If I were to ask ten people what traditions they have in their families, I bet nine of the ten would mention something about a holiday. Hidden Easter baskets or egg hunts. Memorial Day or Fourth of July parades. State Fair or a city’s summer celebration. Goose, not turkey, on the platter. Stockings hung up by the fireplace or stairs. Mistletoe.
My husband celebrates a unique event on Christmas Eve, something he calls “setting the table for the dead.” It was something his Italian grandfather did in the Calabria region of Italy. At the end of the evening when everyone was settling down for sleep, the table would get set with the best dishes or china, with food that wouldn’t spoil (nuts, cookies, bread), and unopened bottles of wine. His grandfather would light a candle and place it on the table and invite all of their ancestors to come and celebrate. The candle would remain lit all night long, then blown out when the family gathered for Christmas breakfast. My husband is the only one of his siblings to ever celebrate this tradition, and he still celebrates it to this day. I like the thought of inviting all those who came before us to come and celebrate what goodness they brought to all of us. My husband’s daughters think it’s silly. My daughters think it borders on insanity. I doubt any of them will carry on the tradition.
When I was growing up, we had a tradition of going out to a country club of sorts for Easter Sunday brunch. There were eight of us kids, so when we all walked in together and sat down at a table, we received more than a few stares. It was the only time all eight of us kids were ever taken out to eat at the same time.
Recently I was sharing a story with one of my cousins and it caused me to think of traditions, that passing down of some event or ritual from generation to generation. What about that event or ritual touches enough of our senses or emotions that we treasure it and want to experience it again and again?
The story I shared with my cousin had to do with prayer. I teasingly said I’ve been saying the Hail Mary even before I was born. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if my parents said the rosary every night while my mother was pregnant with me. Surely I know the Lord’s Prayer just as well, but for all of my life it’s the Hail Mary prayer that I turn to when I’m afraid or overcome with worry.
Several years ago I happened to mention this fact to one of my aunts, who is a Dominican nun. She smiled and nodded and proceeded to tell me exactly why I turn to the Hail Mary prayer, and it had everything to do with the story of my aunt’s birth. She was the twelfth child of Michael and Kathryn. They lived on a farm, several miles from the nearby small village. As was common in that time, Kathryn delivered the baby at home. It was a difficult birth and Kathryn lost a lot of blood. She went into shock, but she was awake and aware of what was happening and knew that she may die. Kathryn began to pray nonstop to the Blessed Mother Mary. In her prayers, she told Mary that if it was her time to pass then so be it, but that Mary would have to find someone to take care of the twelve children. The local priest came and gave Kathryn last rites. Everyone believed she would not see the morning’s light. But Kathryn kept her brain working with her prayers to Mary. She survived, made a complete recovery, and went on to live until the age of 96.
My aunt told me that all twelve of those children from that point on knew they had the Blessed Mother Mary to thank for keeping their mother alive. The Hail Mary prayer was as commonly spoken in their house as any conversation. Kathryn passed that prayer on to her children, and they passed it on to their children. My cousin laughed as I told this story, for he too grew up with regular prayers to Mary. His mother was one of the twelve children.
Sadly, my own children have not been called to this tradition. They know I believe in the power of prayer, they’ve heard me say that prayer and others many times, but they have not been called to prayer as I have been. Maybe it will still come.
I like the idea of the passing down of something from one generation to the next. When my daughters were little, our house was the only one in the neighborhood to celebrate St. Nick’s night. It wasn’t something my parents had done when I was a child, nor my then-husband’s parents. But it was a tradition I wanted to create so my children would have a unique memory of the holidays. I’m eager to watch and see if any of them continue the tradition when they have children and those children are old enough to understand and remember.
With the recent news that I will welcome my second grandchild in September, I’ve been thinking a lot about traditions and what I might be able to pass down through the years. My husband has warm and fond memories of going to his grandmother’s house every Sunday for an afternoon dinner. The extended family gathered at the noon church service, then went to Grandma’s for spaghetti dinner. A gathering of aunts and uncles and cousins, a blend of generations. It was a common tradition when my husband was growing up; not so much these days. Maybe we’ll start a tradition of having a Skype call every Sunday afternoon.
So much about our world today is different from when we grew up. And I struggle to think of a tradition I can hand down, one that will be respected and passed on to yet another generation. But I’m not giving up just yet. My thinking cap stays on.