The Comfort of Traditions

  Synopsis:  G-Ma Lori faces some tough challenges in this story.   How does she "erase" the memory of September 11 and the disastrous events from Matt's and Sarah's minds as they prepare for Christmas.   She elects to talk about Christmas Traditions--how others celebrate.   But the effort doesn't work.   A cat and a Christmas Tree keep the threat of Terrorism alive.



 by G-Ma Lori

      “G-Ma, did you really go out in the forest and cut down your own Christmas tree?” five-year old Matt’s eyes were as enormous as two bright blue Christmas ornaments.
        “Well, Matt, I didn’t cut it down, your great grandpa did.  And my brothers, my mom and I helped him tie it onto a sled and pull it back to the Montana mountain road.  Then your great grandpa lashed it to the top of our car and we sang Christmas carols all the way home.”
        Matt, his three-year old sister, Sarah and I were cozying on the couch late in the afternoon.  My grandkids love to hear about the Holiday Traditions I enjoyed.
        “Tell about the part when great grandpa drilled holes in the trunk of your tree…and put in extra branches so the tree looked pretty.”

       Matt’s engineering mind wanted to know how my dad had ‘doctored up’ our tree.  “I’m going to learn how to do carpenter work when I get older, like great grandpa Stan!” Matt announced his new “profession” as he pretended to hammer a nail into his sister’s arm.  “Ouch, G-Ma, make Matt stop,” Sarah screeched, playfully.
        Sarah scrunched up her face. “I don’t want to hear that story again, G-Ma.  I want you tell about your kitty, Clarence Junior crashing the tree down.”  She paused, her big eyes looking up at me as she continued: “Crash, bang…like the big buildings falling down.
         “The Towers, Sarah,” Matt corrected her.  He took up where Sarah left off, “Yes, smash, crash, Sarah.  G-Ma’s tree fell over and smashed all her Christmas presents.  The presents were crunched like the firemen, police and mommies and daddies in the Towers.” Matt stood and swooped his arms over his head and dramatically slapped them downward.
       “Now, Matt, don’t get carried away.  Let’s not stop our story- telling.” I inwardly shuddered thinking how September 11 impacted the minds of children.  I found it amazing Sarah and Matt related so many things to the Twin Towers disaster.  It was as though the event were branded in their minds—and anything involving “destruction” brought back memories of people dying and the horror of a key part of their “town” collapsing. 
          What bothered me the most was that the Matt and Sarah’s parents rarely put on the television, and carefully avoided talking about the event.   Even in the absence of a “Terrorist News Environment” the event still stalked all their thinking.   I continued on with the kitty story to keep the emphasis off the Twin Towers.
         “My kitty was hunting his Christmas catnip that someone mistakenly put under some of the wrapped packages.  He clawed the gaily-wrapped Christmas presents.  Oh,” I said in a big Voice to exaggerate the event, “he made a big mess.  He clawed and scratched and finally the tree tumbled over.  It was a great disaster.” I choked on the word “disaster.”  I didn’t want to agitate the memory of September 11, but the word slipped out.  I hoped the kids didn’t let it stick to their minds.
       “G-Ma, some of the kids at school said they weren’t getting a tree this year.  We are, aren’t we?” Matt was speedily thinking ahead again.   
      Matt has a “thing” about traditions.   Some call it stubbornness.   When he was but three, he refused to walk a different way back to his apartment because it wasn’t the “right way” home.  He demanded we travel down Ave “A” to 2nd street, then turn east.  Approaching his apartment from a different direction was a violation of his “tradition.”  To move him along, I had to carry him home.
         I braced myself for a battery of questions about whether Christmas Tradition was going to be in jeopardy this year.
         “Mommy said we will get a tree, Matt.” Sarah sang the words clearly and crisply as Christmas bells on Christmas Eve. “We all go together, together…together…to find one.”
         She was blessed with her Daddy’s Voice and loved to sing.  CD’s, tapes ranging from classical music, to rock and roll, to Gregorian Chants to Irish folk songs, to children’s games and lullabies were continually played.   She had an ear for the music, and it rang sweetly from her Voice as she talked.

      I assumed Matt’s question was based on his “this-way-only” fear that his family tradition of having a tree was at risk.
       I eagerly scooped both little ones closer to me and we cuddled on the couch.  I thought of my past Christmases and what I could say to Matt and Sarah to ease their concerns and lighten their hearts and mine as well.

