The Comforts of Tradition

Hello from Fog and Flame,

It is a Tuesday evening and a couple of days before All Hallows’ Eve (more commonly known as Halloween here in America). This Thursday I am going to take Anton to another house so he can experience the tradition of little ones out for Trick or Treating. It is a very different holiday than it was for me as a child. Being a baby boomer, the number of children decked out as the latest hero, ghoul, goblin, or witch were legion. We did not worry about our treats being booby-trapped; we did not worry about whether or not something unpackaged was a threat to our health; and we knew the names of the people who lived in the houses whose lights and decorations beckoned us. I do not think I tricked or treated much beyond 7th or 8th grade, but I do not remember. The other night my sand box buddy and I spoke about specific houses and reminiscing about the amazing treats they handed out: popcorn balls at the Hulsts, a place that always gave out hot cider or hot chocolate. We would go trouping around with our neighborhood friends. Perhaps life was simpler then.

As we move toward the end of year holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years, the memories of both my grandmother and her elder sister, my Great-aunt Helen come rolling over as a sort of peacefulbreeze reminding me of how they made everything welcoming and pleasant. What I remember most is how their pulling out all the stops and the food they created was incredible and is incredible to this day. I remember the pies and there were so many: having a bakery in the family was a pretty good thing when it came to the holidays. The pies were lined up like Marines in formation: cherry, apple, pumpkin, pecan, mincemeat, coconut cream . . . and then then there were the breads and the rolls. More options than you could imagine. There was the normal fare, but what was amazing about the sisters’ ability to cook is they could take the most ordinary and make it anything but. Then there was the venue itself. In many ways, and I have noted this from time to time, I have tried to fashion the acre and my house much like my grandmothers. The welcoming atmosphere of her home was beyond compare. It is still my comfort place of my entire life. The three-plus acres of hills and fields was something I enjoyed and loved every time I arrived. There was a peace and safety in her house that has really never been replicated for me. Part of it was certainly the tradition and expectation of the unlimited love she had for us; part of it was that it had been my home as a small boy and it was a time that was dear to me; perhaps most importantly, it was a place that allowed me to be myself and not be afraid and the return was always welcoming.

Much of the same could be said for my Great-Aunt Helen’s home. They had 2,500 acres of land in South Dakota, owning two farms and having a garden that was probably an acre in and of itself. That garden gets credit to this day for my love of vegetables. If you could imagine it, the garden had it. And Helen could create a savory and tasteful vegetable dish that would make the most carnivorous person contemplate becoming vegetarian. Of course, they also had hogs, cattle, and chickens, so I learned as the billboard notes, “there is room for all of God’s creatures . . .  right next to the mashed potatoes.” What I know now is there are certainly some healthier ways to manage the holidays than I did once upon a time. I so appreciate the appreciation my grandmother and her sister gave me for food and that appreciation has grown to appreciate well-prepared food in general, but also to realize how amazing their cooking was. It was certainly home cooking at its finest. Thanksgiving was the beginning of what would become the favorite time of year for me. While I love the fall and the crisp mornings and warm afternoons, I love the season of Advent. I did not know the significance of that season of the liturgical year until much later in life, but I understand (and understood) the preparation for the Christmas holiday. Throughout my life I have loved the anticipation of the Christmas holiday. Why? you might ask. I think it is because people are a little kinder; people take the time to let others know they matter. People are willing to put in extra effort to somehow care for or about the other. I am always happy when I see someone reach out to the other and let them know their presence matters; that what they offer as one human to another can change the trajectory of the other person’s day.

On the other hand, growing up and working in my grandmother’s bakery, the things that were made at the holidays were a signal that the season was upon us. From Christmas breads to different pies and pastries. From lefse to krumkake I remember being excited beyond words to be able to eat these Norwegian foods. Yes, pickled herring and even lutefisk was a mainstay for my Scandinavian relatives. This year, I have to deviate a bit as the Danes have taken over my household, but there is overlap. The most important element of the Scandinavian Christmas, however, is the food, and my relatives epitomized this focus. While there was, again, traditional fare, the underlying Viking in us all was never far away. When I was fortunate enough to travel to Germany during the Advent Season in 1985, I was astonished by the Christmas Markets and the way they allowed Advent to be celebrated as a season of preparation and the understanding that the 12 days of Christmas followed the Christmas Day celebration. I have learned more about that since I have traveled to Poland over the last 5 years. In fact, this will be the first New Years I have not been in Krakow (and Poland) for some time. What is it about tradition that attracts us? What is it about tradition that comforts us? What is it about tradition and memory that provide a foundation to our identity? Those are the things that run through my mind as I write this post.

This morning at a meeting I noted the importance of understanding someone’s history and what they value before coming in and making wholesale changes. I think certainly our history is fundamental to our lives. Throughout this semester most everything my students have done in their Foundations of College Writing class has asked them to consider who they are as well as why they are. Part of that is necessary if they are going to be successful. Part of that is necessary if they are to understand why they do what they do and make the decisions they do when confronted by any situation. What I believe is most important about tradition is its ability to inform. It helps us understand both our past as well as provide a glimpse into our futures. The difficult occurs when there is a lack of tradition or nowhere towards a point one can create some sense of bearing. I think that is often what happens for my first semester freshmen. It is also something Anton is experiencing, particularly when he gets concerned or worried about a situation. I have learned he is more dependent on structure than I would have imagined. This is not a correct or incorrect thing. It is not a strength or weakness, but it merely is. It is something that all of us use foundationally. What I have learned is the foundations we create (and they occur throughout out lives) are fundamental to how we understand both ourselves as well as those around us. What I am trying to understand how is when does tradition enhance our lives and when does it hold us back? I am sure there is no simple answer and furthermore, I believe there is no one-size-fits-all possibility. We would probably like that, but after all the time with my students, I can explain they most often to not think about some of these things. Most often tradition is followed because it is  . . . . we are used to doing it and we can predict. If we can predict, we are generally happy, but then again too easily get bored.

As I prepare for another holiday season, I am trying to do some things to set up my own traditions. Once upon a time I had begun some traditions, collecting Dickens houses and going out to get my own tree. Some of those things have started again. I love the holiday season for its promise of something larger than ourselves. It is a belief and hope that the better elements of our human nature might actually come out to make a difference in our fractured and broken nation and world. This morning I asked people to think about the members of our campus and the families of the four (yes, four) students who have passed away since the first of the year. I asked them to consider and focus on the fragility of life that has hit so close to home for the campus.

Christmas can be stressful and difficult when the previous has been tormented by pain or loss. The promise of the holiday and its lights can be lost when the pain of our own existence overshadows the promise of the season. All the more reason to hold on to our tradition and see the promise of those memories that help us see the goodness of others. Again, I am not so naive to believe there is no pain or suffering, but I am just idealistic enough to believe there is a place in our hearts that can comfort that pain. I am just desiring enough to wish for something better. I am just faithful enough to pray for goodness and believe it possible.

As we enter this season of lights, this festival of trees and a season of hope out of darkness, I wish for all a world of peace, a place and hope of happiness, and a promise of comfort in our crazy and yet incredible world.

Thanks for reading as always,

Michael