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SMITH: Use family traditions as a guide for the holidays

• Dec 7, 2018 at 3:00 PM

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” — W. Somerset Maugham

As a youth, I was never big on traditional ideas; in fact, if you asked my parents they would tell you I fought most anything “traditional.” With time, I’ve come to recognize that I am actually the purveyor of many traditions, and it is during the winter holidays that some of my favorite traditions occur.

The onset of Thanksgiving signaled only one thing to me — it was the traditional opening of the Caberfae ski area, which meant it was the start of the ski season, and with any luck I could get four days of skiing in before I returned to school. This tradition came to an unglamorous halt my senior year of high school. You see, the previous spring, our family went to visit relatives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and my cousin took me skiing in Taos. For a kid from Cadillac, it was literally comparing a mountain to a molehill, and Caberfae was never the same in my youthful eyes.

As I thought about Christmas traditions growing up, and there were many. One immediately brought a smile to my face: icicles on the tree.

Finding, cutting and decorating the tree was a great tradition, but I’ll never forget the final step of putting icicles on the tree. First, you took the icicles you salvaged from last year’s tree and carefully placed them on the tree one at a time (which, by the way, is a very tedious process). At some point in the process, someone would just throw a handful at the tree hoping they would look OK. This, of course, brought an immediate rebuke from all others involved. What started as one rebel soon became many, and by the end we were all just throwing the icicles, and everyone was laughing. What a great way to finish!

While we don’t put icicles on our tree, Kathy and I maintain the tradition of a real tree — at my insistence. It was our first tree that started a new tradition for the two of us. As we were decorating our tree, Kathy presented me with a gift of an ornament. From that day forward, every year we buy each other a new ornament, and I will tell you there is something special about unpacking each ornament from previous years and reminiscing. After 40 years, we certainly have enough ornaments, but I for one am not willing to give up this tradition.

When our children were very young, Kathy had the clever idea of wrapping one present and putting it into their stockings on each of the 10 days prior to Christmas. She was kind enough to put one present in her “big kid’s” stocking, too. These gifts were all less than $1, but there was excitement every morning looking in our stockings to see what we got.

As the kids went off to college, no one was willing to give up the tradition, so if someone wasn’t going to be home for any of the 10 days, they received a package in the mail with the little wrapped gifts. Now, you might think we would have all outgrown this one, but no, it actually grew as our children got married (20 more little gifts) and had their children (40 more little gifts). If you’re keeping count, that’s 90 gifts, each less than $1 and individually wrapped!

Yep, this one got way out of control and finally had to be significantly modified. Now it’s just a tradition for the grandkids. I suspect this one will go on for a while.

As our children went off to college, they would often talk about traditions they learned from their new friends. One tradition that intrigued all of us was the idea of creating a recipe book. We modified the tradition by adding a letter of “dad’s” wisdom (or at least purported wisdom) each year. This one was fun for Kathy and me and was very well received, so each year we put together about 10 recipes along with the letter. Each year, the recipes had a different theme, such as recipes from family and friends or recipes from different cultures. Along with the recipes, we added appropriate photos from our family over the years. And, every year, I wrote a letter sharing thoughts I felt were important.

As you might suspect, there comes a point where you question the value of the work involved, so a few years ago we didn’t create the pages for the year. And, wow! — did we hear about it! Now, knowing how much they appreciated it, it is once again fun for us to create.

In my forth Christmas as a father, Kathy suggested (strongly) that I make and decorate cookies with our 1-year-old and 3-year-old. At the time I didn’t think it was a good idea, but what a joyous tradition it turned out to be! For the next 15-plus years, the three of us would spend a day making, baking and decorating. Unfortunately, this one fell by the wayside as they grew up and moved. This is a tradition that I really miss.

So, as we enter into another holiday season, I always try to remember to use “tradition as a guide and not as jailer.”


— By Mark Smith, Tribune community columnist

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