“Of the Ties that Bind Family, One is Second Only to Love: Tradition”


Here is an older one that I’d like to dust off here and present anew in honor of the holiday. Hope you enjoy. 

I am an adherent to certain family traditions when it comes to holidays. I am not, as my wife would sometimes contend, slavishly devoted to doing things the way they were done when I was growing up, even though all of those things were right and proper and the only appropriate way to do them. I don’t mean that, of course. Like W. Somerset Maugham, I see tradition as “a guide and not a jailer.” I’m flexible. (My wife is chortling incredulously, but really I am. Really.) I just happen to feel that many family traditions are worthwhile, and so worth keeping.

Christmas is generally suffused with tradition for most families, and growing up ours was no exception. In November we went to a farm and tagged, after much good-natured argument about the merits or lack thereof of particular choices, a tree – in early December we returned to cut it down. We hauled out the boxes of ornaments, and after they were hung my father, and some of my older siblings who had the patience, would painstakingly hang the lead icicles one by one on branches, to be removed after New Year’s in a reverse process and stored for the following year. Christmas Eve we attended the late service, sang carols, lit candles, and filed out of the sanctuary and into the stark northern New England night. We kids got to open one gift on Christmas Eve, primarily to save my parents’ sanity.

Christmas morning. Unload our stockings, eat a leisurely breakfast, and then, only then, open our gifts. Not in a mad rush, but one at a time, taking a few moments to admire each person’s present. For a kid, it was maddening. But it taught patience, and appreciation, and I’m sure loads of other admirable qualities. But it was maddening. Even so, my family does it the same way today – a custom worth keeping.

Christmas dinner always consisted of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and the same suite of sides. The day before, one of my jobs was to help polish the silver. I hated polishing the silver. But it taught patience, and appreciation, and – no, polishing the silver sucked. But Christmas dinner was amazing, and the silver sure was shiny.

A few days ago we received a package from my mother. In addition to the books for the kids and the advent calendars, there was a physical embodiment of tradition, a tangible manifestation of an intangible element of my family history and identity.

Hand-carved angel

Hand-carved angel

It was the late 1950’s and my newlywed parents stood in the snow and the bright light of a shop window, admiring a beautiful wooden nativity set. My father wanted desperately to get it for my mother – then he noted the price tag. (He was the young pastor of a small church, and his salary of $1,800 – a year – was already stretched to near snapping.)  “I’ll carve you one,” he promised her.

And then he did. That first year he did Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a cradle, adding angels and wise men and befitting farm creatures for the next few years until they had what he considered a complete set. It was a simple act of love (well, and impecunity), but it was something that became an important element in the bedrock of our family traditions, one of many foundations upon which was built, over time, the elaborate architecture of our shared existence.

Every year the nativity set was pulled from the attic, unwrapped and placed on the mantle above the fireplace, arranged around and on two pieces of driftwood salvaged from the beach. We kids were never discouraged from holding or rearranging the figures, as the glue that cements the donkey’s oft-broken ears attests. The figures darkened with age, acquiring a patina of woodsmoke and sweat and human oils, and the very act of putting them out bestowed a sense of continuity, comfort, and familial closeness – exactly what the best traditions do.

The first Christmas after his children got married, my father would carve them their own nativity scene, in both a continuation of old, and creation of new, family tradition. As the youngest child, I did not get a newly-carved nativity set – I was meant to one day inherit the original. This year, in a cardboard box shipped from Maine to Hungary, it arrived.

I sat on the living room sofa with my boys, allowing them to slowly extricate each piece from its bubble wrap and sharing the story of its origins. It was a straightforward passing on of a tradition from one generation to the next, and it made all of us feel good, and special, and part of a larger shared family history. But is was also a material link to the past – I could hold an angel in my hand, note the tiny chisel marks left by a hand no longer alive, and say to my son, “My father – your grandfather – made this.”

