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Traditions and when to change
By Orson Scott Card November 11, 2010

When our oldest child was five, he came to his mother and asked her for a box.

"What do you need it for?" she asked.

"Packing," he said.

"Packing? Where are you going?"

"For when we move," he said.

"We aren't moving," she said.

He looked at her in consternation. "I already had my birthday in this house," he said. "It's almost my birthday again."

Only then did she realize that in his entire life, he had never spent two birthdays in the same house. He did not share our adult understanding that this was about going to graduate school, getting a job, and then moving from rental to rental till we had room for our growing family.

He assumed that this was how things were supposed to be -- the Card family moved every year.

Sometimes traditions just happen. An accidental pattern becomes the rule.

It's like the old Reader's Digest anecdote about the woman whose husband asks her why she always cuts both ends off a roast before she puts it in the pot. "It's perfectly good meat," he says.

"I don't know," she answers. "It's how my mother always did it." She called her mother, who had the same answer.

Finally, a call to grandma brought the truth to light. "Don't you remember that single pan I had for cooking? It was so small that I had to cut the ends off any good-sized roast in order to make it fit."

Not knowing why the thing was done, her daughter and granddaughter were continuing to follow the pattern.

Traditions have enormous staying power; the very fact that this is "how it's always been done" becomes satisfying for its own sake.

This is especially true during the holidays, when children come to expect that certain things will happen again, just like in past years. It's not a real Christmas tree unless there's a train around it! None of us actually likes cranberry sauce, but it isn't Thanksgiving unless there's some of it on the table!

Since traditions are going to form -- and often get passed down through the generations -- why not invent or choose traditions that you know will do your family good?

In one family, a little Swedish figurine of a horse starts "randomly" appearing atop one plate or another at suppertime. Whoever gets the horse, during the meal everyone talks about good things they have noticed about that person during the past year -- their achievements great and small, the things they've learned, the progress they've made.

By New Year's everyone knows that they are noticed and known ... and loved.

In our family, as soon as the tree went up, we set up a little wooden manger near it. Each night, the children were given one straw for each act of kindness, patience, or obedience and for every positive achievement. They then placed the straws in the manger, gradually making a comfortable place for the Christ child to be laid.

In one large family, the parents wrap enough fun (and cheap) presents for everyone to pick one. Then Dad reads a short Christmas story (like "The Night Before Christmas" -- they don't involved scriptural stories in this present-centered game!).

They pick two frequently occurring words (like "and" or "the"). Each time the first word is spoken in the story, they pass the presents one person to the left. When the other word is read, they pass the presents to the right. At the end of the story, everyone opens the present they happen to be holding.

Our friend Kathy Jensen runs an Elf Shop for her grandchildren. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the children earn tokens (canning lids with their name written on them) for helping around the house or doing kind things.

Then Grandma arrives on her annual Christmas visit and opens her Elf Shop, where the kids can redeem their tokens to buy gifts for their brothers and sisters and parents.

All year, Grandma has been buying or making small, inexpensive gifts for the shop, and of course she adjusts prices to fit the number of tokens each child has earned.

Then, after they have bought gifts for other people with the tokens they earned, all the kids get to go to Little Bear's Bookstore -- which is stocked with age-appropriate books that Grandma brought with her. Each child gets to pick out a free book for themselves.

My parents learned early on that they could change traditions that weren't working properly. When their firstborn was old enough to understand Christmas at all, she was showered with presents. But late on Christmas Day, she asked, "Mommy and Daddy, what did you give me?"

From then on, Santa Claus was given permission to bring only one gift per child, plus whatever fit into the stocking. Everything else was clearly labeled as coming from Dad and Mom, with love. They felt that little children might learn gift-giving better if they see that gifts mostly come from the people they know best, and not from a stranger.

My wife and I, after a disastrous first Thankgiving dinner together ("O dear husband of mine, did you actually turn the oven on?"), gradually developed a whole set of kitchen traditions.

I cook the turkey, basting it with highly seasoned butter; the resulting juices (well-skimmed, of course) become the flavored basis of the gravy. I also make the stuffing (which never goes inside the turkey).

Meanwhile, besides her always-perfect gravy, my wife makes fruit salad in a creamy pineapple sauce we only get once a year. (She made the pies the night before, after I roasted the first turkey -- we always have two, so there are plenty of leftovers for all the families in attendance.)

We have learned how to rotate items into and out of the ovens and onto and off of the stove. It's like a kind of ballet, each of us helping with the other's jobs when they require more than two hands (as when I have to pour off, strain, and separate the turkey juices).

This annual dance is one of the finest pleasures of the year for my wife and me. Not every married couple can share a kitchen, let alone enjoy working together every step of the way.

This year we have enough guests coming for Thanksgiving that we'll have two tables. The youngest person there will be fourteen -- there's really no "kids' table" this year. So how could we sort out where everyone would sit?

The solution is a new tradition: The Turkey Trot. We bought a couple of dozen little turkey place-card holders. We'll set them out hours before the meal, and then everyone is free to move any of the turkeys from place to place and from table to table.

If everyone gets into the spirit of the thing, it will be almost random whom they end up sitting with. And everyone will know that neither dining table is "secondary" -- any place is as good as any other. If it works as planned, the Turkey Trot will be part of every two-table Thanksgiving dinner.

This is how traditions are made, and grow, and change to fit the needs of a family. Ask other people what they do, especially if you're just starting out your family, and choose the ideas you like best -- or invent your own.

Even if you live close enough to share holidays with extended family members, you can still create traditions for your own immediate family that can coexist with the traditions of your hosts.

All family traditions have at least one message in common: "This is how we do it, even though it might be different from every other family in the world." That is a fine precedent for your children to grow up with.

It helps them be ready for the big one: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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