At the close of an especially enjoyable day with our family some years ago, ten-year-old Elaine captured the mood by exclaiming, “This has been such a fun day. Let’s do this day again!” And we did, the next year. That is how a tradition is born.
Traditions have a lot to do with keeping families anchored and strong. Traditions give children roots in the past and hope for the future. Traditions add color and depth to family living. Traditions make memories. Traditional events or activities may seem fairly insignificant standing alone, but put together and enjoyed time after time, they spell solidarity in family life. Blessed is the home that is rich in them.
Traditions can range from A to Z, and there seems to be no limit to the number of them a family can participate in. They don’t have to be spectacular to be meaningful. They can vary from something as simple as a bedtime story each night or a bright red “You Are Special” plate on the table for someone’s birthday to an involved four-generation family reunion attended by 250 people. They can be centered around holidays and special occasions or for no reason at all, but just to be together.
Some family traditions could include making brownies on Sunday evenings, hiking and camping in the mountains, playing and picnicking on the beach, Mom and Dad going on a date every Friday night, playing games such as dominos and Scrabble, ordering Chinese take-out on New Year’s Eve, singing around the piano, bicycling together, enjoying winter sports such as skiing and ice skating, reading stories by the Christmas tree in December, filling and opening time capsules every five years, making pizzas, hunting for Easter eggs, watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, going to ball games, eating three kinds of pie on Thanksgiving, picking berries and making jam, baking heart-shaped cookies and delivering them to special people for Valentine’s Day, reading daily from the Book of Mormon, choosing your favorite food for your birthday dinner, making snowmen in January, eating French toast at Grandma’s house, compiling scrapbooks, going shopping for school clothes in August, taking part in the nativity program on Christmas Eve, watching a video or DVD and eating popcorn on Saturday night, going swimming, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows over a campfire, having family night every Monday, and countless others.
A favorite tradition in one of our sons’ homes is to present each family member with a journal on his birthday to be filled during the ensuing year. In place of birthday cards, everyone writes a love note at the beginning of the book. These journals become treasured volumes.
Our Dutch heritage is a strong influence in our home, with the culture forming the basis of some of our most charming family traditions. For example, we have both adopted and adapted the Dutch Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) celebration.
We have established the custom of having our children (and now the grandchildren) place wooden shoes by their bedsides on the night of December 5th, in anticipation of treats being left by St. Nicholas as they sleep. St. Nicholas, who lived during the fourth century and was a bishop of Lycia off the coast of Asia Minor, has become known and beloved for the many kindnesses he extended to people, particularly children. Centuries later a modern tradition asserts that St. Nicholas, now affectionately known to Dutch children as Sinterklaas, leaves his home in Spain by ship and sails to Holland early in December in company with his little black helpers who are called Zwarte Piets.
There he mounts a white horse, and with the Zwarte Piets running along, visits every home in the land giving oranges, candy, and small gifts to the children. They, in turn, leave carrots and hay in their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse. Amazingly, he also manages to visit the young children of our family here in America, and these children are extremely impressed that the “Dutch Santa Claus” knows about them.
We hold a wonderful family party on the evening of December 5th, where we eat Dutch-type soup, Dutch cheese in our sandwiches, Dutch pudding and cookies for dessert, and sing Dutch songs. The excitement steadily mounts until it reaches a climax as a loud knock on the door is heard and Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Piets enter.
Sinterklaas greets the children, first in Spanish, then in Dutch, and much to the children’s delight finally in English. Little hearts pound as he reviews the behavior of each child during the past year. If the child has been just a little bit bad, he directs a Zwarte Piet to switch him lightly. If he’s been quite a bit bad, Sinterklaas says there might be lumps of coal in his wooden shoe in place of treats.
If the child has been very bad, a Zwarte Piet threatens to bag him up and take him back to Spain. There is no record, however, of anyone being carried off to Spain.
Sinterklaas offers a few words of warning about behavior for the coming year, and then he happily pronounces each child well behaved and leaves with promises of treats in their wooden shoes during the night. The children wave and sing as he and the Zwarte Piets go on their way. (Note: December 5 and 6 are children’s holidays in Holland, or The Netherlands as the country is officially named. Christmas, celebrated on December 25 and 26, is generally reserved by the Dutch for family dinners and religious purposes.)
Only Correct Traditions
Traditions are the handing down of beliefs, opinions, customs, actions, and stories by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another. Most often traditions are associated with fun and good times and memorable occasions, but they can also have a serious side.
It is a sobering thought that how you think, what you believe, how you act, and what you do could possibly be how those of your posterity think and believe and act and do for generations. Visualizing a great-grandchild being just like you (or like any one of us) should cause some serious introspection about who we are and what we stand for and some powerful motivation to perpetuate only correct traditions.
Traditions can be more than fun; they can represent more than good times and memorable occasions for families. They can do more than bind several generations; they can bind families eternally. And traditions can be for good or evil, for strength or weakness, for exaltation or damnation. This is no more evident than among the Nephites and Lamanites as recorded in the Book of Mormon. We quote from the words of King Benjamin to his sons as found in Mosiah 1:5:
I say unto you, my sons, were it not for these things [records], which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbelief, and we should have been like unto our brethren, the Lamanites, who know nothing concerning these things, or even do not believe them when they are taught them, because of the traditions of their fathers, which are not correct.
The good news is that if incorrect traditions are prevailing in a family, course corrections can be made along the way. Every now and then a family member comes along who is faithful and strong enough to be a “transition” person, one who can reverse a negative pattern and thereby save future generations. Or someone responds to missionaries and an entire family (even a nation) becomes converted. The Book of Mormon shows examples of this, too, as in Alma 23:5-7:
And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites; and they were taught from records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time... [A]s the Lord liveth, as many of the Lamanites as believed in their preaching, and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away. For they became a righteous people.
One Person’s Influence
We have seen the power and blessing of correct traditions in our family, handed down from courageous, faith-filled pioneer ancestors to exemplary grandparents. Let us tell you about one great family patriarch, Donovan Herbert Van Dam.
Opa, as we affectionately called him, lived ninety-four years. At the time of his death in 2000, his posterity numbered an even one hundred, each one living by the correct traditions that he had passed along. Opa’s influence and example have been so cherished that two grandsons and five great-grandsons bear his name, Donovan, as their middle name. Each of these boys and men and all of us know that anything Opa has said or done is all right for us to say or do. This is our heritage.
Traditions are as many as you want and as fun and meaningful as you make them. However, one tradition transcends them all. Joshua said it best when he declared: “Choose you this day whom ye will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15)