No one, not Saudi Princes or Skull and Bones or the Daughters of the American Revolution, ranks as the most traditional among us; that distinction belongs to our kids, who if they organized into a guild or a club or a denomination would have more cherished rituals than the Mormon Church or Mardi Gras.
In our house, we're about to be reminded how strongly they feel about leaving out the correct cookies for Santa. Just as they feel strongly about the traditional sleepover the night before the last day of school. Or the cake on the dock on the last night of the summer, when we review what we've learned since June. Or the sacred right to make ice cream from the first snowfall and eat it for breakfast. Some traditions are set by Scripture or laced with superstition; others are accidents elevated into ceremony, habits in party clothes. A Woody Allen character viewed tradition as "the illusion of permanence," but I think that's exactly wrong; our traditions are a ballast against inventions and innovations that blow us faster into a future we have not prepared for. (See TIME's Person of the Year, People Who Mattered, and more.)
My oldest friend, whose daughter has an August birthday, holds her party at the local amusement park. The kids get bracelets that let them go on all the rides. They quickly outgrew the little trains but could ride the bumper cars; then they outgrew those but could take on the climbing wall. Now they prefer the roller-skating rink, where boys and girls hold hands. As with the pencil lines on the kitchen wall, we've watched them grow through their small rituals. If ambition and opportunity spin us off in every direction, traditions reel us back to where we came from so we can see how we've grown.
I realize that my own daughters have been known to promote family traditions as a way to have their way, stay up later, eat more cake. But like our sense of justice--think of the urgency with which toddlers insist, "That's not fair!"--the sense of tradition seems innate, as if we are born knowing that sacraments tie us together and make us whole. They are a part of a moral diet that we need to attend to, especially now when so many forces conspire to pull us farther apart. How many things this precious cost this little?
In days of loss and uncertainty, there is particular comfort in the once-a-year hymns, the green-bean recipe you don't really like but would still miss at Thanksgiving, the recurring commitments that remind us what's certain, what's fleeting. Timber and stone, flesh and blood may change--a grandfather dies, a house burns down--but the traditions survive; they are made of love and longing for what we value, and so we hold them close and take them wherever we go. They are wonderfully portable, as anyone who has ever improvised a Thanksgiving in someone else's kitchen knows.
And they can be shared, transferred, translated; we borrowed a tradition from our godcousins (is that what families become if another couple are godparents to our kids and we to theirs?): they have two sets of twins, which makes this easier, but the rule in their house is that if birthdays are for getting, half birthdays are for giving. On their kids' half birthdays they go through their drawers and toy boxes, gathering up everything that's outgrown or underappreciated, and take it to the church or the Salvation Army. Then they come home and have a party with half a cake (as I said, easier with twins).
Sometimes you have to plant them and then wait for a while. Years ago, I started saving all those T shirts from soccer league and school plays and breast-cancer walks, even after they no longer fit. They are in a box in the attic, awaiting the day my girls head for college and we patch them into a soft, stretchy quilt made entirely of their adventures and allegiances. Maybe someday we'll do the same for their sons and daughters, make a map of moments on their way to forever.
Critic Lewis Mumford observed that traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past, which resonates in a country founded by generations of pilgrims willing to leave everything behind and start anew. I try to resist the traps that can make traditions toxic: the temptation to use them as cover for prejudice and cowardice and conformity, a refusal to change or stretch--"we'll do it this way because we always have."
So here's a challenge. Start a new tradition in the New Year: a regular Sunday-night Scrabble smackdown; a spring clothing drive; a rule that every time Mom or Dad swears, they put a dollar in the charity box that gets distributed on New Year's Eve. At their best, traditions make us better; at the very least, they remind us how far we've come and how lucky we are.