A man with leathery skin, wearing a well-worn tweed vest and a prayer cloth, ladles fresh milk into a dull tin canister. His name is Tevye, a father of five daughters and a humble milkman by trade. His town is bustling with activity: men are sawing beams and sheering wool, Papa is butchering meat, Mama is baking fresh challah. As Tevye delivers milk to a woman in a small, wooden house, he says, “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word… Tradition.”
Sound familiar? This scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” is a perfect illustration of the pride we have for our traditions. While most of us may not burst into song when we think about them (unless your tradition is performing musical theater), deep inside, we attach them to strong emotions and memories.
The word “tradition” has become somewhat synonymous with the holiday season. Whether your family has always burned a yule log in the fireplace for Christmas, or the Mexican hot chocolate you drink every Christmas Eve while watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” your traditions mark the season with moments of bliss. And it just wouldn’t feel right if you neglected them. The table would seem empty if you didn’t make your great grandma Alice’s Christmas jello salad. The magic would be missing if you didn’t put piles of chocolate coins on the table when the kids were playing spin-the-dreidel.
In the last week, I attended two Christmas events where the theme was “traditions.” I reminisced about my Mom’s German pancake that we ate each year on Christmas morning. Once placed inside the oven, the golden pancake curled up the sides of the cast iron pan, beckoning to be filled with a steaming serving of spiced apples or doused with lemon juice and a dusting of powdered sugar. It’s a sweet tradition – one that I hope to continue in the years to come.
But when someone posed the question as to what traditional foods would be on my table for a holiday spread, besides the German pancake, I couldn’t think of any dishes that would be absolute essentials. At first, I was worried. Is it odd that I don’t have any Christmas foods that I can’t live without?
I listened to the others share their foods. One family eats summer sausages and cheddar cheese after Christmas morning service. Another girl said her mom lives to make her family’s recipes that were brought over from Syria. They all sounded great, but there weren’t any threads that linked the dishes together. The common denominator was that these people ate them year after year with those they loved.
Then, it hit me. At a “traditional” Christmas dinner, the food is arbitrary. Sound blasphemous? Maybe not. While it may not feel the same if you substitute Chinese takeout for the honey-glazed ham, as long as you’re sitting around the table, visiting with those you care about, what difference does the food make? I believe the tradition is not as much in the specific foods as it is in the practice of sharing it in a communal setting.
So this year, whether you plan on making your family’s time-tested eggnog recipe or creating a new dish you saw on the Barefoot Contessa, as long as you’re sharing it with family and friends, you are most surely carrying on the tradition.