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Remembering the Past as a Family

Posted: Fun for the Family » Positive Parenting » Holidays & Rituals » Seasonal | November 1st, 2004



By Waverly Fitzgerald

November has always seemed to me a month that revolves around tradition, beginning as it does with the Days of the Dead, celebrated in Mexico by welcoming back the spirits of the ancestors, and ending with Thanksgiving, when families gather around a table to share a late harvest feast. And this meal often contains traditional elements.

In my childhood, we enjoyed my mother’s sweet potato casserole, covered with a crust of melted marshmallows, and my Aunt Jo’s cranberry turkeys (she used a turkey-shaped cookie cutter to cut shimmering, shivering miniature turkeys out of a can of cranberry jelly).

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Gather for storytelling
In many cultures (including the native people of the Pacific Northwest and the Celts), the start of winter (November is the start of winter in the Celtic calendar) is the only time of the year for storytelling. People gather around the warmth and light of the bonfire to listen to the stories that sustain their culture: the great deeds done by the ancestors, the myths about the gods and their gifts.

You could make story-telling the focus of a Thanksgiving dinner in which everyone brings a story or an object (a family heirloom) to the table to show and tell. Or perhaps the feast itself could become the vehicle for sharing in the convivial culture of food. Each person might bring a dish from their ancestral background, or you could tour the world, researching and serving a holiday meal from a particular culture each year.

In her book on new family traditions, Susan Abel Lieberman suggests spending time together after the meal sorting through the family photos taken during the year and putting them into a photo album.

Thinking of family
If you want to stretch out and follow this theme for the entire month of November, you might begin collecting information about your ancestors. Though you can find an amazing amount of data on the Internet (the site known as cyndislist is a great gateway to the world of genealogy online), it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

I recommend starting small and starting at home. Gather together any papers you’ve inherited. Create a visual family tree and ask questions about dates, names and places of the older people in your family. Find the family historian. Almost every family has one; in my family, it’s my cousin Larry, who is now a good friend thanks to our mutual love of genealogy and several trips back to the Midwest.

Document, document, document!
Document the items you’ve inherited. You could have your kids go on a scavenger hunt through the house, looking for the oldest items. Perhaps they can even label things as if they were in a museum: Great-Grandma’s dining room table that was made in 1920, the stuffed cat (filled with sawdust) that was Grandpa’s childhood toy.

Go through old letters and photos; you might be able to turn these into documents you can share as Christmas gifts with the rest of your family. I typed up the diary my father kept when he was 14 and gave it to my brother as a birthday gift.

Christine Stickler gathered a series of photos from her mother’s childhood and then showed them to her mother, asking her questions about each one. Christine then made a little book with photos on one side and the text on the other to give as a gift. Her mother loves to show off her book, and all the relatives have this precious document.

The importance of family traditions
Traditions are important. There was quite a bit of tension between my parents about the proper day to open Christmas presents. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was a battle of cultures. My mother’s father was Bohemian and in that culture, gifts are opened on Christmas Eve.

For my father, brought up in an Irish Catholic family, one waits until Christmas Day. I was even more shocked during a trip to the Midwest for family research to learn that my cousin Larry was a Republican. Turns out he inherited this from the Loomis side of the family — the Fitzgeralds have always been rabid (one might say yellow dog) Democrats.

But I was also surprised to realize that my political affiliation was inherited and not simply a personal choice. Knowing where traditions come from gives you the freedom to set aside those that don’t work and the pleasure of keeping alive those that resonate with your family values.

© Waverly Fitzgerald

Waverly Fitzgerald is a freelance writer and teacher living in Seattle. She has studied seasonal holidays for more than 25 years. She shares her knowledge via a column in SageWoman magazine, a free e-mail newsletter, an online class on “Slow Time” and articles posted at her website, School of the Seasons.

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