But the truth is, things change. Fewer Americans celebrate the holiday rituals of their childhood, with slipping participation in every tradition mentioned in a 2013 Pew Forum survey. Americans are less likely to do what their families did when they were kids—whether that’s sending Christmas cards, going caroling, putting up a tree, or attending holiday services.
And our families look different than they used to. Families have been stretched into new shapes by divorce, the rise in children born to unwed mothers, same-sex relationships, and cohabitation. Plus, more than 10 percent of Americans relocate in a given year. With changing families—and the unpredictability of our own aging, illness, and death—our holiday gatherings are forced to evolve, if they even take place at all.
Composer Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” By gathering around a new table this year, we sought to preserve our fire as a reconfigured family, after some difficult losses and changes.
My husband and I are getting older. We don’t bear the same kind of responsibility we did during the early years of our lives together to create a new family culture out of the two sets of traditions we carried into our marriage. We’re no longer producers in the same way we once were. We’re now participants in the story our children and grandchildren choose to create. I recognize our imprint on the ways in which they observe the holidays, and I celebrate the ways in which they’ve improvised on some of those traditions in order to make the rituals their own.
Family rituals are living memorials always under construction. My mom would place the green bean casserole – you know, the one with the cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onion topping – on our Thanksgiving table each year with a flourish. Opening the cans necessary to make that side dish was as close to cooking as she ever got. In her memory, I made the dish for our holiday meal the year after she died. It sparked some reminiscing for us, but frankly, no one in my family cared much for the concoction. This year, my son and his girlfriend made this tasty versioninstead.
Our holiday rituals form our shared identity as a family and allow us to pay homage to our history. Scripture gives us powerful images of the way in which our memories can move us and our changing families forward. As an entire generation of always-nomadic people prepares to enter the Promised Land via the river God has parted for them, God tells their leader, Joshua, to choose one man from each clan of families to take a large stone from the riverbed and carry it to the other side. “In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Josh. 4:6-7).
The account ends with these simple words: “And they are there to this day” (Josh. 4:9). The rock memorial gave Israel’s children a sanctified space to remember who God was and what he’d done for them. When they visited that spot and touched the stack of water-worn rocks, they’d also remember who they were called to be in the present day.
Especially around the Christmas season, we may recall the good ol’ days and simply long to return to the past. But as the passage from Joshua reminds us, the best family rituals are touchstones, not destinations. We have to also be willing to move on and make our own traditions throughout the generations. Nostalgia alone is the emotional equivalent of a mug of steaming homemade cocoa with extra marshmallows. It’s delicious and heartwarming, but isn’t quite enough to sustain us when we’re doing the work of reconstruction.
Our changing holidays can be spared from being overcome by nostalgia as we allow God to make holy days out of them. Rabbi Sidney Greenberg made the distinction between the two when he wrote, “On holidays we run away from duties. On holy days we face up to them. On holidays we let ourselves go. On holy days we try to bring ourselves under control. On holidays we try to empty our minds. On holy days we attempt to replenish our spirits. On holidays we reach out for the things we want. On holy days we reach up for the things we need. Holidays bring a change of scene. Holy days bring a change of heart.”
May we cherish the old as we savor different flavors and experiences so that holidays become for us holy days.
This piece first appeared here.