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Sarah’s Simple Pleasures: Traditions

We are entering the season of traditions in a time when nothing is traditional.

It feels especially strange when the rest of creation appears to be operating routinely. The sun and moon continue to orbit like clockwork: the days growing shorter, the nights longer. The trees are all turning shades of amber and scarlet. The woodland critters collect their winter provisions as temperatures dip, dip, dip on the same scientific bell curve followed since the dawn of time.

The natural world is paying no mind to the fact that kids aren’t back in their conventional school desks, families aren’t sitting round their tables, football stadiums aren’t roaring with fanfare, and the traditional social calendar has been completely thrown out.

A devotee of musicals, I can’t help but hear Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof raising fists to the sky, “Tradition, tradition!”

But, really, what are traditions? The dictionary says that they are customs or beliefs passed on from one person to the next, from one time to the next. A tradition can last for a season: We get Big Dipper cones from the ice cream truck in the summers. Or for generations: My family goes to church every Christmas Eve. But the fuzzy edges of traditions remind us that they had a starting point, which means they will, eventually, have an ending. Maybe not permanently—that’s another nebulous area. A tradition can stop and then pick up again at another juncture in history. Breaks don’t mean termination. They simply illustrate that we are human and so, nothing about us is certain. Everything living— from our bodies to our communities— is in a constant state of reinvention. It’s what defines us from the rest of the universe. It’s what makes us unique.

So then, why are we surprised when our self-imposed conventional algorithms disappoint?

It’s made me 1) think about how I define a tradition, and 2) evaluate if the traditions I maintain are helping or hindering my access to peace, joy, and love.

Because sometimes a tradition becomes a burden. It mutates from being a thing we long to do to a thing we feel we must do out of obligation. Cherished tradition and ritualistic superstition can mesh so that we can’t tell one from the other. Recognizing the difference is the linchpin.

For example, this past summer, my sweet nephew and his betrothed were wed across the country. Tradition told us: “It’s a family wedding. You must attend.” But we did not. Despite knowing that this was the responsible decision during our COVID times, there remained a lingering guilt. Not imposed by any person or persons, but by the oppressive other of the tradition—the social stigma attached to going against the cultural precept.

I use this as an example only because a wedding is an event that transcends generations, race, religions, countries, politics, etc. It’s one of our oldest human traditions, would you agree? Families gather in unifying celebration to welcome a new member into the collective circle. But what happens when there’s a viral pandemic and group gatherings will possibly result in illness and death? Well, tradition must be broken. It breaks our hearts, too, but in the breaking we are able to live and grow in a new direction. Traditions have the power to give beginnings and endings. It’s our choice.

Earlier this month, I met up with my parents in a remote North Carolina beach town to reunite after eleven months of quarantine separation. We’d never been apart this long in all my life. We’d never visited this location before either. Never done a trip like this at all. We met between homes where it was safe and away from everyone but our four. It turned out to be one of the most deeply restorative vacations we’ve had. We weren’t sidetracked by a litany of planned activities, family members piled on top of each, crowds, commotion… Don’t get me wrong, those things have their moments of appreciation. But here we were doing something entirely untraditional and without any expectation of making it a tradition. We were simply being together.

So, when my mom turned to me in a beachside trinket shop with two matching sea glass Christmas tree ornaments, I had to smile. During our annual Christmas gatherings, my family members pick up matching ornaments. A black and gold ceramic bauble from Ellis Island in New York City. A clay moose family from skiing in Vail, Colorado. Virginia state cookie cutters strung with ribbons. White House historical ornaments going back to the 1990s. Disney World mouse ears from 2019.

It wasn’t our tradition to get ornaments in October from a shop that sold fish bait. But that’s the thing about traditions, they are what we make of them, not what they make of us. When I hang this beach ornament on my tree in the weeks ahead, my heart will be full knowing that my mom and dad are putting the same on theirs. Our traditions will come and go, bend, break, be lost, replaced, and even necessarily discarded. That doesn’t make them good or bad. Doesn’t make us good or bad. The memories are the significance, and those simple pleasures we take with us come what may.

What old tradition are you breaking in 2020 or what new ones are you starting?

About Sarah McCoy [1]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [2]; The Baker’s Daughter [3], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [4]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [5]. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [6] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [7] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [8], Goodreads [9], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [10].