Thinking about family traditions

My daughter’s teacher assigned her the homework of finding out about our family traditions and learning what our ancestors’ lives were like. I’m having an unusually difficult time with this. The thing is, these conversations about family traditions are happening in connection to the Nelson Mandela memorial curriculum our teachers are doing. The typical “Our family came from Scotland and here are some shortbread cookies” seems completely inappropriate in this context.

We celebrate all the standard US-Christian holidays: Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving. But we don’t do it because it’s a family tradition; we do it because we’ve assimilated into a culture that celebrates them.

What about holidays “from the old country”? Well, which old country, anyway? These kids have thirty-two great-great-grandparents. They came from Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Britain, Ireland, and miscellaneous Scandinavian countries. Each of them had different family traditions, and most of them died out when the person with that tradition married into a family that had a different one. Or traditions died out when living conditions changed. My grandparents did “the harvest dance.” We don’t farm now, or even live in rural areas, and we don’t have a harvest dance. Conditions are changing faster than ever. The family I grew up in had fabulous Easter egg hunts. But we don’t do that. We go to the neighborhood Easter egg hunt, with plastic Easter eggs, and brunch afterward.

How about religious traditions? Thirty-two great-great grandparents, and sixteen great-grandparents, and nine grandparents, and four parents, and they tended to have conflicting beliefs. If I pick a tradition, why exactly would I pick that particular one?

So I have a vague general sense of unease about this whole thing. Maybe I feel like I should do a better job than usual, in honor of Nelson Mandela. Maybe I feel like when I tell our children about our heritage, I tell them nothing of use.

I’m also struggling because I’ve been reading up on our heritage in a much more broad, sweeping way. I’m fascinated by our cultural heritage, reaching back to the beginnings of written language in Mesopotamia. The people who lived back then were probably my ancestors, but even if they’re not, they brought me my cultural heritage. And then way, way back, we all have ancestry from Africa. That’s in our heritage.

So too much flows into my head whenever I think about heritage, and none of it is ready to be explained to an eight-year old.

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