organized chaos of many cooks, and the conversation of aunts, uncles and grandparents. The holidays are when tradition is passed down, when the past meets the present to inform the future. In my family, old folks' music plays first (juke joint blues and jazz), followed by the sounds of Motown and the funk of the 1970s. Young ones learn to dance the Madison Time, The Roach, and Foot Stompin'. By the end of the night, we eventually make our way to today's genre of soul, R&B, hip hop, and top 40. Old gray hairs shake and shimmy to Cupid Shuffle, the Wobble dance, the Dougie, and Soulja Boy. That is what the holidays mean to me - tradition passed down through the communion of food and music. The old reminding the young of where they came from and the young teaching the old oday's technology.

After the death of my Dad in 2004 and my granny in 2005, the desire to honor those memories made me start traditions with my nieces and nephews. Once they entered high school, an urgency overcame me realizing time was short. In less than four years, they would be off in the world. The foundation had to be laid. The roots had to go deep to make sure that throughout their life's journey they had a compass that lead them home and reminded them that they were unconditionally loved. Everyone was growing up too fast. How could I make sure my memories and traditions became as dear to them as they were for me?

Aesop said, "Ingratitude is a crime...[and] be not forgetful of benefits." Nowadays, people have short term memory. How quickly we forget the person that helped us or how bad things used to be?! Common courtesy and etiquette seems out of fashion such that when I hear a "Thank You" or "Good Morning," I am shocked. I did not want my nieces and nephews to fall victim to thinking our traditions were rote without meaning. In law school, I learned that more important than the rule was understanding the reasoning behind the rule to apply it properly. Likewise, for our children and heirs, it is important that they understand the reason behind our traditions and the sacrifices others made for their current enjoyment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

As a child, I spent free time in Granny's kitchen or being my Dad's carpenter helper. The middle child in me needed the special one-on-one time, but at the same time I had a chance to see a side of my Dad and Granny outside the regular family dynamic. I was amazed by their fears, vulnerability, and flaws in character. The kid in me deified my Dad and glorified my Granny. My one-on-one time made me see their humanity and love them in spite of it. One-on-one with Granny was the rare time she would share stories of her painful childhood as an orphan. My Dad would talk to me not as a daughter, but as a son and heir. For an ambitious girl of color growing up on the far south side of Chicago, he reminded me that I would have an uphill journey but that was never to deter me from pursuing my dreams. These stories are the makings of me and sustain me even now as I chase my dreams in NYC. They are the stories that I need to tell my nieces and nephews, that need to survive my generation into the future.

As my mom and sisters gather in the kitchen to prepare Thanksgiving's meal, the passing down of stories and recipes to my nieces and nephews is the passing of the baton of oral historian and memory keeper. Each niece and nephew is given ownership of a dish and perfecting it. Mom acts as official taste tester to confirm mastery of the dish. As we reminisce about Dad and Granny, mom asks them about "The Google" and what LOL means. She in turns shows them how to properly "shake a tail feather."

I will not be home for Thanksgiving, so I have to recreate my family table with new friends, inviting them to eat my family recipes and listen to music that made my Granny's hips sway. I will call my mom and sisters to make sure I am properly preparing dishes they would normally make. Last year, I called my sister to ask about making my first sweet potato pie. I was shocked and delighted when she passed the phone to my niece, who she said perfected the recipe and now makes the pies.

Sometimes, my nieces and nephews think that my mom is being overbearing when she bugs them throughout the year, especially during holidays. I remind them that they should appreciate her as the song says in The Living Years. What they call bugging is her veiled concern that they will not take advantage of the opportunities she was not afforded. After they participated in preparing their first Thanksgiving dishes, I did not have to remind them to be grateful and kiss the cook because they now have an understanding and appreciation for the hard work that goes into making a delicious meal. Celebrate tradition not for ritual sake, but to honor memories of those that we have lost and to create a family legacy.