Tuesday, January 1, 2013

the treasure of traditions

emily's first christmas

"for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." ~ matthew 6:21

funny that on this first day of a new year i am thinking of old things. but all week long, i've been itching to write a piece about the things from the past and the things we pass down --traditions.  something familiar.  something we repeat.  something we grow to expect.  even something we often take for granted.  do you have them in your home?

 january 1st.  and i think it is a perfect time to consider and even a better time to begin.

i remember the year, as a young mom, when i realized the importance of traditions for my children.  i'll be honest, it was a panicky sort of feeling.  like forgetting to turn off the oven before leaving for vacation or failing to pick up the toddler after a long day at preschool.  i had these four little kids and i wasn't sure what we were intentionally doing to create memories and pass down practices.  i had grown up with traditions -- especially around the holidays. they were the backbone of what we did as an extended family in our time together, back home in ohio.  every birthday celebration was sure to include grandma's graham cracker cake.  every christmas eve meant cousins and presents and a big dinner at her massive, dark mahogany table. (and let's be clear here, the adult table: mahogany. the kids table: card). it meant her sugar cookies rolled out from real dough.  it meant my uncle rog telling funny stories and the rest of us laughing until our sides hurt.  it meant the cousins hiding in rooms making mischief and the parents sitting around pretending they weren't in charge for awhile (by the way, i get that now).  it meant card games or gin rummy after dessert. it meant all piling into cold cars at the end of the evening and singing silent night at st. john's 11pm candlelight service.  it meant the same old same old, year after year after year.

and, of course, i took so much of it for granted.

i never had to think about it.  i grew up in the same house with the same grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles all nearby. and we all did the same thing for my entire childhood.  i am not sure my parents ever even thought about it.  i think we just did what we did...and the by product was, some pretty great traditions.  my brother, just last week, posted this on facebook:  "Kind of missing my grandparents on this Christmas Eve. Our family used to gather in their home to celebrate this special time and exchange our little gifts that we usually purchased at the school's Santa's Workshop. We ate well, laughed hard and sang loud with a good gin rummy card game to boot. Great times indeed! "  i'm 44, my brother about to turn 46, and we both miss my grandmother's christmas eve gathering. it was what we did. and i think that has to say something.  the repeat and recall of practices can be that powerful.

but back to the young mother i was years ago.  four small children and we lived in atlanta, far, far away from my grandmother's house or my parents house, for that matter.  far away from cleveland, ohio.  and one year at christmas, all of a sudden, it occurred to me:  i was in charge.  my mom and grandmother weren't there. i was now the holiday magic maker, the matriarchal-mother figure and i had to come up with something -- and quick!  these kids were growing up, like before my very eyes.  i'd blink and they'd add an inch.  a pound.  a year.  and i began to sweat, wondering, what ever will they remember?  too many episodes of "frosty the snowman" and some store bought cookies? NO!  i wanted something richer, deeper, more profound.  i wanted something clever and catchy and captivating to carry them into their adulthood.

in just a few weeks, emily will turn 17.  for her, that's a birthday. for me, it's a measuring stick signifiying 17 years of parenting.  and what's really scary about that number, is that though it might seem small for many of you reading this, for me it means 18 is right around the corner and very soon she will be out the door. i realize that parenting doesn't ever really end.  i realize that i will always be her mom.  i realize that traditions and customs can continue, but i also realize things change when kids leave.  when they don't wake up in your home every single morning for 365 days straight, everything shifts.  but let's not go there quite yet, okay?  (sob).  my point is, that we only have these kids at our kitchen counters for so long.  eventually, they will be wiping their own countertops (we hope) and starting their own families (in due time). and when that time does come (like in a 100 years) i want my kids to have something to pass down.  i want to hear them say, "this was the way we did it when i was growing up."  and i want it to be good. really good.

i am certain my kids will remember the chaos and confusion of our home.  none of us can pretend it doesn't exist.  we wear it like an ugly christmas sweater some days. garish and loud and often obnoxious.  it is part of what growing up in a large family feels like.  but i want them to have some other things to hold on to as well. when we left ohio in 1998 and headed south for atlanta, i never really imagined us living apart from our extended family forever, but it's been almost 15 years since we lived in the same city as a family member.  rick and i were young with two babies, it felt more like we were still playing pretend,  playing house,  playing parents.  but we moved away from family and siblings and cousins and customs and traditions.  we were in a new land.  we didn't know a soul, and it quickly became clear, we'd have to make up our own things as we went.  no mother or mother-in-law or grandmother was going to call and tell me to come on over for sunday pot roast and potatoes.  no, if we were going to give our kids roots and rememberances, we were going to have to do it on our own.  thus, the panicky feeling.

