Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Taking a child's perspective on traditions

Welcome to the December Carnival of Natural Parenting: Let's Talk Traditions

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama.

Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

Taking a child's perspective on traditions

Sam once had a mentor in a boss of his. This boss liked to ask an illustrative question, which I will now steal for my own use: "Think of a bad memory from your childhood. Now think of a good memory."

For this to work properly, you have to actually complete the exercise. Stop reading, and think of your two memories.

I should totally make this like an email forward and put a bunch of spaces that you have to scroll down past. But I won't.

I'll just put this cute picture instead.

All right, anyhow. What's interesting is hearing the responses when you ask this question in a group. There are exceptions, but almost always people's bad memories are specific moments: being punished for some infraction, learning a piece of bad news, an embarrassing moment.

In contrast, the good memories are almost always traditions. They repeated, usually often. It might be something like having your father read you a book every night before bedtime (my answer), or going to vacation in a cottage on the Maine seashore every other year (Sam's). Only rarely do people answer with some big, one-time event like, the year we went to Disneyland or the time I won that contest. Almost always, the good memories that stick out to us as most meaningful from our childhood are repetitious, and often not even that big a deal.

When you think about it, it makes sense. For instance, if you're 30 years old, say, and you've done something for the past three years, you can probably still take it or leave it. It's only 1/10 of your life, after all. But if you're 6 years old, it's something you've done half your life. For your parents to cut it out can be bewildering and cause some protest.

I kept this in mind as I became a parent, although I haven't exactly been perfect about following my own advice. Not by a long shot! Sam and I have a habit of starting and discarding traditions left and right. Unlike some couples, we didn't have a problem merging our traditions — because we were so lackadaisical about them. Sam comes from a family where tradition is paramount. If a dish is served once for a particular holiday, it must be served at every holiday from then on — even if no one likes it! Partly because of Sam's reaction against such ritualistic steadfastness and partly due to our own lack of sentimentality regarding special days, Sam and I have never been particular about keeping customs going for more than a couple years in a row.

We've suffered no repercussions so far with just a three-year-old to witness. But I know as Mikko gets older, he'll find it more meaningful if we're intentional about the things we do every day, every season, and every year. This is not to say we're locked into every tradition we start, just that I think it's worth being mindful of the ones we really like and putting in a good effort to keep them going.

Here are a few ideas we've had:

  • 12 Days of Christmas & Advent

    I used to hear that old song and wonder what the Twelve Days of Christmas were (and why anyone would give a true love a bunch of birds and some random people). I guess I figured they started twelve days before Christmas and ended Christmas Day. But, no, they start on Christmas Day and end January 5, which is called Twelfth Night, and is followed by the Feast of the Epiphany, which, among other things, commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child.

    Coming from a Protestant background where feast days were not emphasized, this was fascinating to Sam and me, and we loved the idea of celebrating Advent and Christmastide as they were originally intended — or nearly so, at any rate. Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, was meant to be a time of preparation, much like Lent before Easter. So, then, the actual celebration of Christmas didn't start until Christmas Eve, when Jesus was born.

    If I've just bored you out of your seat, I'll get to the presents. One year, Sam and I decided not to be Scrooge-ish about Advent — we wouldn't fast and refuse to attend Christmas parties or anything. But what we would do was celebrate the full Twelve Days of Christmas. So, instead of opening all our Christmas gifts on Christmas Day, we opened one each. And then another the next day, and so on. We had some gifts from our parents, and some that we gave each other to fill out the numbers we needed. We really annoyed our parents doing this, because we had to keep shushing them when they'd ask us on the phone if we'd liked something they'd given us. "We haven't opened that one yet!" we'd protest, and we could almost hear them shaking their heads.

    So, yes, we did that "tradition" only the one year because, as I've established, we're like that. But we both liked the spirit of it. We both felt Advent tended to be too hurried, too rushed over, and then Christmas would come, and there would be too much to eat, too much to open, and then: December 26 dawned and along with it a feeling of disappointment. It was all over, so fast.