As families grow and scatter, traditions are molded and adapted, tossed aside and taken up. There may be an element of nostalgia involved, but nostalgia of the good sort, the sort that reminisces fondly about the past without disparaging the present. With the often hectic, mobile, and physically disconnected nature of the lives many of us lead, the unity, security, and sense of identity that traditions engender and encapsulate   make them not only worthwhile, but essential.

“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

15 thoughts on ““Of the Ties that Bind Family, One is Second Only to Love: Tradition”

  1. “Christmas morning. Unload our stockings, eat a leisurely breakfast, and then, only then, open our gifts. Not in a mad rush, but one at a time, taking a few moments to admire each person’s present. For a kid, it was maddening. But it taught patience, and appreciation, and I’m sure loads of other admirable qualities. But it was maddening. Even so, my family does it the same way today – a custom worth keeping.”

    We had to do this too (is it a pastor thing?). I’m not even sure that we were allowed to look at our stockings before breakfast, but maybe we were. My parents weren’t that harsh. I was shocked during my first Christmas with my ex-husband’s family: Everyone just opened their gifts at the same time. It made me appreciate the slow process of Christmas mornings past.

    Thanks for sharing this old post, Matt. Those nativity figurines are lovely, and I’m glad you have them to share with your boys. Merry Christmas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Well Machiavelli, I Want to Be Feared AND Loved | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  3. “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    I loved reading this particular post, it reminds me that my family is not crazy.


  4. Beautiful tradition and story! I was laughing as I read about the one present and appreciate it before the next one is opened. We do exactly the same thing, although that is something *I* started with my family because I couldn’t bear seeing children rip through piles of presents without stopping to say thank you or appreciating what they have – just greedily waiting for the next one.
    I have also every year since since I got married (the first time :-)) made Christmas cakes. For the last 10 years, I’ve been making spiced nuts and giving them away – now there is an outcry if I don’t make them!
    I do like the traditions. When we decorate the tree, we start with the youngest (our twins have to do paper rock scissors for this) and work all the way up to the oldest, then the oldest choses again and it works its way back down again. This involves everyone who is in the house at the time, especially visitors. Our tree and wreath are always packed up by the 12th day. This year, I made a Christmas pudding for the first time, which I guess means I keep adding to them!
    I hope you and your family had a wonderful Christmas.


    • I love the idea of taking turns putting an ornament on the tree – I think we’ll have to poach that one and incorporate it into our own traditions. Thanks!
      Frantic tearing open of gifts is definitely not allowed. Enthusiasm – yes. Freaking out – no. With 5 kids in my family it seemed to take ages to get through all the gifts, but we were in no real hurry, I guess.
      This year the ‘problem’ – if you can call it that – was that our 6 year-old got lots of things to build and assemble (Legos, etc.) and he wanted to complete each one before moving on to the next gift. Our 2 1/2 year-old just wanted the next thing, and the next. He had opened all of his presents while the older one was busy constructing, so all that was left was a stack of things for him and nothing for the ‘baby.’ Ah well.
      And thanks, we had a marvelous holiday. Sounds like you did as well. Hope to see lots more of your stuff in the new year!


  5. Pingback: Traditions | Father Says…

      • Beautiful story WFF, sounds like we do things a little differently on Christmas morning in Australia …usually it begins with an early arrival at our son’s house, he has our only Grandies (grandchildren), so all our family gather early. Champagne, rumballs, christmas cake, fruit mince pies are some of the goodies we tuck into first..all pressies (presents are gently piled under the tree and grandma (that would be me) gets to play santa..all of Santas presents are dispersed evenly to each Grandie first..hence to say all the other pressies from Uncles, Granparents are quite often not even unwrapped because Santa is a legend and delivered the biggest and best pressies of them all…within no time my son’s home looks like and sounds like a mad house and so the day goes..joy, sounds of all sorts coming from children, toys, adults, It truly is the best day of the year..glorious food, and it is Summer in Australia at Christmas, so the pool adds to the fun of the day..
        I love to read about how people in other parts of the world Celebrate Christmas day…cheers from Annie on the Gold Coast in Australia 🌞🌴🌊

        Liked by 1 person

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