** Please forgive me if the title makes you want to sing show tunes from Fiddler On The Roof.
My daughter is getting married two weeks from today. Getting ready for the wedding has been an exercise in remembering exactly why weddings are stressful and expensive. It has also been an exercise in tradition, because weddings are full of traditions.
As I sit and write this, I realize that no one threw a bridal shower for my daughter…but then again, what would we give her for her bridal shower? She hasn’t lived at home for three years. She has plenty of kitchen utensils and cookware. Her household is already established. When it came to her wedding registry, she and her fiancé registered at places like REI so that friends and family could get them the things they’d like to have, especially when it comes to camping gear. So what’s left? Lingerie and marital aids? Can we be honest and admit that she already has plenty of those, too? She’s been living with her fiancé for almost a year now!
So there goes that tradition out the window, at least for this wedding, not that it matters. Some traditions just aren’t that important to me.
That’s a strange thing for me to say, because my family has a huge value for tradition.
In my family, tradition is the way that we remember who we are and what really matters. I couldn’t have explained that to you when I was younger. It wasn’t until I needed tradition to anchor my family during a difficult time that I came to understand what purpose tradition served. Since then, I have come to value our family’s traditions more and more, not just for the act of repeating the tradition but for what the tradition represents.
My mother’s family is full-blooded Sicilian; they immigrated to this country sometime in the late 1910’s. My grandparents were both 1st generation Americans, but they were born to families so entrenched in Sicily’s culture that I could swear that my mom and her brother are the 1st generation Americans in their family instead of their parents. Every Christmas, my mom and I (and now my youngest daughter and I) make Cuccidata, a traditional Italian fig cookie. Cuccidata make Fig Newtons look sad and paltry by comparison, and they are best cookies I’ve ever had. And cuccidatas aren’t the only thing we make for the holidays, because when it comes to holidays, Sicilians love to cook. Actually, Sicilians just love to cook in general. The food at our house during the holidays is plentiful, rich, delicious, and did I say plentiful? This is another way we celebrate our Sicilian heritage and part of the reason that most of the women in my family have childbearing hips (what a lovely way of saying ‘Baby got back’) and the men have the tummy that comes with a wife who cooks good food frequently. Our holiday dinners may raise our cholesterol counts a few points during the first few months of every new year, but it’s worth it.
Not all traditions come from generations past. Every year in December my husband and I take our kids to Flagstaff to re-enact the year that our oldest daughter was in drug treatment. We couldn’t bring her home for Christmas and so we chose to celebrate Christmas in a hotel in Flagstaff during her two day, off-campus visit in December. You might think that remembering such a difficult time in our lives would be depressing, but it isn’t…in fact it’s incredibly joyful. That first year we sat in the hotel and went through as many family traditions as we could: decorating the tree (albeit a smaller, sparser, fake tree); opening the stockings on ‘Christmas Eve’; going to worship on ‘Christmas Eve’ (an AA meeting sufficed); opening the few presents we brought on ‘Christmas Day’; and spending as much time together as possible before we had to take our daughter back to her treatment facility. Each year we repeat the exact same things we did the first year, bringing the same fake tree and decorating it; then we declare our first evening in Flagstaff as ‘Christmas Eve’ and go through all our Christmas Eve traditions. Every year we return to the same hotel, the same restaurants and coffee shops and local stores…and every year we revel in spending time together as a family and remembering that our family is stronger than almost anything that would try to destroy us, including drugs and alcohol.
My family has tons of traditions: opening the stockings on Christmas Eve because Santa always manages to come to our house while we are at Christmas Eve worship; dedicating Memorial Day and Labor Day to spending time with our children, a practice my husband and I started when we were both in graduate school; Friday night ‘date night’ at our favorite restaurant; and a big homemade dinner for the family on Sunday evening.
In a million little ways, traditions remind us of who we are and what really matters.
Sadly, some traditions remind us of who we were and they highlight beliefs that are damaging and need to stop right now.
I’ll give you an example.
Before my wedding, my husband’s groomsmen let me in on a prank they were going to pull on my husband during our reception. They gave me all the details and told me my part in the prank. While it sounded a little silly and kind of sexist, I wanted to be a good sport and it was going to be funny, so I just went along with it. About 60 minutes into the reception, before the dancing was going to start, my husband’s groomsmen grabbed him and lifted him off the floor and attached a ball and chain to his ankle. I had the key stashed in my bra, and I coyly pulled the key from my cleavage, giggling and teasing my husband. I figured that was the entire joke. I cannot tell you how disappointed my husband’s friends were when I immediately freed him from the shackle around his ankle and set the joke aside. They wanted me to leave it on him and make him roam around our wedding with a ball and chain attached to his ankle. And that’s when I realized that I had misunderstood the seriousness of their joke. I thought it was just supposed to be some temporary fun with an old symbol of marriage. The reality made me sick to my stomach. To my husband’s friends, I was a ball and chain. Did they really mean that? Probably not…but then why was it important to make him wear a 15 pound ball chained to his ankle for more than a minute or two? What exactly is funny about making someone actually wear a ball and chain while they are trying to enjoy their wedding and dance with their bride? Nothing…unless you are in it to make a point. And that’s what made me sick to my stomach.
If anyone pulls that stunt at my daughter’s wedding I will not be so gracious.
The thing about any tradition is that it only has meaning in as much as it represents what we truly believe in, what we deeply value, and what gives us life.
The thing about weddings is that they are filled with traditions that often speak loudly to the idea that our culture thinks marriage is an institution that benefits the bride, shackles the husband, and still represents the transfer of a woman who is property from one man to another. All we are missing is the bride price and the dowry, and we could easily be back in the old country.
What the heck, people?!
I’m not going all feminist on you here. Because it’s not just marriage traditions that are filled with not-so-subtle reminders of much less egalitarian times. You don’t have to look hard to see the evidence of racism and sexism in our society. Size-ism and body shaming are all over social media and television. Ageism is a major problem both in Hollywood and in corporate America. We have all sorts of behaviors that give testimony to our unwillingness to truly root out the ugly undercurrents of hatred in our society. Even our most hallowed traditions—our marriage traditions—are rife with symbolism that when closely examined, fail to match up to what we say are our dominant cultural values.
So which is it? Are we still sexist and racist and hateful…or are we just slow to challenge old behaviors?
I want the traditions that my daughters participate in as they live their adult life to be much like the ones that they have already experienced in their family: traditions that hold up what is most precious and worthy of respect and honor. Traditions, that when examined, are filled with deep meaning and connect us to the things we value most. You might be thinking that a cuccidata is just a cookie, but in my family it is the thing we do to remember where we came from and who we are. It connects us to all the generations that came before us. Cuccidata are delicious…and they are living history.
As we head into the holidays, I encourage you to pay close attention to the meaning and the hidden messages in your family’s traditions. Ask yourself if what you are re-enacting in these traditions is something you actually want to teach the children in your family. Does it represent your highest values? Does it represent your faith? If it represents your heritage, does it represent the part of your heritage that doesn’t participate in the oppression of other people?
Don’t just blithely stumble along, doing the things you’ve always done just because you’ve always done them. A part of moving our culture forward is knowing what part of that culture should be abandoned so that the culture can be refined.
And this isn’t just about ‘culture’ and American society as a whole.
Remember that your life is a story that you tell to the world. No one else can tell this story, and it should express what you’re worth and what you believe truly matters.
Tell the best story you can, and when the story you are telling doesn’t represent who you are or what you believe, change the storyline until it does.
Here’s to the traditions that color your story bright and beautiful!