    This year we had the brilliant idea to take our Twelve Days of Christmas spirit and translate them to fit the North American/Protestant ethos. Instead of letting Advent pass us by unnoticed, we're taking the time to truly celebrate Christmas as much as we can this month. We're going through far too many Advent calendars; we're seeking out celebrations that are meaningful to us, such as music concerts and Christmas services; and we've decided to parcel some gifts out to Mikko in advance so we're not prodding him to open everything in one blow. Sam went to the Goodwill outlet — think about this for a moment, because seriously, it's an outlet for Goodwill. You buy everything by the pound, and you get toys for a song. So Sam bought way too many goodies from there and from eBay, and he's wrapped them up in plain reused packing paper (so green! so thrifty! so lazy!) and is rationing them out to Mikko at a leisurely pace. We also had a couple presents for ourselves that we were considering putting by till Christmas morning — but then we said, Nah, and started enjoying them now. I'm not sure if we'll do this in particular every year, but I like the idea — that celebrating can happen now, not on some magical mythical day that will never live up to all your expectations. Might as well enjoy the full season instead of just one wrapping-paper-choked binge.

  • St. Nicholas' Day

    This year Mikko's language-immersion preschool reminded us to celebrate Nikolaustag on December 6, when German children clean their boots and place them outside their doors for St. Nicholas to visit in the night and leave treats – well, assuming they were good! I have many good memories of sleeping over at my best German friend's house in Berlin for Nikolaustag (and she came to our family to celebrate U.S. Thanksgiving!), and I realized that I want Mikko to be exposed not only to the German language but also the culture that goes along with it.

    He's now learning Spanish at his preschool as well, and he's having a blast with it. It makes me think of what other traditions we might be able to add to our plate: Cinco de Mayo or Día de los Muertos.

    And it's made me think about my own cultural heritage and what might be worth passing along. I didn't grow up having much contact with or celebration of my Scandinavian and Celtic roots — and I felt the lack. I think for my mother, who grew up in a strongly Finnish neighborhood with a lot of recent immigrants, there was no need to be intentional about celebrating her Swedish and Finnish heritage, because it was all around her. And for my dad, his mixed European heritage was too far in the past for his family to bother teasing out all the threads. But for me, growing up far away from extended family as a military child, I felt a little groundless and jealous of families who displayed a coat of arms or had a specific ethnic treat that was brought out at every holiday. It might be time for Sam and me to look into our family tree and see what traditions we can resurrect from our ancestors' cultures.

  • Name Day

    One example of this is the idea of a Name Day, which is a big deal in Swedish households, among others. The root of the celebration is saints' feast days, but my celebration of it started in junior high when my best friend and I found a book talking about the custom as practiced in Sweden. Then I found a calendar my mom had and searched out my name on it. My friend's name was not, alas, Swedish, so we decided to share. Far from tying ourselves to the traditional customs of cake and coffee, we made up our own little celebration. It came to be more meaningful to our relationship as good friends than our birthdays and Christmas. We bought each other cheap but meaningful little gifts and crafted handmade ones. We always had a sleepover and stayed up late eating way too much sugar. It was a symbol of our friendship, and we continued to wish each other Happy Name Day across the miles for years after we moved away from each other.

    I was thinking it might be fun to scour various name calendars until I find a day for everyone in my family — and then go to town showering the named one with attention that day. It could be our own special family treat, with no one else invited.

  • Bedtime cuddliness

    As I mentioned in the foreword (because this is now book length, yes?), one of my favorite rituals of my childhood was reading books with my dad before bed every night. For years, he read to me. Then, gradually, I took over some of the reading himself. I still have fond memories of getting to a difficult word and saying, "What's this word, Dad? Dad?" and being answered with a faint snore. Apparently I have a very lulling voice! We worked our way through all the Little House books and many other cherished classics. I would love it and collapse in giggles when I could cajole my dad into doing the reading in funny voices — a deep booming voice for Ma and a high, squeaky one for Pa.

    I've tried to remember to read to Mikko every night before bed, but I have to admit sometimes the hubbub of getting to bed overrides my memory. I also try to sing him a lullaby as he nurses to sleep, but sometimes I get distracted by my glowing laptop screen. I want to recommit to these very simple bedtime routines, because I know how much the little things can mean.

