Thinking About Tradition

By Nalini Raghavan


It's finally getting chilly, there's a bite in the air and I can now ease into the holiday season without feeling like I'm wishing for a snowman in June (or in Louisiana for that matter!). For me, the holidays are a time for family traditions, those rituals that bind immediate and extended family together, near or far, old and young. Whether we look forward to the family traditions or not, they do serve a purpose of providing us with holiday practices that bring and bind us together, thus solidifying familial relationships and roles.

Family holiday rituals also provide benchmarks for the year, cyclically marking our diverse, disparate, and hurried individual lives with group experiences that we can count on with the people that we know most intimately. All families, no matter where they are from or what language they speak, practice seasonal rituals. They provide great comfort and fundamental joy, for they serve to strengthen the bonds of our fundamental social units.

One such tradition that my sister (and, admittedly, myself) counts on is our Christmas morning stockings. Last year my mother tried to do away with this tradition, thinking we were past the age of needing such childish holiday accoutrements. Well, I'll let go of Santa if I absolutely have to, but not that extra little stash that you get to ply through while everyone "gets ready" to open presents!

And what presents they are . . . We depend as much on what's in the stocking as we do on the stockings themselves. For it's actually the contents that make the stocking a "Raghavan-family x-mas stocking."

Since I can remember, my mother stuffs these homemade mantelpieces with a strange array of drugstore paraphernalia—Head & Shoulders shampoo, Oil of Olay moisturizer, Alpine chocolates, gum, razor blades, AA batteries, (I swear she must have an annual stocking shopping spree at the corner Eckerds). And to top off these hygiene products—the particular gifts that most perplexed us—the orange and the apple.

I finally asked her last Christmas why she insisted on including the apple and orange in our stockings when, frankly, they usually ended up back in the fruit bowl. Well apparently, they are a remnant of her family's traditional stocking stuffer fare.

While I may not appreciate the apple as much as my grandmother's family of seven children did, I can appreciate my mother's seemingly illogical insistence on this tradition. Because it's not really illogical at all when you consider it has served to connect our present with the past, to help us find our place in the multi-generational networks of family. In fact, I look forward to getting my apple and my orange this year.

I can share all of this with the absolute certainty that you have similar family traditions that are both the banes and the blessings of your life. Keep them in mind this season and, may I suggest, open up the topic with your students. After all, in order for the connections to be made to the past, we must first ask the questions.

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2003 Louisiana Voices Giving Voice Newsletter. Nalini Raghavan is an anthropologist who lives in Baton Rouge, and the former Louisiana Voices Outreach & Development Coordinator.