My wife and I grew up in families that did not place much emphasis on tradition. Even around holidays, nothing sticks out to me, unless you count our tradition of always receiving about the same number of Christmas presents. But that was more a diplomatic desire to keep the peace between four children—since we kids kept a running tally, like a bunch of pajama-clad accountants.
And as for Bridgett’s folks, well, more than seven years have passed since their last caper, so it’s legally safe to report: They developed this peculiar pattern of heisting Christmas trees on the eve of that hallowed holiday.
About five years ago, we were fascinated to meet Milton Weaver, a friend of a friend who told us that each night at dinner his parents would ask him and his siblings to share their day by answering three questions: What made you laugh? What made you think? What did you share?
The simple act of eating at the same time was more than either of us could relate to, let alone the extra step of The Three Questions.
But the memory left a lasting impression. Even before we had children, we would leave family gatherings with a sense that something was missing, that we had simply shared in some chatter and food without any unifying activities.
So when our twins, Zachary and Maggie Rose, were born 15 months ago, we were determined to chart a new course for our family and develop our own rituals.
Through this process, we want to foster family connections, instill our values and create fun memories.
Let’s start a tradition But how? Do we simply mimic Milton’s family? Do we brainstorm our way into a ritual? Or do we stumble into one?
All of the above, according to Meg Cox, author of a pair of books devoted to tradition, including her recently released effort, The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Everyday.
Even more important than how people celebrate holidays and birthdays, says Cox, are ongoing traditions that provide children with comfort, security and identity. And here’s a vital point: You don’t need anybody’s permission to come up with a tradition. Likewise, you are free to discard a tradition any time.
Cox says her experience as a mother, along with the process of research and writing her books on tradition, have “totally changed the way I live my life.” A 1975 graduate of Northwestern University, Cox stayed in Chicago and worked at the The Wall Street Journal bureau here until 1983, when she moved to the newspaper’s New York office. She now lives in Princeton, N.J., with her husband and their son, Max, who turns 10 on Nov. 14. And she publishes Meg Cox’s Ritual Newsletter, a free monthly missive that goes to about 1,000 people. (Write to Familyrituals@aol.com to receive it.)
Her work keeps Cox on the cutting edge of family rituals and traditions. She evens knows the difference between the two. According to The Book of New Family Traditions, traditions are “beliefs and customs handed down from generation to generation,” whereas rituals are “an action repeated” or “an established procedure for a religious or other rite.” In short, she says, a ritual can be “pretty much anything families do together deliberately, as long as it’s juiced up with some flourish that lifts it above humdrum routine.”
All families, she says, have rituals. “The question is whether the rituals are healthy ones,” she wrote in a recent newsletter. “And whether they’re destined to leave children with happy memories, or some other kind.”
Cox urges families to take chances with traditions.
“Have a good time, play with them,” Cox says. “They’re not all permanent. Some of them are just going to be mistakes, and sometimes mistakes are the best part.”
She points to the story of a woman who had a weekly ritual of leaving snacks in hiding places for her children to discover. Only she forgot one week that she left cupcakes in the dryer. The sight of dry, yet newly soiled, clothes reminded her—and now the family has a memory that will remain a light-hearted topic for years to come, Cox says.
The traditional feeding And it’s no accident that stories such as the dried cupcakes and Milton’s dinner questions revolve around food.
Whether it’s peanut butter and Hershey’s Kiss cookies at Christmas, French toast on weekends or sub sandwiches on the Fourth of July, people rally around food.
“It’s really so ancient and so primal. When you eat with someone, you are deepening a bond,” Cox says. “It’s very profound.”
In reading more than 60 books on rituals and traditions, Cox has come across a smorgasbord of culinary rites.
Food-related traditions need not be limited to festive occasions. In fact, they can be downright pragmatic. Cox cites, for instance, the “Monday sundae” practice of parents who give their children an incentive to get ready for breakfast on that dreaded first day of the week: frozen yogurt, fresh fruit and sprinkles.
For the Kaufman family of Highland Park, the “grinder party” was a mistake that became a tradition. It started at an annual Fourth of July party more than 25 years ago. One of Michael Kaufman’s cousins had a formal dinner party that was “incredible,” but still left guests hungry. The solution: ordering grinders, or toasted subs with a variety of deli meat, veggies, cheeses and even tuna.
A professor at the Loyola University School of Law, Kaufman says family members now make the grinders themselves. The eating of the grinders must be followed by a trip to the movie theater, where the brood typically takes in what Kaufman describes as “an awful comedy.” Spearheaded by his parents, Bill and Becki Kaufman, as many as 30 relatives join in. Some years, friends come along. For many, it is their first close look at how the Kaufman clan operates. “It’s kind of a—I don’t want to say hazing—but it’s an indoctrination process,” he says.
Apple picking at Quig’s Orchard in Mundelein is another recurring event, and is always accompanied by cider doughnuts. Grasping to explain his family’s traditional food focus, Kaufman says, “It’s almost how much you can eat in a single day. It’s a sign of affection or something.”
Find a traditional balance But isn’t there a danger in this fixation on food even in the name of tradition, particularly sweets and other treats?
Yes, says Dr. Linda Van Horn, a research nutritionist who is professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. In light of “our incredible obesity epidemic,” it is important to strike a balance between providing treats and incorporating physical activity, such as a bike ride, into a tradition, says Van Horn.
“The message that sends to a kid is: ‘We’re busy and then we have a treat,’ ” says Van Horn, the mother of two sons, ages 14 and 18.
In Elmhurst, where Van Horn lives, the Turkey Trot road race on Thanksgiving blends that much-needed activity with the promise of a heavy caloric intake.
She also applauds an annual summer “triathlon” developed over the past two decades by the family of Wells Hutchison, a Chicago attorney. Held near their rented Sunset Beach, N.C., beach houses, the three events are not swimming, running and bicycling. Instead, the events are romping at a water slide park, playing a round of miniature golf and paying a visit to an ice cream shop for build-your-own sundaes.
Food may be central to many rituals but it is not the only tie that binds.
Some of Brian Walker’s most cherished memories have to do with makeshift competitions at Dairymen’s, a private club near Boulder Junction, Wis. His family rented a cabin there for 18 years.
“Most of our stuff was mental or physical stuff, really nothing foodwise,” says Walker, a 29-year-old Naperville financial planner. Competitions involved Walker, his two siblings, their single mother and their maternal grandparents.
Contests included whiffle ball, card games, points awarded to see who caught the first fish and the biggest fish, even nine holes of miniature golf on a homemade course that used sticks pounded into the ground and fluttering laundry rags as flags for each hole. Points were tracked on a poster board.
At stake was a trophy that Walker’s grandfather, Bob Brown, fashioned from the bottom of a flower pot and an old golf trophy. “Each year we would write out who won in black pen,” says Brian. “Every year we’d argue about who won last year.”
After Brown’s death in May 2002, the family continued the annual competition for two more summers, but did not return this past summer. A revival is inevitable, Walker says. The outing was a huge hit with family members who literally couldn’t wait to get to the cabin before starting the competition.
“It immediately started upon leaving the house,” says Brian’s mother, Martha, a sales manager for an educational toy company who lives in Clarendon Hills. “We’d all predict how long it would take to get up there.”
Matt Baron is a writer living in Oak Park with his wife and kids.
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