  • $5-budget shopping

    Sam and I have never been big on buying gifts for each other. (Seriously, do we sound like the least sentimental people in the world? Maybe we are.) An example from early in our dating relationship might help illustrate. Sam told his friend he'd finally asked me out, and his friend said, "You have to remember that date! Because she will, and she'll expect something special from you." Sam was surprised but figured his friend knew what he was talking about. So, a month later on the same date, Sam presents me with flowers and a stuffed animal, and I say, "Aw, how sweet. What's the occasion?" And that's when Sam knew he had found a soulmate.

    When we were first married, though, we thought it would be fun to have a lot of things to open for Christmas, just like when we were kids — only, we didn't have the pocketbooks our parents had. So we decided to make our poverty fun. We gave each other a budget of $5 or $10 or $20 (it varied from year to year) and went to a particular store. Sometimes it was a big box store, like Meijer or Target. Sometimes it was a thrift store. Then we separated and found as many items as we could for each other within our meager price point. We took care not to run into each other while shopping or at the registers, and then we wrapped our gifts in private at home. It was always a laugh to see what gems we'd uncovered — reindeer poop soap and a Spongebob magic pen book come to mind.

    We stopped playing this game when we decided we'd had enough with novelty gifts, but I could see it being well adapted to children when they're a little older. We could give each family member the decided-upon amount in cash and pick one store to shop at. We could make it so we buy gifts for every family member, or divide us all up like a Secret Santa, where we draw slips and have just one person to shop for. Besides being a good lesson in addition and multiplying sales tax, it would be a lighthearted way to instill an idea of generosity and the fact that even inexpensive presents can be well appreciated.

  • Family worship

    I don't, of course, mean worshiping our family, ha ha. We're in a lot of transition right now in terms of where we're going to settle, spiritually and religiously speaking. We're between church homes and not sure we'll ever have one again. Groups we formed have split up. I've been struggling with my own doubts and questions and am not sure what I want anymore or where I fit in to our religious traditions.

    Despite this, probably our strongest link throughout Mikko's life has been a continuing commitment to exploring our faith and pursuing community with others (even when they reject us, which has happened a lot lately and been very hard). We've begun (and lost) a house church that included children. We have led many small groups in which Mikko has been welcomed (because, you know, we were the leaders and we said so). Even as we're now floundering and unsure, I know some thread of meeting together with other Christians will continue in our lives, and we're committed to making Mikko a part of that.

    In addition, we keep thinking about, trying, and forgetting to institute some sort of worship night as a family — maybe weekly, maybe monthly, maybe even every night (but that's not likely; let's be honest). We would sing a couple songs family members chose, pray together, and maybe read some Scripture or a passage from another book that was meaningful to us. I'm curious to hear whether anyone else has a similar setup for their family and how it's worked for you.

  • Travel to a special place

    As I said, too, one of Sam's favorite memories growing up was of visiting the coast of Maine, where his great-aunt lived, every other summer. Unlike the alternate summers, where they would have a chaotic visit with family in California, the Maine trips were peaceful and constant.

    I don't know where our travel destination might be that's special to our family (his great-aunt has passed on and her land sold, so Maine is out), but I like the idea of having somewhere peaceful that's meaningful to us. Maybe we'll go camping on Vashon Island again, or maybe it will be farther afield.

  • Working together

    The other day, Sam was putting labels on DVDs for our home business, and Mikko wanted to help. Sam showed him where to place the labels, and we both watched in inappropriate amazement as, after a few false starts, Mikko totally did it right every time.

    Granted, he can't read yet, so it was still slower than having Sam do it on his own, but we do look forward to including our children in our family business, as far as it's practical and they want to work with us.

  • High-low

    I don't remember much from the movie The Story of Us beyond the High-Low game they played during every family dinner. Each member would have to share the best thing and worst thing that had happened to them that day. Sam and I tried it out a few times and liked the concept, although we spend all day together, so it's never really much of a surprise what the other person says.

