How we make traditions part of our life stories

Setting the Record Straight

Third in a series exploring the relationship between individuals, memories and memorials. For more information, please visit www.echoleft.com

I was writing my Christmas and Hanukkah cards the other day and thinking about traditions. I don’t really have a card-writing tradition unless ‘failing to post anything in time for any holiday’ is a tradition. (This has happened so many time I should probably start calling it one!)

In my last post I talked about how we can use Echoleft to tell our stories and other people’s stories. In this post, I’m wondering how important traditions are to our stories. Are there rituals of celebration that we share with family and friends? What do we do, how do we record what we do, and how to we share what we do with other people? How do we share our memories with the people who were there as well as with the people who weren’t?

My photographs only tell part of the story.

Taking and preserving photographs is a good place to start, but however many words a photograph tells, aren’t there some still missing? I have photographs of family Christmases from when I was a child. I can see that we had a tree and that we exchanged gifts, but my photographs only tell part of the story. Photographs don’t show that we exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve in the evening instead of Christmas Day in the morning. If someone were to look at all my photo albums, they might figure out that my family didn’t celebrate Christmas until I was eight, but the photographs alone wouldn’t explain why.

Similarly, the photographs of our tree show the hand-made ornaments with our names and birthdates that my mother made for me and each of my five brothers and sisters, but they don’t show that as children we used to put incredible amounts of time and effort into making sure OUR ornament was the one highest on the tree. (I really cannot overstate how very, very important this was.)

With Echoleft, we have a place to record and preserve the stories that are inseparable from our traditions. We have the chance to do this while we still remember why we do what we do. A friend of mine was listening to a series on the radio about people tracing their family traditions. One family had always cut their Sunday joint in half before they cooked it because they all assumed this was the secret to cooking great-tasting meat. This tradition had been passed down for several generations, but I’m sure you can guess where this is going — or perhaps you listened to the same programme!

We act our traditions, but we also tell them.

One day a junior family member questioned a (very) senior family member, who revealed the true origins of the tradition: the joint was cut in half because the oven of a long-distant matriarch was too small for a whole joint. ‘Much meat-hacking time wasted,’ said my friend, shaking her head, but you can be fairly certain that the telling of how the meat came to be hacked will itself become a new tradition. And I wonder if the family still cut the joint in half as well….

Traditions — how they happen, why they happen — are part of our life stories. And we keep traditions alive partly by telling stories about what we do. We talk about how we always do something a certain way, or about that one hilarious time (or seven…) when we were going to do it the way we always do, only everything went pear-shaped and it happened a different way instead. We act our traditions, but we also tell them.

Echoleft is a place where we can save our memories of our traditions for our children and grandchildren. We can set the story straight, as with the family with the Sunday joint, or we can tell the whole story, as with my family’s Christmas tree ornaments. We can create memorials of big events, like shared holidays, or smaller events, like shared meals. As always, it is up to us what story — or stories — we choose to tell….