There is an alluring temptation around our holiday traditions that lead us to believe all things are constant, like a strong door allowing us into something special each time we enter them. Yet as we walk through them from year to year – there are variations. We always used to have Thanksgiving at my grandparents house. Except for the year we were all sick and stayed home. Except for the year I had knee surgery and it made more sense for my parents to host that year. Except for the year we decided to “go out” and see what it was like to have the meal at a restaurant. So I guess it wasn’t always the same, the door opened to a new possibility each year.
Over the course of the last several years we opened a new door, sharing Thanksgiving with my sister and brother-in-law. The first year we came together they were living in Virginia so we made the trek (and it was a trek through all that traffic) from Connecticut to the Washington D.C. suburbs. Once or twice doors remained shut and it didn’t quite work out to get together. One year we had Thanksgiving in Chicago at their house. The last few years we have hosted it at ours. A few years in there we spent Thanksgiving with my aunt in Milford. This year we will all be together. Doors of tradition can lead to new places.
This year we have some notable variations, as we walk through the door. Tammie is far away. No doubt the Skype factor will be alive and well across the entire day Thursday – opening a door unimaginable only a few years ago. We also welcome little Liam to his first Thanksgiving table. He learned to wave this week since Cheryl and Mike arrived, so no doubt he will be the greeter, waiting joyfully just inside the house past the door. My aunt will be gathered around the table too as will my two cousins and their families (minus one). It is the first time we have been together since my cousin’s wedding this summer and the first time we’ve gathered around our table since last Christmas. It is also quite notable, and I am sure will emerge in many conversations – that last Christmas was the last time we gathered around any table with my grandmother. A new threshold to cross indeed.
I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving when my grandmother had a taste for smoked turkey, and rather than deny anyone “regular” turkey she served two of them – one regular and one smoked -full sized (20lbs) …for seven people! That may also have been the year she gave us each two dinner plates to hold everything she had prepared. That was my grandmother. So this year, hosting fourteen people around the table I felt a quandary about what to do concerning the turkey. Do I get one really large one, or get two smaller ones? Well, as I have told my family members to their amusement, “I pulled a Grammy.” Without explanation they knew exactly what I meant. We’ll be serving two turkeys on Thursday. The door is wide open!
Some Thanksgiving traditions we have acquired over the years behind the door that welcomes us in. From my aunt we learned to make turkey soup from the leftovers and starting with enough pie so we can have it for breakfast Friday morning. My sister always makes her signature stuffing where sausage is a key ingredient. We go around the table and name things we are thankful for and Tammie usually gives an address. This year that will change, but I think she is still planning on emailing it to us – if she can’t Skype with us at that point in the day. We eat early enough so we can nibble the whole rest of the day and a recent tradition (though unplanned) is that the turkey gets done earlier than anticipated and we all raid the kitchen to scramble to get everything on the table.
Traditions evolve. They take shape over time. They become traditions in the remembering of stories that preserve and reclaim past actions, their repetition reinforces those stories, and their refinement over time engrains the meaning and purpose behind them. Traditions work best when they bring life into our observances and make them richer for it, like a door that entices and welcomes us into a new world.
But traditions can hold a false weight over us as well. When we forget the stories, and when we lose the purpose behind the things we do only to do them because, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” we have lost something. When we are no longer open to a potential new idea because duty requires of us doing it some other way, or if we can’t adjust when necessary change presents itself, then the door remains shut and bolted – keeping us shut inside and keeping others away. When our traditions – whether they are holiday observances, business models, educational strategies or church related issues – hold us hostage by a narrow rigidity never intended by a set of practices meant to give height and width and depth to our lives, we have replaced the wisdom of experience meant to serve us with a menacing tyrant that demands our allegiance.
As you observe Thanksgiving this week, take notice of the traditions that hold power over you. Are those traditions life-giving or life-restraining? Why? What might be done a little better to communicate why we do certain things and what the mean to us? Sometimes the life-giving solution to welcoming others to the table pushes us to think twice about a second turkey. Sometimes a second turkey is just ridiculous, no matter how you slice it. The key is to be able to discern the difference. As we move from Thanksgiving to Advent and into Christmas I pray that all of us can navigate those distinctions. Whatever threshold opens us into a bigger world than our own – that door is life-giving. Whatever locks us away with the force of a deadbolt is a door takes life from us. Whether it is setting your table on Thursday or pulling the boxes of Christmas decorations out of storage – look to the stories. Repeat and know them well. Share them that others may know their breadth and length and height and depth, and remember – those traditions you continue to observe are intended to serve you, not the other way around. Bear in mind the story that keeps us centered – Christ the gate, the door, the threshold, who opens all possibilities into God’s good future.
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)