Rules to Riches: Forging New Holiday Traditions

Thanksgiving greetings, readers and friends! A few days late, but gratitude is always timely. I hope you’ll forgive my delayed good wishes and post. In addition to hosting a family holiday gathering for the first time in our new home, I also celebrated a birthday this past week. I decided to focus on family, food, and fun with friends, and save my reflections for today.

tablesettingCelebrating our first Thanksgiving as a married couple was exciting and exhausting. Hubby Steve’s two grown sons came in, and we made valiant efforts to ready the house for their company, unpacking and arranging the last of the kitchenware (we didn’t quite make it) and situating the remaining cardboard boxes, if not out of sight, at least out of footpath. It was tough for me to host with so much still in disarray, because growing up, a house about to welcome holiday guests (even close relatives) was always scrubbed, straightened, and festively arrayed. It felt like I was breaking an unwritten rule to have stacks everywhere and so much still out of place.

It’s fascinating how holidays heighten our attachment to tradition, not to mention ratchet up our expectations. We act as if there’s a rule book somewhere that spells out definitive guidelines: how the turkey must be prepared, what kind of pie is acceptable, what time dinner should be served. Christmas gets a playbook too: when the tree gets decorated, which candles go in what window, who opens presents first. I can’t speak to Hanukkah or any other seasonal celebration, but I wonder. On the whole it seems that after you’ve done whatever it is the same way for so many years, that’s how it’s supposed to be done forever. Your own family’s choices feel natural, logical, right. We forget that these “rules” are just long ingrained habits, arbitrary and idiosyncratic, until for some reason—like getting married and combining two households under one roof a couple months before the festivities commence—you can’t follow the same rules anymore.

Dashing!Steve and I have shared several Thanksgivings as well as Christmases as a couple, but this was our first as an officially combined family in our shared home. The two of us spent Wednesday straightening the dining and guest rooms, making squash soup and sweet potato casserole, mixing herbs for the turkey rub, and snapping green beans and slicing apples to ready them for Thursday’s dinner. Son Tucker brought an apple-pecan pie, son Dusty made mac-and-cheese. After we walked a 5K Drumstick Dash Thanksgiving morning, we put all the pieces of our feast together and settled in for full plates and fuller tummies.

We had a lovely day, though there were a few awkward “Well, we always did ____ like this” moments. It’s not surprising that each of us holds on to what we know; there’s great comfort in familiarity. It’s reassuring to know you can, if nothing else in this wild west of a world, control where on the tree all the angel ornaments are placed each year. The danger is in expecting or insisting that things will always stay the same. Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery said it better than I ever could. Short version: holiday + family + expectations is, in the best of circumstances, a potentially volatile equation.

dinnerisservedOver the years I’ve learned to take pleasure in novelty equal to the comfort I find in the familiar. After forty-something years, holidays tend to blur together, sans any variation. I more clearly recall the year my parents, brother and I served Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter than I do any particulars of the many meals we shared at home. Steve recalls a memorable Thanksgiving spent dining on squirrel and venison across the road from a swamp, the table covered not by a linen cloth but newspaper.

Truth, the first time my mom made plain baked sweet potatoes instead of a gooey casserole, or suggested we have salmon instead of a Christmas ham, I was unnerved. But helped along by the giant “orphan Thanksgiving” potlucks I attended in grad school where most any dish could appear, I’ve since come to appreciate experimentation. Now I enjoy trying new menu items, like subbing a cranberry-and-vodka cocktail for wine, or switching out green bean casserole for lemon-thyme French beans, as much as I enjoy revisiting my mom’s cranberry gelatin salad every year.

Speaking of which, I don’t think the boys are quite as crazy about that salad—a holiday staple for me—as I am. That doesn’t mean I have to stop making it; Steve and I simply enjoy second helpings. On the other hand, we will need to add the ingredients for vegetarian gravy to our holiday shopping list. I’ve never made gravy (vegetarian or otherwise) for myself, but it’s important to the fellows, so next time we’ll be fully prepared. Ultimately, combining family traditions expands all of our experiences.

sunriseSaturday morning I woke up a little before seven and groggily headed to the bathroom. An ethereal, eerie pink lit the whole house. Before crawling back into bed, I glanced out the window. Immediately I grabbed robe, slippers, and camera and headed down the stairs to the front porch to watch a breathtaking sunrise. As a rule, I don’t get up before the sun on weekends. But oh, what beauty breaking that rule gave rise to.

There are no rules, only riches. So let go of those long-held holiday habits, the unrealistic expectations, the “I’ve always done it this way’s.” Instead, listen and learn. Respect and honor your differences. Laugh, a lot, and embrace new traditions together. Offer curiosity instead of criticism. And always, always volunteer to help clean off the table.

Because as long as you’re not breaking stuff, you can wash the dishes any way you please. I’ll simply smile and say “thank you.”

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