A Piece of My Mind: Tradition

Just finished with Thanksgiving, just starting to get my mind set for upcoming Christmas, so it’s no wonder I’ve been mindful of traditions.

In my family, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday of hospitality, with assorted family members from near and far, old friends and some new ones, significant others and random dorm-mates, all sharing around a table or two or even three. Over several generations, some of our traditions have morphed or been abandoned, while other new ones have been added.

When I was a girl, it was my job to polish the silver in anticipation of any holiday gathering. My mother would bring out her wedding silver, together with silver-plated serving platters, a gravy boat and covered casseroles, all needing considerable elbow grease to bring them up to her sparkling standard. I was also in charge of making place cards and arranging the seating, preferably alternating men and women, with no one from the same family sitting next to each other. Later I became the hostess, and my granddaughter took over polishing my wedding silver as needed, as well as making and arranging place cards.

Growing up, we always shared Thanksgiving with another family we had known since I was a toddler. They always brought candied yams in a casserole and a couple of kinds of pies. Decades later those friends had passed on, but meanwhile I have secured a husband who is a master hand at mashed potatoes, and a brother-in-law who prides himself on pies. No chance of a carbohydrate shortage here!

After Thanksgiving dinner had been cleared, we would set up the table for a game of Michigan (also know as Tripoli in some circles) using a game cloth that had been hand-stenciled by my grandmother, and some poker chips that were as old. This game depends mostly on luck and can be played by anyone old enough or young enough to hold a fan of playing cards. My mother took delight in cheating, and we all took even more delight in catching her at it.

More recently, my husband added a tradition of offering champagne or sparkling cider to all before sitting down to eat, together with an obligatory group sing of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to the faltering accompaniment of my recorder. (Having drunk a glass of champagne in advance helps everyone participate with gusto.) The wearing of pilgrim hats or other costume items is optional for this performance, which is a great ice-breaker for any of the new significant others or recently met friends.

All great traditions. But this Thanksgiving our minds were also aware of the wildfire victims who had lost so much of their traditions to inferno, and the migrants at our southern border and around the world who had abandoned their traditions in hope of finding a new home free of hunger and fear.

I thought a lot about the American tradition that has seen our country as a “nation of immigrants,” as a “melting pot,” as a “shining city on a hill.” I remember the poem I memorized for school as a girl, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Bring me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

This is a tradition of hospitality that is more difficult to stick with in challenging times, but more important than turkey, more American than apple and pumpkin pie. As a nation, I hope we can live up to this traditional vision of our best selves.

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