One of the oldest holiday traditions in my daughters’ lives is the baking of Auntie Mary’s cookies.
I don’t remember where the recipe came from – maybe some holiday edition of the Oneonta Star? I have no idea who Auntie Mary is, or where she got this recipe. I do know I made those cookies one year when the girls were very young, and they disappeared so quickly that I had to make a second batch in order to have some left on Christmas itself! And the next year, by around Thanksgiving, the girls were reminding me I needed to make ‘those long cookies with the chocolate in the middle’. I think I’ve made them every year since then: we made them together when the girls came home from college for the holidays, and I recall mailing packages of cookies from California back to Massachusetts after they’d graduated and settled there. Each year I make them again, and I suspect some of my grandsons think they’re among the oldest (and tastiest) holiday traditions in existence!
But they’re not. Childhood tradition, for me, meant a special holidays-only glass bowl on my grandmother’s holiday table, with three separate sections for ‘regular olives’ (green, with pimento), tiny sweet gherkins, and pitted black olives (my sister and I would carefully stick one on the end of each of our fingers, much to my grandmother’s chagrin). It meant a salad of mandarin oranges, pineapple, maraschino cherries, coconut and whipped cream. It meant the round, fragrant orange we’d be given as we left the church on Christmas Eve, back when oranges in winter were a rare treat. Black olives now are commonplace: there are several varieties just in my own fridge. The idea of eating a maraschino cherry sounds revolting (first heavily bleached, and then soaked in high fructose corn syrup?!), and I can buy decent oranges all year long. So those traditions have fallen away, alive in my memory but pointless to try to replicate.
‘Traditions’ is an intriguing term this time of year. What has meaning and what has outlived its usefulness? How does something become a ‘tradition’ rather than a habit, or a necessity? There are plenty of things we each do every day or every year that don’t have the ring of ‘tradition’, even though they’re important or even essential. Paying the mortgage or the rent every month is just what needs doing, but buying a flower for your office desk each Monday may have the ring of tradition. Is something a ‘tradition’ because it’s both optional and enjoyable? Because it’s predictable? Because it has some symbolic meaning, or connects us with our history in some way? This time of year, because it’s expected of us, or marks a transition? What part of holiday preparations has the weight of ‘tradition’ – and if my internal assessment of that activity has begun to emphasize ‘weight’ over ‘tradition’, has it become something I should consider setting down or letting go of? For me, part of this season has become assessing how I approach the holidays, and trying to consciously decide what to continue, what to initiate, and what to put aside. Perhaps my tradition has become evaluating my traditions!
We’re coming up on the time of year that seems most rich (or rife?) with traditions. Sometimes these add a great deal, and sometimes they hamstring us. One of the challenges of the changes life brings is that we can be forced to evaluate our traditions, and sometimes, to make changes we wish we didn’t have to make. The question then becomes; how will we adapt if something we valued and enjoyed is no longer possible, or feasible? With resentment and resistance, or with grace and good will?
May our holidays bring us each moments of joy and beauty, of change and continuity!
Shalom and Salaam,