Tradition: Make it or Break it?

Things fell apart at the Godfather Party

Things fell apart at the Godfather Party. As a lapsed Catholic and an Italian who moved away from the extended family, I knew my choices regarding to the holidays: I could lament there’s no grandmother in our kitchen sautéing garlic in the morning and layering the meat, cheese and eggs for a pizza rustica. I could long for the days when a family hike up to my grandfather’s Hudson Valley grape vines was the best way to get an appetite for apple pie. Or, I could rally my husband and daughter to make our holidays in the Midwest exactly what we want: fun and, if possible, infused with some variety of faith. It took us a year to learn this was much easier said than done.

My husband and I started departing from traditional holiday celebrations early on, even before we were married. Our distance from family and religious ties gave us the opportunity to improvise. One Christmas, with the abandon of an unmarried, childless couple, we flew to a small town in southern Spain where we met up with a cousin of mine. She was on a pilgrimage, of sorts. She was following the literal footsteps her spiritual teacher had taken decades before through Andalusia. Though we didn’t share her religious interest, we happily danced in the New Year with her and the local crowd of grandmothers, children, the town mayor and even the village drunk in a former convent turned community space. At midnight, we enjoyed the view of glimmering lights on the coast of Africa. How wonderful, we thought, to make our own holidays. Love and festivity could be found elsewhere—not just under a Christmas tree or at midnight mass. We simply needed to look other places. For the next year, we decided to do just that.

Stylizing our own holidays was easy at first. The following autumn at our non-church wedding, for example, our interfaith minister quoted Gnostic Gospels, Buddhist texts, Native American folklore, and E. E. Cummings at the ceremony, combining the beauty of many great traditions in an original nuptial design. My Catholic relatives were moved to tears, and I never missed the formality of pews, priests or Bible prayers. Similarly, a few months later, after visiting my husband’s quiet, Dutch Reformed family in Atlanta for a ‘turkey and all the trimmings’ Thanksgiving, we drove to a friend’s bamboo farm in rural Alabama. We ate their vegan leftovers on a sun-filled deck overlooking their neighbor’s geodesic dome. Later we toured their acreage of oversized grass and carnivorous plants, amazed at how easy it was to be creative on the holidays, when we put our minds to it.

The difficulty came that first Christmas when we tried to do too much in the name of adventure. Against better judgment, we drove through thirteen hours of bad weather to my parents’ house in New Jersey to give them the news that I was pregnant (our gift to ourselves was to avoid holiday air travel). In order not to focus on the storms, sharing our surprise became the theme of our holiday. We took our time and wandered through snow drifts in upstate New York to tell friends all along the Hudson—and finally—my grandmother, ailing in the hospice, our good news. By New Year’s Eve we were home but exhausted, both from the trip and in advance of the next day. I had committed, insisted, on hosting a New Year’s Day Godfather party, and I couldn’t bring myself to back out now. The event held too much potential in terms of create-your-own-tradition payoff, so I attacked it head on, like I would a box of canolis. In between preparing antipasto, swisschard pizza, stuffed mushrooms and lasagna for fifteen guests, I contained my first trimester nausea. When people arrived, bleary eyed and hungover, I put on a happy hostess act. I explained the courses, detailing ingredients of the homemade pizza dough, sauce, and mushroom filling in effort to slow down the shoveling that had commenced. I had expected everyone to know that in an Italian family, food equals love. I had expected, unrealistically, that everyone would act like family.

I did get some satisfaction announcing our pregnancy to the crowd. Everyone mustered the appropriate coos. But it wasn’t enough to soothe my rage when I saw a pile of chard on the side of one guest’s plate (they picked it off!). It was hard not to wish I had served mac and cheese out of a blue box.

As promised, we screened The Godfather parts I, II, and III. I had forgotten how much violence riddled parts I and II. Nobody stayed for part III.

The mistake had been ours, of course. In my mind, creating our own holidays had to be unique and memorable, or else it wasn’t worth it. We had to “do something” in order to “feel something.” The doing had completely overtaken the feeling.

Pregnancy provided me a chance to reflect. I had come from people who celebrate everything: weddings, christenings, first communions, confirmations—even funerals, plus the major holy days and, especially, Easter. These occasions created opportunities to gather, talk, eat, and remind each other of our similar fabric; the belief that family bonds are stronger, that whenever possible, family comes first. My husband and mine’s overtures to replace this tradition with our own experiences did not fulfill us in the same way. We were exhausted. I was willing to take another tack.

After our daughter was born, another missing link became apparent. The faith I no longer followed really was gone. And while I had adjusted to its absence just fine before I had a family, as winter passed into Spring, and we approached that first family Easter, I found myself falling back into old habits.

I awakened early, too early, to set out the colored eggs and the elaborate Easter baskets filled with sick amounts of candy, stuffed animals, and Easter grass. I then made a breakfast of things I rarely ate anymore: curried devilled eggs, lamb sausage and mimosas. I sat on the couch eagerly as my husband stumbled into the living room festival with our daughter on his shoulder. I explained how, in my family, Easter was always a feast. My husband, ever accepting, enjoyed the meal. Our daughter, just then understanding that meals are social, entertained us by pinching avocado between her fingers and thumb. But it did not yet feel like the holidays of old, or of new.

After breakfast I insisted that we go on a walk along the lake. We dressed in our winter coats and strolled just a block before hearing church bells, and something inside me snapped. I insisted we find a church—any church—just to sit in and absorb the atmosphere. Right now, I urged. We walked to the cathedral on our corner. Hispanic families filled the pews and lilies adorned the altar. Our daughter looked at the stained glass with wonder, and engaged with a little boy in a game of peekaboo. Familiar feelings of childhood milestones—first communion, confirmation, confession—filled me as if I had switched bodies with a real Catholic. My husband, politely, waited until I said it was time to go. We had come back to my roots with the hope they were the right fit for my family. But as we left the church I knew we wouldn’t be back.

Our decision not to raise our daughter Catholic is firm, but we currently don’t have a clear alternative. I am daunted by the task of presenting to her my wide-ranging tolerance for many paths. But narrowing it down has its problems, too. Do we just pick a tradition I’ve been dabbling in, like Buddhism? Pick one that will serve our daughter’s participation in the world? Pick a religious institution close to the house?

A friend of ours brought us a joke gift last week; a cardboard spin-the-dial game where you can choose your new religion on a wheel of options. After she left, I found myself drawn in by the gag copy on the back. “Are you a searcher? Disappointed with your religion of birth? Agonize no longer—use proven techniques of comparison shopping to select just the right religion for you.”

Among the options were Unitarian Universalist, Snake Handling, and the Sufi religion of my pilgrimmaging cousin. I laughed, realizing our search for spirit had been made into a game for a reason. And the reason is this: many, many others have the same questions and concerns that we do. Breaking with tradition is okay, and making a new one might actually take some time. As this holiday season approaches, my husband and I have come to agree: as we grow as a family, we’ll grow into our faith. For now, we’ll take our holidays one at a time. Celeste, meanwhile, provides us with miniature holidays with every milestone—her first word (angel), her first joke (a fake cough)-- and in doing so she has reminded us of our family truth. Living in the moment is, in fact, our tradition.

Suzanne Clores is the author of "Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider":http://www.amazon.com/Memoirs-Spiritual-Outsider-Suzanne-Clores/dp/1573241725.

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