We parents believe we are the creators and guardians of family traditions.
We offer sizzling sparklers and half-burnt hot dogs on the Fourth of July as if we invented them; we propose a masked hike around the block on Halloween as if we’re the first people to come up with this plan. We kindle a rack of candles or plug in a cord of blinking lights in cold rooms in December to take the children’s breath away with awe and gratitude.
But really it is the children who enforce family traditions, children who often miss the whole point, the underlying themes, and the historical context. The symbols and lessons that we, and our forebears, considered central to a holiday are overthrown by children, who elevate trivial aspects instead, and then cling to them against all odds. Small enforcers are among us, with photographic memories. They cast cool eyes upon our sheepish attempts to abbreviate, cut corners, or skimp.
”That is NOT how it looked last year,” a small girl will pronounce, brooking no dissent. Caught by Molly in the very act of laying out the everyday plates upon a blue tablecloth for Thanksgiving dinner, I sigh and start over. There is no point to explain that last year her grandparents were here and this year it’s just us. I reach deep into the sideboard for the good white tablecloth and the wedding china. Molly helps me set the table, while keeping a close watch against further backsliding.
My sweet mother, in her late middle-age, suddenly announced one December that she was weary of the muss and fuss of lighting the Hanukah candles. She was tired of scraping the old wax off the old brass menorah, or something. “Look! Look at the fun way we’ll do Hanukah this year!” she said when we arrived at her Dayton, Ohio, condo for a visit when Molly and Seth were small.
My father watched cheerfully as my mother pulled out a shopping bag from the Temple Israel Gift Shop and produced a cloth wall-hanging that displayed a black-felt menorah on a white background. Yellow felt candles could be affixed by Velcro. The holiday decoration hung from a golden braided rope; gold tassels dangled from the bottom corners. “Isn’t this adorable?” asked my mom.
“What do you mean, ‘This is how we’ll do Hanukah?’” I said.
“We’ll sing the blessings and the children can add another candle each night and…look!…I can hang it on the book shelf, or, no, here! I’ll hang it from this lamp so we can all enjoy it.”
“Where is the MENORAH?” I asked, through narrowed eyes.
“Oh gosh, it’s deep in the storage room, I haven’t even gotten it out this year. This will be fun. Where are you going?…” Though I was thirty-four at the time, I was the child insisting upon the old ways. I headed for the storage room.