      Family traditions are a large part of what the holidays are all about.  Well into the season, I knew we should keep our Traditions solid in the face of Terrorism’s attempt to disrupt our way of life.   Fear and intimidation were the pitchforks of Terrorism, and they tried to knock over Christmas Traditions just like my cat had done years before. 
      My maternal instincts told me children, like Matt and also Sarah, need to feel their lives are predictable; that no matter what happens in the world around them, there is a degree of sameness, saneness. Traditions give children something to depend on year after year and provide an ongoing sense of continuity.  This helps to create stability as an adult—and makes a great story when a cat knocks over a Christmas tree.
        “Of course, you will get a tree this year, Matt.”  I gave him a big hug.  “Sarah’s so right. Holiday Traditions like your family going out to find your tree, allow families to embrace their specialness.  Family traditions create life-long memories, like G-Ma’s family going into the woods in Montana and cutting down a tree.  Your tree, the selection of it and its decoration, helps you know you are part of a special family.”
       Matt relaxed and leaned back, sharing my lap with his sister. “I wish we had a piano, G-Ma so we could sing Christmas carols like you did when you were a little girl.” Matt was back on track with his seasonal optimism.

         “Yes, Matt, having a piano was very special.  My Mother played all the Christmas songs and we sang along with her.  Singing at Christmas goes back to the early centuries, years, of Christianity.  Songs, called carols were written and became popular.  Nearly all were simple songs created by people from the countryside.  Matt, one of your favorite Saints, Saint Francis of Assisi, the Saint who loved animals so much, brought carols into the formal worship of the church, into the Mass, during a Christmas Midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio in the country of Italy way back nine-hundred years ago. Wandering minstrels, singers that moved from one town to another, eventually became known as carolers”. Matt and Sarah listened intently.  I had looked up the history of caroling on the Internet, and amazed myself at my recall.
        “You may not have a piano, Matt and Sarah, but you have wonderful Christmas music that your Daddy plays on your CD player.  He also has a great singing Voice and plays the guitar so you can enjoy the same fun.”  I hugged them again even closer. I was grateful to have my little elves close to me all year long, and especially grateful to share the joy of Christmas Spirit with them.
          “I have a great Voice, too, G-Ma,” piped Sarah and she began to ‘tra-la-la’
          I decided this was a good time to make some points about traditions. “Matt and Sarah, let me tell you about some of the different Holiday traditions families share.  It will help you see how everyone is special at Christmas.”
           As the conversation grew, I realized that Sarah and Matt were gaining knowledge of my past.  They were learning family history--a most important gift grandparents offer their grandchildren.   I put on my Grandparent of Vigilance hat, and started to “teach” the kids about some of the Traditions of the Holidays.   My goal was to overcome any fear, intimidation or complacency they might have as a result of September 11th.  I started my story.

        “Little ones, families and times change.  It’s no longer practical or allowed to go out to the forest to cut down your own Christmas tree as my family and G-Pa’s family did.  Trees have rights, you know.”  I smiled.  Little did the children know I was a Conservative Republican.  But, knowing their parents were fierce Democrats and activists, I chose to give the trees’ rights.  Rush Limbaugh would have gasped at my personification of a tree, but I didn’t mind.  My grandchildren were more important than Rush.  “So, we have to continue with the tradition of your family looking for, picking out, decorating your special tree from lots of them here in New York City.”
       They nodded.  
      I thought I should mention some of the other Holiday traditions such as lighting the Menorah candles, celebration of Kwanza and the Seven Guiding Principles, making Christmas cookies and latkes or jelly donuts.  It would be good for them to understand many families have different traditions this time of year.
        “Jewish families often don’t put up a Christmas tree, kids. Instead, they celebrate an eight-day, two-thousand-year-old holiday called Hanukkah, or, as some call it, the Festival of Lights.  They celebrate God’s glory with the lights.  It’s an ancient ceremony.  Ancient means very, very old.  It celebrates a victory of the Jews over their enemies, and is a symbol of the freedom Jews enjoy today.  Their enemies--people who wished to hurt them--took over their temples, their churches, and the candles in their special candlestick.”
        “They took candles like ours, G-Ma!”  Sarah pointed to the Advent Candles I had gotten for them.
         “Yes, Sarah.  Their enemies, the bad people, just came in and took their candles away.
         “That wasn’t fair,” Matt said.   “Those people were mean.”                                               
         Yes, I thought.  In those days, there were Terrorists too.   But I held back and didn’t use the “T” word.  Instead, I went on with the story.

