Christmas 2016 has gone into the history books. Hanukkah is mid-celebration. Kwanza has just begun. All of these holidays at once can be overwhelming. Perhaps, not so much if you only celebrate one, but if you are one who takes in all of the traditions associated with each one, it can be a busy time of connecting and letting go. These thoughts came to me as I participated in a twitter chat. The topic was traditions. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a twitter chat, a twitter chat is a live twitter event which is moderated and hosted around a specific topic. The moderator presents engaging questions for participating chatters.
The second question of the night was “Traditions can (fill in the blank)”. One response that particularly got my attention was “sometimes a loss can start new traditions”. My first thought was the holiday season after my father passed away. I remembered how traditional foods played a stabilizing role. In an earlier column, I shared that my mother invited fourteen people to Thanksgiving dinner that year. Our loss started a new tradition of sharing Thanksgiving with those who also, may otherwise have been alone. This new tradition got us through that first Thanksgiving. I know it was in part due to the memorable foods. Each guest brought a food that was for them, traditional.
I remember my mother’s English friend, Peggy Titcomb attended our dinner. Peggy was a lovely, charming, delicate woman. She always kept me entranced with her stories and accent. Peggy brought “Cottage Pie”. It’s a bit like Shepherd’s Pie, but I think the flavor is more interesting. There are two layers. The bottom layer is meat which is rich in tomato sauce, chopped celery, onions, and mushrooms. The topping is creamy, mashed potato that once it has been baked, you top with cheddar cheese and pop under the grill to melt. It was not what we usually think of in America for Thanksgiving dinner, but it was as delicious as Peggy’s stories.
New food traditions can be fun and when made as a family, can make each person feel included and necessary. Keeping old traditions, as when serving Hanukkah potato latkes; or groundnut stew and Cajun catfish to celebrate Kwanza, can also help us feel necessary and included. In contrast to Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas day was just my mom and I. Mom made eggnog and set out our family’s traditional display of meats, cheeses, and shrimp. Christmas day, as had been done every year she was married, we set the table with her favorite place settings and filled the china with roast, squash, bread, potatoes, and of course, pie for dessert. While I can remember the unfamiliar solitude of being the two of us, maintaining these traditions made me feel grounded and determined. It was a way of saying everything was okay and perhaps, a lie as well, that nothing had changed.
New Year’s Day is approaching. Our dinner usually involves a roast, baked potatoes, vegetables, and cream puffs for dessert, but that’s as close as I get to a traditional New Year’s dinner. Last year my friend invited us to her home for a traditional dinner of “lucky” foods. One dish was made from pork. Pork symbolizes progress, because pigs push forward, rooting itself in the ground before moving. The richness of pork fat symbolizes wealth and prosperity. She served fish as well, noting that lobster and eel is not to be served, as they both swim backward, which may mean staying in the past. Serving any fowl is discouraged, because it encourages luck to fly away and particularly not chicken, as they scratch backwards. She served black-eyed peas, as legumes are considered a sign of wealth and good luck. As greens are symbolic of folded money, she served kale.
Why do we create new food traditions and hold tight to the old? Creating new may be a way of forgetting and letting go, while holding tight may mean nothing has changed. Perhaps, we will choose to do both. I think the choosing has to do with feeling mortal. Somewhere inside us we have the feeling that we don’t want life to end when we cease living. Sharing food traditions that are time worn, as well as creating new ones and even blending traditions, bridges the gap between what was; what is; and what we hope will be. They hold a space for staying necessary and needed.