When our kids were small, I thought we had too many family traditions. We had to do things a certain way on Christmas morning. The Easter eggs had to be colored just right, and the Bunny had to come and hide them in just the right places. And we had separate traditions for each person’s birthday.
My (Richard’s) birthday is in October, and the kids insisted we jump in piles of autumn leaves for “my tradition.” We would rake them up, bury each other and stuff them down the back of our shirts. I thought it was a little childish and would probably lose its charm and fade away as they got a little older.
On the contrary! It seems that kids will not let traditions die, or even change. As the years passed, we had to find bigger trees with bigger leaves—”Let’s go to the park for your birthday tradition Dad, more trees, more leaves, let’s jump out of the trees into the leaves, let’s invite our friends. Hey, Mom, can you bring some hot chocolate?”
Even then, I didn’t quite get the appeal and the staying power of some of these seemingly random and silly rituals.
Then one year as my birthday approached, my two oldest kids were gone from home for the first time. Our oldest daughter was in Bulgaria, working as a volunteer in an orphanage, and our oldest son was away at his first year of college. Realizing that this would be my first birthday without them, I was feeling a bit melancholy.
On my birthday morning, I was delighted and somewhat surprised to find two birthday cards in the mailbox, one from each of them. I took them, unopened, into my den and sat down to see what kind of cards they were and what kind of birthday wishes they had for me.
I opened my daughter’s envelope first and caught my breath when, instead of a card, a bright red leaf fell out onto my desk. Stuck to the leaf was a little yellow post-it note. Tears started to well up as I read her words, much like my eyes are moistening now as I write this story. It said, “Dad, this is a Bulgarian leaf. The orphans helped me honor your tradition.”
Then came her last line. “Dad, don’t forget, just because I’m far away, I’m still part of our family.” I finally understood what family traditions are.
Security, belonging, and an identity larger than themselves. That is what kids get from consistent, recurring family rituals. I started to understand that morning. Traditions are the glue that holds families together.
Hardly daring to hope for more, I reached for the envelope from my son. The two of them certainly had not talked to each other so whatever they each sent was an independent action.
I slit the top of the envelope, turned it upside down and out fell another bright autumn leaf.
This one though, typical for a boy, had no note—just the leaf. I could picture my son sitting in his dorm room putting a leaf in an envelope and thinking, “I’ll just send this to Dad, he’ll know what it means.”
What a lesson I learned that day—a lesson about identity, a lesson about unity, a lesson about love.
I have never doubted the power and meaning of entrenched and valued family traditions since that day.