       “They called the candlestick the menorah.   But the Jews were able to fight and defeat their enemy.  When they went back into their temple to light their menorah, there was only enough oil for just one day.  But, guess what, little ones?”
      “What happened next, G-Ma,” Sarah and Matt both asked their eyes shimmering with excitement just as the oil does that lights the menorah.

      “The menorah burned brightly for eight days.  Remember there was only enough holy oil to last one day, yet the flames of the menorah burned steadily for eight days. With each passing day, the flames grew brighter.” 
       “Wow, G-Ma, it’s like a Jesus miracle.” Matt was awed and appreciative.  I was pleased and proud he could accept the story dealing with another Tradition/ Religion so completely.
         “Jesus did ‘mirculs’, my teacher at Nazareth School told me,” piped Sarah.  Again, she made herself an important part in our discussion.   Women’s rights, I thought, must now be part of the new generation’s genes. 
         “Both of you are correct, dear ones.  You’re listening so well. G-Ma’s proud of you two. Thank you for your ears.” I playfully touched an ear of both children and continued.
         “So, from then on, every year…around our Christmas time…Jewish people celebrate.  Candles are lit at sundown for eight nights in a row.  They eat potato latkes, special ‘cakes’ made from potatoes.  They exchange gifts like we do for Christmas.  They play dreidel games.”
       “What’s that game, G-Ma?”  Matt asked.
        “I don’t really know, Matt.  I’ve never played it.  But I think it has something to do with a spinning top with four letters on the four corners.  Each of the corners refers to the Hanukkah miracle."

      “The miracle of the candles, G-Ma?”  Sarah touched her finger to my face to get my attention.
       “Yes.  That’s right, little one.  And most importantly, just as we look at the Star of Bethlehem over the stable where Baby Jesus was born, they gaze at the light of the menorah and give thanks for the miracle in the Temple long ago.”  I paused giving them an opportunity to absorb and compare.   
       “Matt and Sarah, the Christmas Star--our Star of Bethlehem--has special celebrations too. For example, in the country of Poland, the Festival

of the Star is held.  Right after the Christmas Eve meal, the village priest acts as the ‘Star Man’ and tests the children’s knowledge of religion.”
       “What’s a village, G-Ma?”
      “Sarah, a village is a small town,” Matt gently interceded. She smiled back at him as I continued. "And,  in Alaska, boys and girls carry a star shaped figure from house to house and sing Christmas songs. So, you see, different people and religions celebrate in different ways.”   I was impressed that my grandkids, usually so physical and boisterous at this time of day were interested in seasonal history.  It was as though they sensed the reverence of Christmas stories with the same interest they might the cartoons of Little Bear—their favorite TV show.

      “Well, G-Ma we pray about Baby Jesus’ birth and are happy about that.  We don’t light candles except before Christmas when we light the Advent candles,” Matt had listened intently.  I smiled at him.
         “Ms. McMahon, at my school, said there is another kind of Celebration for African American families.  My friend Jamul told her and the class his grandpa, grandma, uncles, aunts, mommy and daddy and sister know about it and do it.  It’s called Kwana.”  Matt frowned knowing he couldn’t pronounce the word correctly and that perplexed him

           “I think it’s called KWANZA, Matt.  It was created in 1966 and it is a means for Black people to reaffirm their commitment to themselves, their families, their community, and the black struggle for equality.”  I realized I had said a mouthful; perhaps too much for my little ones to take in, but I’d hoped Matt’s teacher--who so far has been ‘on the ball’--might have me covered by discussing it in class.  I continued with what I knew about the holiday..
        “There are seven days of Kwanzaa from December 26th thru Jan 1st.  Each day focuses on a specific principle.  there are seven principles.
            Matt raised his hand, forgetting he wasn’t in his classroom. Sarah laughed when Matt realized he was in ‘G-Ma School.’   He put his hand down.  “What is a principle, G-Ma?”  he asked.  “I forget”.

“Hmmm….A principle is a rule, or a belief on which others are based,” I answered.  I realized my answer was probably too difficult a concept to be understood by a five- and three-year old.   Not hearing further questions though, I was relieved to continue.  Oftentimes, especially when ‘discussing things’ primarily with my little man, and sometimes with sweet Sarah, I get myself into a verbal pit of quicksand, unable to clarify my meaning.  It appeared I was still not yet mired in the pit.
        “The seven principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.  Kwanza also incorporates, or uses, seven symbols from African Culture that have important meanings.  The seven symbols are fruits, vegetable, nuts.  The second symbol is a place mat representing African’s ancestors.  The third, ears of corn.  The fourth is a candleholder.  The fifth are gifts selected to represent the principle of the day.  The sixth is a communal cup of unity.  Communal means everyone uses it.   And, the seventh symbol is seven candles.   One candle is lit each day so that on the seventh day, all the candles are burning.  African-Americans come together and commit themselves to work and study for the World liberation of African people now and forever.”   I let out a gush of air.  I hoped I had all the elements correct.   I had prepared the information for the kids as part of my G-Ma School I held almost each day. 

