It is Thanksgiving week in the United States, and as usual, I begin to feel the pull of tradition as the holiday season commences.
There was a time in my life, especially when I was a young mother, that I felt both the comfort of tradition and its tyranny. I wanted the good feeling of holidays past, and I wanted to create good feelings for my husband and children. It sounds simple, but as any woman who has planned, shopped, chopped, cooked, cleaned, decorated, polished, trimmed, and coordinated will tell you, it can be exhausting. It is especially tiring if you are the only one doing all the preparation. Sometimes, it’s so much work to pull off a holiday celebration, we need a holiday (in the European sense, a vacation) to recover. This is supposed to be fun?
I will never forget one year, when I was worn to a raveling from preparing for multiple office, family and church Christmas celebrations, scheduled one after another. I always worked so hard to have the house glowing with lights, trimmed in greenery and ribbons, and smelling sumptuous. I loved Christmas, and it gave me great pleasure to know I was making others happy. No detail was too small for my attention. Unfortunately, I often bit off more than I could chew. This particular year, I had let time get away from me, again, and I made the mistake of asking my husband for help with the vacuuming. He said he would do it, but he didn’t. I needed that task completed before I could finish setting up for a big meal. When I pressed him, perhaps a little too intensely due to my own stressed-out feeling, he growled at me, “You always do this! Every year you just ruin Christmas.”
My thesaurus offers “unwritten law” as a synonym for “tradition.” The unwritten laws in my head said Christmas had to be done just so, with traditions from our families of origin held intact and new traditions of the family we had created layered on. The laws said as a homemaker, it was up to me to do it all. The laws said, to be a success, I had to create a Christmas that was gourmet, home-baked, beautifully wrapped, glowing and sparkling. Being relaxed and enjoying the festivities myself wasn’t even on the list.
It is now.
Tomorrow, I will prepare dishes to take to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving. I will bake pies and make dressing. The dressing my family loves is a lot of work. I’ll bake, chop, saute, stir, season, and bake again, taking several hours to create just one dish. This year, however, I will do it mindfully and joyfully, because of an idea I had several years ago.
That year, I was up late the night of December 23, making fruit salad. The recipe was my grandmother’s, and my eyes filled with tears as I thought of how much I missed her at holidays. Suddenly, I thought of how she had stood at her sink, just as I was standing at mine, rinsing and peeling the apples, sectioning the oranges, halving the grapes and removing the seeds. My hands were going through the same motions hers had, my heart feeling the same love for family that hers had. At that moment, I knew, my best friend across the street was standing in her kitchen, making the traditional foods of her husband’s ancestors, kibbi and cabbage rolls. Millions of women (and men, too) across the country were standing at their sinks and stoves, slicing and stirring. We were all family, a family of humanity, each of us loving our individual families, the movements of our hands dancing a ballet of caring. What did it matter that our feet hurt or that we would be up half the night rolling out dough? It wasn’t food we were cooking up, it was love.
And so, tomorrow night, as I saute the sausage and bake the pumpkin pie, my heart will be full of thoughts of my family and friends stirring up love in their kitchens. My friend in Atlanta will be brining a turkey. My sister in New Mexico will be chopping and stirring. My friend in northern California will be whipping up something delicious for her large brood of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Or maybe this year, she will relax and savor, watching them put their new twists on her traditions, knowing that the one most essential ingredient never changes.
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