I’ve always been enthralled by families different to my own. Having become a parent in the last few years, I'm on the hunt for new ideas, things I can incorporate into our lives that might become family rituals, both treasured and laughed-at.
I grew up in Melbourne’s west as the daughter of Italian immigrants. Next door was my only-child best friend, her parents Northern Irish and English. Their family life couldn’t have been more strange and exotic to me. (What the hell is soda bread?). But it was the little details I found most interesting, like the fact that whenever her dad wanted to check whether my friend was telling a lie, he would just say, “Say true.” And to satisfy his question, she would answer “True.” She could never, not in a million years, lie to her parents if they asked her to say true. It was a sacred bond, built up over years and even now at 42 years of age, her dad still asks her to say true.
Sure, my family developed its own traditions over the years. Who would risk not attending and helping out at tomato sauce-making day, for instance? Or dare visit a relative's house empty handed? Or refuse a relentlessly offered meal, even when you’d just eaten.
For 30 years, Friday Night Dinner was the epitome of tradition in my family and it went like this: Everyone piled into my Nonna’s house around 7pm. How the frig 35 people fit around one table is beyond me, but anyway, all I can say for sure is that there were two rows. There were a couple of rules; speak loud and eat fast. There were stories we’d all heard a million times and people talking over one another. Newcomers were mercilessly grilled by numerous cousins or else struggled to get away from an annoying uncle. Lashings of food were served up by Nonna who, in her heyday, rarely sat down. These were usually traditional Italian offerings of her famous lasagne, or minestrone, mopped up with crusty bread and followed by roughly 300 desserts. And cake. There was always cake, because in our family it was always someone’s birthday.
The night was not complete until you pulled your car around the Footscray cul-de-sac where Nonna lived and waved an exaggerated goodbye to her, as she stood by the decaying front gate – rain, hail or shine.
Nonna is gone now, but we still gather occasionally to eat together and celebrate nothing in particular. I know when an aunty rings these days, it’s usually to say: “I’m having Friday Night Dinner. Can you come? It’s this Saturday.”
Now, as ‘matriarch’ of my own small tribe, I’ve tried to introduce traditions to my nuclear family but I’m not yet sure if they will stick. We’ve taken a family snap in front of our Christmas tree every year since my daughter was born, for example. The one I am enjoying the most right now though is ‘Questions’ where we ask each other any question we like at the end of the day. It’s a good chance to let my daughter ask whatever she wants and see what she is thinking. My Mother In Law thinks I may live to regret this tradition.
For my extended family Christmas (celebrated of course, on Boxing Day), I initiated a Christmas Bake-off. The rules are still evolving, but basically blood-relatives battle non-bloods for dessert glory. There is sometimes cheating, sometimes judge bribery, but it’s all in good fun and really just an excuse to eat 12 pieces of 12 different cakes.
What better time to develop and celebrate tradition is there than the holidays? Who could forget George Costanza's Festivus and the Feats of Strength? This fictional family tradition still makes me laugh.
Some traditions seem to be borne out of thin air. A friend tells me that every year after Chistmas lunch her mum pulls out the old Chipmunks Christmas cassette. It's so bad, it's good and it wouldn't be Christmas without it.
A German woman I recently met explains the ritual of Niklaus. In early December, children leave their polished boots outside overnight, to be filled with small toys or sweets. She remembers this childhood memory fondly and says she and her husband will introduce it to her two young children, albeit with a possible Aussie twist of leaving thongs outside.
The most powerful of family traditions might be the ones that come from loss, from those world-changing life events we all face from time to time. A work colleague tells me about how her mother and five siblings gather annually to commemorate her father’s passing. They do this in a different location each year, to represent her parents’ love of travel or just because it’s somewhere special. This is a still-developing ritual that has been happening for just a few years, but what remains the same is that they always talk about her dad, there is always a toast and lots of laughs with family and friends.
I wonder if these cultural traditions are the easiest to hang onto. One of my high school friends, who has Egyptian roots, married a bloke whose folks are Irish. She jokingly asks if I want to hear about her family’s habit of Irish belly dancing and feast of potatoes and molokhia (traditional middle eastern soup). Somehow, I think she is having me on.
Meanwhile, in my extended family, it is still always someone’s birthday. Come to think of it, for around 15 years, we have been singing ‘happy birthday’ out of tune and out of time. Someone thought it was funny once, and now it just happens. Apart from it being incredibly upsetting to small children, it is actually pretty entertaining.
I guess some family traditions are just unexplainable.