    I like the general idea, though, of checking in with everybody on a daily basis and finding out what even their small triumphs and disappointments are. I like empowering my kids to be honest with me and let me know how they're feeling. And I like the idea of having a daily time to talk as a family, whether that's around the dinner table or not.

Those are the traditions that came to mind — many of which we don't actively keep up but that I'd like to explore further. Just because Sam and I, with the relative weight of our years on this earth behind us, don't care so much for ritual doesn't mean that our kids will feel the same way. I hope we can find some ways to incorporate tradition that's meaningful to all of us, so that our kids will have the kind of good memories we wish for them.

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

(This list will be live and updated by afternoon December 14 with all the carnival links.)




Anonymous said...

Well, this is probably going to be a long comment to match a long post :-)... but I had a lot in common to share!

First, my good memory was a specific event BUT it was tradition-oriented; I remembered a year where my dad was out of state but surprised me by showing up at the door the morning of my birthday!

This is our DD's first Christmas but I'm already anticipating a ton of gifts for her, and so in order to not completely overwhelm her I think we're going to do the 12 days of Christmas thing. Glad you mentioned it starts Christmas day, I thought it was the 26th to the 6th!

What you said about Nikolaustag resonates here too because we are Americans living in China, so we're looking for ways to celebrate Chinese holidays.

Lastly, a group of friends and I did high-low at dinner every night one summer when we shared an apartment and it was amazing for our friendship and even our personal day-end unwinding. I like the idea of doing it as a family, too.

Anyway... found you via the carnival, and appreciate the work you put into hosting it!

Seonaid said...

You're right! It *is* a book. Actually, I think it has the makings of a decent book... In case you don't have enough else going on in your life.

I like hearing about the testing out of different traditions, because I do find that I'm just not organized enough to be consistent. I have a tendency to pass off "trying new things" as a tradition... that works, right?

Cassie said...

Wow, I loved this post. A lot of points really stuck with me. I really like the part where you said most people remember the traditions instead of big moments. That is so true. We did a lot of fun trips when I was a kid, just me my dad. But I remember more how my dad used to listen to Sunday night 80s remix on the radio and we'd sit at the table, me doing home work and him reading, or Sunday dinner at Grandmas, etc. Thats cool. Now I really know what to focus on.
And we celebrate advent here too, and we hope to celebrate after Christmas too. (we are Catholic, so our church does those things too). And I live the 12 presents after Christmas thing. I think that's exciting and fun.
Thanks for sharing this lovely post. I meant to write something for this carnival but got busy doing other things.
Merry Christmas

Kristen @ My Semi-Crunchy Life said...

Great post. I really like how you point out that, from a child's point of view, if we've done things for a couple years it's huge to them whereas we might not see it that way.

Love the camping pic! As a child I remember going to Lincoln City, OR for many years. Even now, it seems like we always went there for family vacations. The last two years we've gone to Pacific City, OR. It's gorgeous and a lot quieter -- well worth checking out.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

Tom and I both lack in the sentimentality department too (except for the fact that I leak like a faucet every time I think about Kieran growing up. sniffle). We are also feeling separated from the spiritual traditions of years past, so finding new family traditions has been a process of discovery, trial, and error.
I really appreciate you pointing out that tradition IS a big deal to a child (and how logical, since it is such a big part of their short lives). I will keep making an effort to incorporate traditions into our lives that are meaningful to us.
Awesome post (and I'm super impressed that you wrote this at dark o'clock this morning!)!

Anonymous said...

I loved your comment about traditions being such a large part of our childhood memories. And, for me at least, it's those everyday traditions that I cherish the most.

stefanie @ very very fine said...

i've been involved in a few groups -- discussion, book, organizing a couple of events -- that had high/lows for the week that we all shared to get the meetings rolling and i always thought that would be a nice thing to do at a family dinner with older kids (kids of an age that cannot be relied upon to have nightly family dinner anymore -- sob).
also, it's too bad you're in seattle. i have a girlfriend here (bellingham) who has a solid church community that she just loves -- (natural) family friendly, even baby inclusive. i'm struggling with this as well, as the temple in town has, oh, about ten members, most of whom are orthodox jewish and do not appreciate my tattoos or my son's intact weiner. ;)
good post, as per usual.