it took a couple more babies for me to really get into the mcnatt memory making groove, however.  but by the time connor was born, i was more certain than ever, it was time to make things stick. being the strange woman i am, i started to come up with long lists and detailed plans on how we were going to become authentic, traditional, legacy leaving folk.  holidays are always a good place to begin and so we started there -- trying ideas out, one after another.   putting them on like a pair of new shoes to see if they fit.  some we kept and some we quickly abandoned. we were a work in progress...still are.

what i realized in this process of conjuring up customs, though, was that we actually had some pretty good stuff already in place.  i began to see kids remember and to notice things repeat.  yes, we had to be intentional, but some of it happened naturally as well.  it's been almost a decade since connor was born and i look back this holiday season and am amazed at how many traditions are a part of our family as we head into 2013.

if you are one of those young moms reading this today, maybe i can encourage you in this new year to consider the treasured traditions you are teaching. it's a topic worth thinking about.  so often we are so caught up in the fires at hand that we forget the big vision of what we want to burn deeply into the hearts of our offspring.  i get that.  i'm a woman who can hardly plan anything more than a day or two in advance. i understand why it's hard to look far ahead and think larger than the crumbs on the counter. if you're anything like me, i have a few suggestions for you when it comes to beginning something new with your homes:

1.   it's never too late to start!  don't ever let that stop you from creating something good. so often, we use that excuse.  i have learned, even with teens, they are more open to something new than we think.  just do it.  start it.  begin.

2. it's okay to miss a year.  it happens.  if you forget or are sick or decide to go to hawaii,  you can always pick back up the next year. that's life.  don't let a hiatus or a hiccup change the course of your creativity.

3. write yourself a note if you need.  (i do that -- all the time).  "next year remember to _______"  it's okay if you need a cheat sheet.  write down your ideas.  and can i add, pinterest is the GREATEST!  talk about creative ideas! if you don't have an account, you just don't understand what you are missing.

so, to give this post a little bit of practicality, let me tell you about a few of the things we do.  we have some fun birthday traditions, but i'll focus on the christmas and new year's holiday.  please keep in mind.  there is nothing earth shattering here.  some of you do these things already.  or you do them bigger and better. i have no doubt. i am not at all attempting to impress you with my creativity,  i am only trying to encourage you to DO SOMETHING with yours!

a few of our holiday traditions...

1. every christmas eve, the whole family gets new pajamas. there was a day when i would spend great amounts of time making them all match, then just compliment... and now, i don't really care,  just something that fits!  BUT I HAVE TO TELL YOU...this is a HUGE deal to my kids. they begin talking about it days before december 24th.  it means a lot.  i am not 100% sure why.  they have drawers full of sleepwear (most of which they don't wear, choosing, instead, sweatpants and t-shirts) BUT they love their christmas eve pajamas.  and do you really want to know why? because it's a TRADITION!  holla!

2.  also on christmas eve, they get a special ornament signifying some kind of event, milestone or memory from that year.  sometimes i make them, most of the time i buy them. the truth is, I HAVE A LOT OF FUN thinking about what each one should be.  it is the ONLY item for which i shop ahead.  it is the only thing i always have in the back of my mind throughout the year - their annual ornament. my plan is that by the time each child leaves home and has their own tree, they'll have 20+ years of ornaments to take with them.  as you can imagine with five kids (plus rick gets one each year, too) we have an awful lot of ornaments to hang each christmas -- thus the two trees!  every year, i love the conversation surrounding the ornaments as we decorate.  "oh, i remember this one!  i got this the year i..."

3.  one of my favorite christmas eve traditions is our gingerbread house competition.  i suppose i like it because it keeps the kids really well occupied on a day when there is still lots to do.  they are focused and creative for almost an hour straight.  i also love seeing what they come up with each year and how they improve.  we used to make it a big competition with judging and awards, but had to put an end to the competitive edge when it got ugly one year.  no one wants hurt feelings and tears on christmas eve.  now we just set aside an hour or more in the afternoon...put on some christmas carols...set out some snacks and assemble the houses.  we have learned important things like cans of beans or soup make great supports while waiting for the roof to hold! all of my kids could tell you that!

