Our traditions: What holiday customs make your family unique?

December 17, 2011 9:57:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Traditions. They bind us together, knitting one generation to the next. Year after year -- creating a bridge between past and present, between young and old. Our traditions make us unique to other families, especially at this time of year. 


Cathy Young, who is coordinator of information literacy at Mississippi University for Women's Fant Memorial Library, wasn't necessarily aware of starting one when her children, Emily and Graham, were very small. But now, after more than two decades, the family can't imagine Christmas without it. 


Nativity scenes are not unusual, but the way the Youngs display theirs is. In the days before Dec. 25, the creche is empty, except for animals that typically might have been stabled at the inn in Bethlehem. 


"Mary and Joseph are traveling all over the house -- traveling, like they would have been on their journey," explained Young, lifting the familiar Fontanini figurines she first collected while living in Alaska in the 1980s. "I would encourage the kids to move them from place to place every day, getting them closer and closer to the manger." 


On Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph are moved to the stable and, on Christmas morning, the Baby Jesus has arrived, placed there by Young during the wee hours. 


On a side table across the living room from the creche, noble wise men stand with their patient camels. The shepherd boy and his sheep are on yet another tabletop, in front of Graham's senior portrait. The shepherd, like the wise men, will make his way to the nativity. 


Young said, "The wise men and shepherd begin their 'travels,' and over the next few days, they arrive at the creche. ... The kids loved doing this. Now in their 20s, Emily and Graham insist on keeping this tradition."  






"Family traditions provide great value that lasts far beyond the moment," said Dr. Suzanne Bean, community liaison at the Roger F. Wicker Center for Creative Learning at Mississippi University for Women. 


"Their value isn't in completing the ritual; the value comes from what it provides for those who participate. Traditions give us a sense of identity," said Bean, defining a tradition as anything transmitted or handed down from the past to the present.  


Throughout history and cultures, people have gravitated to customs or rituals. Families, communities, churches, colleges -- any group may have them.  


"They provide stability during times of change, and activities observed year in and year out become a way for groups to build trust and security," stated Bean, who invited MUW faculty and staff to share some of their families' observances. 


Beliefs, experiences, practices, institutions, festivals, events, even recipes can all be traditions. Sometimes they're as entertaining as one of the customs in April Barlow's home. 


"In our family we have the 12 days of Christmas every year. On the 12 days up until Christmas Day, each family member takes a night and picks a Christmas movie for us to watch," said Barlow, who works at the Center for Creative Learning with Bean. "We pop popcorn and watch as a family. My kids love this!" 


Or they may have a formal flair, like Sherry Honsinger's. 


"Our tradition for Christmas breakfast is that we always use china and crystal -- even if the breakfast is poptarts! I think it helps reinforce the specialness of the day," said the Columbus woman affiliated with the MUW Police Dept.  


Like many moms and dads, Honsinger has purchased and dated a Christmas ornament for each of her children since their births. 


"I try to find an ornament that reflects an event, milestone or special interest," she said. "When it's time to decorate the tree, they put their own ornaments on. ... This brings out the 'Do you remember this?' and 'Oh, I forgot about this.' It makes tree-trimming a cherished family activity. ... I don't feel pressured to do it by myself, and when they decorate it, they have ownership and pride in it." 


Tavetia Hughes is the Columbus Arts Council's Young People's Artist director.  


"On Christmas Eve, we always open one gift labeled 'Christmas Eve': It's always PJs, usually the same color. We all put them on and take a picture," she said. The Hughes have also shared Christmas Eve dinner with the same friends and their children for about 40 years.  


Bean noted that many traditions will "just happen." But if trying to get something started, remember to include everyone in the family. 


"Consider choosing an activity that will serve others," she suggested. "Holidays are a great time to practice generosity. Choose activities that are fun and relieve stress." 




Other cultures 


In his home, Dr. Ghanshyam Heda, MUW assistant professor of biology, tries to recreate the atmosphere of Diwali, the Festival of Lights in his native India. 


"I have lots of sweet memories of Diwali. At least a month before this holiday, we used to count days and anxiously awaited new clothes and gifts from our parents," Heda shared. "Mothers and elderly women in our house were busy making delicious sweets, whereas men were busy in decorating and cleaning the house. The day of Diwali is like a wedding day in every house," he shared with Bean. 


Here, Heda's family decorates inside with flowers and leaves. The dwelling's exterior is decorated with lights. 


"On the day of Diwali after sunset, we have a special puja (worship and prayers) of goddess Laxmi, with lots of diyas (oil lamps). Everyone dresses like they are going to attend a wedding. ...We make sure that from dusk until dawn the next day, every single light in the house is on." 


After the puja and a special dinner, family and guests celebrate with fireworks.  






"So much in our lives these days is temporary," Bean lamented. "Traditions provide something for every person to hold on to, to rely on." 


And, of course, the Bean household has them, too. 


"When my first child was born, for her first Christmas I chose a special photo ornament and hung it on the tree," she shared. "Every year since then, for both my children -- Meriweather and Hudson, now in their late teens -- I add an ornament with photos from that year. Some are handmade, some are silly, and some represent something very important to them during that year of their lives." 


As with the Honsingers, tree decorating becomes a celebration, launching rich conversations and laughter. 


Bean smiles: "When the children start their own families and have their own trees, I plan to give the ornaments to them to use ... if I can give them up!" 


Traditions. They bind us together. Whether a tried and true one, or a relatively new one, they are reminders of what has been before -- and what comes next.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.