MrsH said...

Loved the "illustrative question," it definitely rang true for me! I really enjoyed your ideas, especially thinking of ways to incorporate non-mainstream holiday observances at different points. Hope you have fun getting some of these started!

Crunchyish Mama said...

Love the dissertation, er, post. Since I had my son it has really made me want to embrace the traditions I like and reject the ones I don't like. (Funny how most of the ones I don't like come from my husband's side of the family. Hmmm.) Love your ideas for Advent and Epiphany. It takes some of the anticipation and inevitable let down out of Christmas day itself.

Lindsey said...

I love this post! We're also working on finding a sweet spot for Advent/ Christmas traditions. And, slowly doling out presents is a wonderful idea for little ones. Last year, our tot was quite overwhelmed by her gifts on Christmas and it took her a day and a half to open them all -- and she didn't have an inordinate amount of them!

Michelle @ The Parent Vortex said...

Thanks for the great post! It does take some time to figure out what is important or not in our traditions - I love your $20 novelty Christmas idea. :) And thinking about traditions in the broadest sense as well, those daily and weekly things we do as well as the big yearly camping adventures or Christmas feasts. Sometimes I get stressed thinking we don't DO enough or have intentional enough this or that, and then I am reminded that every day we are forming our traditions, and we do enjoy our daily and yearly routines.

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Lots of great ideas here! I love the idea of celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, though I don't think we'd have that much patience to hold out that long with the presents. We do tend to spread out the present opening over several days (at least) with the girls, both for Christmas and birthdays. Maybe we can find some other way to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, with something other than gifts.

Reading at bedtime (in a rocker in E & D's room, and in Emma's bed) is definitely a routine/tradition here and my girls love it. There are rare times when we skip it due to time constraints and they are always thrown off by it.

Great idea to go to Goodwill for gifts!!!! I have to do that next year!

kelly @kellynaturally said...

Wow, what a post! :-D

I won't tell you my memories, and while I wouldn't call the good one a tradition as such, it wasn't a one-time event either.

That was an interesting exercise; definitely food for thought.

Love the idea of travel as a tradition, and we do this every year & really look forward to it.

Also so interesting to hear the description of advent & the 12 days of Christmas. We did a lot of religious-based things growing up. But I never knew about either advent (other than lighting a candle in church each week leading up to Christmas) or the 12 days of Chrismtas. Thank you for sharing that info. I find in spite of years of Sunday school, youth group, and church choirs, I'm sorely un-knowledgable in Christianity. My children know more about the story of Christmas than I can remember - from learning at Montessori (they study all the holiday traditions, and parents come in to share food, stories, etc. - very cool). I tried to tell them about the story of the birth of Jesus when they asked the other day (we were listning to Christmas carols) & how it relates to Christmas, and I really stumbled. I just didn't quite remember & couldn't make a meaningful connection to the Christmas tree, lights, cookies, and presents that we consider Christmas traditions in our house. And then when I tried to explain the existance of embellished stories/legends to explain the existance of someone important in history, well, I lost them. Sigh. I am too literal. Can someone send in the clowns?

kelly @kellynaturally said...

Wanted to mention one other thing that I remember from childhood as a big part of Christmas, that is missing from our traditions - MUSIC! I really want to incorporate more Christmas musical traditions into our celebrations. My fondest memories are of singing my way through the weeks leading up to Christmas, and going to see concerts and the Nutcracker and listening to carolers (do they even exist anymore),and singing in choir myself.

DO you have any recommendations for good child-friendly christmas music or performances?

Deb Chitwood said...

We loved focusing on Advent as well as Epiphany along with our regular Christmas traditions. We just gave our kids one present wrapped in gold wrapping paper on Epiphany (I'll be publishing a post on that in early January).

I appreciated your great budget-shopping ideas and other ideas for creating traditions! Whenever my husband and I considered dropping something we'd done before, we just talked with our kids. They'd always let us know if they wanted to keep that as a tradition or try something new that year. It worked well for us, and they always loved our Christmas traditions and celebrations.
Deb @ LivingMontessoriNow.com

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