4.  another every-year-event is the baking of a "happy birthday Jesus" cake.  we started that tradition when connor was a little guy and acted confused about the connection of Jesus' birthday and christmas.  apparently he had somehow missed that part of the story. i was, of course, horrified and set about making sure we didn't miss the whole birthday thing ever again!  we bake the cake on christmas eve and christmas day we sing happy birthday to Jesus and eat it for dessert.  connor, i'd like you to know, is now fully informed on how christmas and the birth of Jesus fit together. whew!

and it's not just the birthday cake, but other things we cook and bake are traditional. this year my oldest, emily, hounded me about when we'd make the peppermint bark and sugar cookies and puppy chow.  she also knew, without a doubt, that her grammie mcnatt, though a thousand miles away, would still manage to send a tin of buckeyes.  (chocolate balls with peanut butter centers). it is just so good to know you can count on something to be the same.   maybe that's what traditions really are. maybe it's not just about the good ideas, but it's about having something to count on, something we recognize and remember.  that's the true beauty of a good tradition.

5.  one last idea we came up with years ago is our new year's day candlelight spaghetti dinner.  i know there are traditional foods served on this holiday:  ham and black eyed peas or corn beef and cabbage...that kind of thing.  but my kids have always been big lovers of spaghetti.  yep, spaghetti.  and we love rick's mom's recipe, so years ago, we started making a little event out of our new year's day dinner with a candlelight spaghetti dinner.  it's a big deal at my house.  you can't cheat -- you have to use candles.  no matter what the ages of your children,  having an entire dinner by candlelight, spaghetti or sirloin, makes it REALLY special.  we sit in the dining room, just like on christmas, and we use the good china and the real silver and i pour their sparkling grape juice in real, glass stemware and we celebrate our new year.  that's what we do.  tonight, at this year's celebration, we've invited a couple of families over to join with us. and, just like in years past, we will eat by candlelight and we will serve spaghetti.  nothing fancy in that food, but something special in that same old...

okay, so there are just a few things.  a few thoughts and ideas.  we have some other, more spiritual things, i suppose, as well:  the lighting of the advent wreath, the reading of the christmas story, the tradition of serving someone else in need. in past posts, i've written about those parts of our christmas, too.  all of it is important: the pajamas, the candles, the card games and the birthday cake.  not because any one of those things holds the entire essence of christmas, but all of them together work to create the rare treasure of tradition.

wishing all of you, God's blessing and perfect peace in this happy new year!

"The merry family gatherings-- 
The old, the very young; 
The strange, lovely way they 
Harmonize in carols sung. 
For Christmas is tradition time-- 
Traditions that recall 
The precious memories down the years, 
The sameness of them all." 
-- Helen Lowrie Marshall 


Simply LKJ said...

Jody, Wishing the entire McNatt clan a very Happy New Year. Minnie is adorable. Traditions are a big deal here too, and with both out of the nest now it has been fun having them home and seeing what they remember, and share with new loved ones.

John Putnam said...

Thank you for posting this Jody. It makes my heart swell with anticipation for the family traditions Lindsay and I will begin with our future children. I hope 2013 is fantastic for your family and I look forward to reading along with your blog!

Aus said...

I've been a slacker this Holiday season - much about my home to attend to - and not all of it pretty - but because it is family - all of it good.

Love traditions - we have several too - and I love them...

I hope that 2013 holds nothing but great joy for you guys!

And - just so it's said - glad to "know" you!

hugs - aus and co.

elisa said...

Thanks for the reminder. Last Christmas we were about to move and I was packing up instead of really celebrating. And then this year, in our new house- well it just doesn't feel like home yet. So we left and went "home". I really need to get on board. My oldest (of 4) is 15 so I too know how fast it goes....

DiJo said...

You inspire me Jody McNatt!!!!!!! Love all of your family traditions!!!! So.... what are we doing for Chinese New Year?

Happy New Year!

Life with Kaishon said...

Oh! I just love your traditions. All so very special. The Birthday cake to Jesus looks wonderful. I feel your pain at your baby leaving soon. How scary that time will be. My baby is turning 13 in a few days and I can't tell you how much sadness this is creating for me.

I wish you a wonderful new year. May love and joy be ever present in your home.