      “G-Ma, take a breath, take a breath,” joked Matt.  Sarah laughed at his antics.  He jumped off the couch and danced around.  “Ms. McMahon says that to me when I say ‘a mouthful’ and you just did. We should talk about something else now,” he figured enough was enough about other people and their traditions.
        As if on cue, Sarah, demanding to be a part of any and all conversations, loudly asked, “We made gingerbread houses at Maryhouse is that ‘trition’”? 
      “Yes, my Christmas elf, that is a fine TRA-DI-TION. You and Matt can teach your children how to make them too.” I loved having these learning conversations.  Many times I was the one learning.  Before studying about the Jewish and African traditions, I had known only a little about what the ceremonies meant. 
        Matt danced around excitedly as he talked.  “G-Ma, you make Christmas cookies with us and your mommy made them with you.  So, that’s another good example, isn’t it. We’ve eaten most of them.  I like the dough the best, don’t you Sarah?” Matt checked out Sarah’s nod and smiled.
       “I want to add too that traditions don’t have to be expensive or take a lot of time, but they should be consistent – and fun.” 
       Sarah smiled up at me.  “Fun.  Con-sister-sent!”  She said.  I patted her head.
       “Consistent.”  I replied.   She repeated  the word correctly.     
       I sat back on the couch and opened the “Christmas Story” to read it to Matt and Sarah.  “Maybe you and Sarah can think of a new tradition, one to start this year and continue it every year,” I suggested. 
       “We’ll use our ‘maginations’, G-Ma,” said Sarah. “Like you used yours when my mommy and Auntie E were little.  G-Pa made green eggs and ham for breakfast on Christmas Day.  ‘Member, last year he made them for us.  We can make them for our kids, G-Ma, isn’t that right?” She threw me her ‘I-know-I’m-right’ look and squeezed my hand.
         I encircled my lovebugs with my arms and attempted a Sarah-squeezy-special –hug.  “G-Ma, you’re crushing me,” protested Matt.  I relaxed my arms.  I realized that the Parents and Grandparents of Vigilance can offer comfort, security and hope to those in need and can laugh, teach and share so children can enjoy the holidays, traditions and rituals just as we always did before September 11.
          As we were completing our ‘cozytime ‘ on the couch, Mommy and Daddy came home and told the kids they were all going out to get a tree in a few minutes.  Mommy also reminded me to ask G-Pa if he could come over to beautify the tree when they returned.  His daddy, Arch, and my daddy, Stan, both enjoyed several hours of satisfaction removing low branches, drilling new holes in the trunk, and reinserting branches all to beautify the tree. I remembered being an impatient bystander, always dismayed at how long this process took.  I was relieved when the ‘new and improved’ trees we bought these days were ready to decorate
       “Rooo-arrr”, growled Matt, “I don’t want to wait for G-Pa to do all that to my tree.  Mommy, you said we would decorate our tree right after we got it home.”
       And, there it is, the tradition of Matt, my impatient, ‘I want it NOW’, brilliant ‘little man.
        “Hey, Matt, G-Pa told me you could help him if you both are really careful in removing the extra branches, drilling new holes and replacing the branches, but only if you really want to,” Daddy Joe cajoled Matt.  “What do you think of that idea.”
        “Hmmm…..I think…..maybe….that I like this Tradition…..,”  Matt smiled back at his Daddy.  “Hey, Sarah, maybe you can help, too; but only if you’re very careful.”
      “I will,” Sarah promised.  “But we have to put Xela (Sheh-lah) in the bathroom and lock her up?”
      My daughter looked at me, then her lovely little daughter and asked:  “Why would we lock up the cat, Sarah?”                                     

      “So she doesn’t knock down the tree and destroy the presents…like the Towers did…” Sarah added.                                                            
       I looked at the innocent little one.  Maybe she would have another tradition over her lifetime, I thought.  And that would always be her concern about her tree falling over like the Twin Towers did.  Traditions, I thought.   Well, at least Sarah wasn’t afraid of the Terrorists.  And, if there was a Tradition worth keeping, that one had to be right near the top of the star on the tree.

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