by Laura Claverie, updated October 2018
My late mother-in-law was a great believer in family traditions, and the holidays brought out the best in her.
From November to January, she made sure that the family—especially the grandchildren—enjoyed many activities and rituals that she had cherished as a child, and that her own son had also enjoyed when he was little.
For years, Philip and Stephanie dressed up and attended the Nutcracker performances each season with Mama and Papa. Their mantelpiece was decorated the same exact way each year. A toy train, pre-World War II, circled beneath the tree. Nothing ever changed. It was, as Mama would say, “Traaaa-diiiii-tion!”
Traditions, particularly during the holidays, are important. They help families make memories, add to the lore of their lives, and make a child feel grounded.
Our own family had its traditions, although they tended to be less formal than my in-laws’—and quirkier. Ceramic Santa and Mrs. Claus figurines were the first decorations ceremoniously planted on the mantel. As college students, Philip and Stephanie felt a little dorky placing Santa and the Missus on the mantel, but it was our “traaaa-diiii-tiion.”
Over the years, I tried different holiday festivities to introduce our kids to traditions from other cultures. One Christmas we had English-style fare with prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. Another year I prepared a Kwanzaa dinner, complete with symbolic candles. Another year a friend gave me a recipe for, a favorite Chanukah food, to make with our kids.
Now that I have two perfect grandchildren, I’m trying to give them some memories of the holidays that will outlast the presents they receive. Things have gotten a little dicey with Amelia, three, who has announced that she wants a real cell phone from Santa so she can call her friends and talk to them. Since none of her friends have cell phones, or can read numbers or letters, this might prove to be more of a challenge than she is anticipating. Rylan, six, is more realistic; he wants “anything Star Wars.”
I’m finding that grandmothers of my generation are working to create traditions for their own grandchildren, no matter the miles or challenges.
Writer Bonnie Warren has one grandson, Evan, seven. Each Christmas she flies to Baltimore to watch Evan don a manger scene costume and sing “Happy Birthday, Jesus” at Old St. Paul’s children’s service. Another friend takes her grandchildren shopping and has them pick out their own gifts, then takes the gifts home to wrap. Her granddaughters act “surprised” Christmas morning.
I have friends who make mountains of cookies and gingerbread houses with their grandchildren, then help them deliver them to friends and neighbors.
“It helps the kids know that the holidays are for giving as well as receiving,” she says
Several grandmothers I know have started ornament collections for their grandchildren. Some select ornaments based on the little one’s current interests, like princesses, dinosaurs, The Saints or current Disney production. As the children grow up, it’s fun to see how their interests change. Many friends include their grandchildren in the food preparation and table decorations. The settings might not be Martha Stewart perfect, but those hand-made manger scenes and menorahs brighten any table.
Grandmother of four Babs Johnson lets her two oldest grandsons, Weldon and Graham, select a charity to which she donates in their name. Last year they selected the Animal League in their hometown.
“It’s important to instill early on the value of giving to those who are less fortunate,” Babs says.
When our kids were younger, we provided presents and dinner to a family from Kingsley House. Our children helped pick out gifts and wrapped them. Then we’d purchase a turkey and all the fixings. We’d deliver it all to Kingsley House and feel good about helping another family.
Today’s mothers juggle family and work, as most of us did during our childrearing years. We grandmothers can help calm the holiday chaos and create some fun traditions of our own.
Now, about that cellphone…