Why Family Traditions Matter
Updated: Sep 5
~Original published date: 9/2/2019
updated 9/5/22 ~
As the Labor Day picnics, gatherings, celebrations, BBQ's and festivities come to a close, I find myself pondering the concept of "Why do family traditions matter?" Labor Day is a three day weekend of relaxed-anticipated excitement. School has either just begun and now you get a day off, (yippee!) or it will commence after Labor Day. It's a time that many think of as the end of summer. The closing of beaches, the last harvesting of gardens, the relishing in the final streaks of day. Much of how I relate, and view the world, is in song and music, and when I think of Labor Day, I always think of Barbara Streisand's version of the hauntingly romantic tune from the Summer of '42 show, "The Summer Knows" written by Michel Legrand (1932-2019).
And if you've learned your lesson well There's little more for her to tell One last caress, it's time to dress for fall
With the holiday of Labor Day, you usually have the choice of one of the days as being spent with family and friends eating and drinking, boating and fishing, bon fires and sparklers. 2021 marks the 35th Labor Day picnic I have experienced with my in-laws. Family tradition is paramount on this holiday in the Rogers Family.
The food doesn't change. Ever.
It's always the chicken on the grill with a special melted butter mix that needs to be constantly and consistently tended to; cranberry sauce (must be the whole berries, not the jelled); homemade deviled eggs, potato salad and macaroni and cheese and finally the assorted pickles and olives. Watermelon and ambrosia salad are always for dessert. (I didn't know what ambrosia salad was when I first joined the family- actually, I sort of still don't...). The adult drink of choice is always a Manhattan (made with exact measurements - there is no guessing. Ever.)
The measurements and recipes are passed down from generation on hand-written index cards and it's a must for one to follow exactly. One slight variation, which is something I did back in 2006 in the recipe, results in Mom Rogers subtly calling you out on it and remarking, "Well, you shouldn't do THAT again." Seriously? I had just put a little extra black pepper and replaced a little of the sharp cheddar with some pepper-jack cheese in the mac & cheese recipe to "spice-it-up".
Tradition prevails as I was gently put back in my place and reminded to follow the recipe to the letter.
My husband (Scot's) grandfather (Grandpa Wolf) was the "cook". No one else could touch the grill or tend to the cooking of the picnic chicken. But like many aspects of family life, there comes a time where the "tradition" must be passed down to the next generation in order for its survival to continue. The coaching, teaching , reprimanding and guiding then commences. When in High School (mid 1980's) Scot took an interest in the cooking and was the natural selection for this tradition to be passed down to.
Another truth about tradition is: "the more things change....the more they stay the same." Think about that for a moment. What an oxymoron this statement is, yet, this statement perfectly describes the life cycle of the word "tradition".
One example of the oxymoron "passing-of-tradition-down-the-generational-pike", is this story:
Grandma Wolf would heat on the kitchen stove-inside- a pot of the secret butter and vinegar sauce that is squeezed on the chicken. She would scurry back and forth, back and forth numerous times faithfully filling the red or yellow squeezer bottles at the bark of the cook. When Scot took over, he had witnessed this inefficiency all of his life. In addition, it rubbed him the wrong way, that he had to "bark" out orders to obtain more secret juice. The change he made was for the pot to be moved outside onto the corner of the grill area. Thus, giving the cook full control and access to the secret juice anytime he needed refilling. Even with this change, things still stayed the same.
Not only is it the food that cannot vary, neither can the containers the food are served in. Notice the Christmas holly design on the bowl that contains the cranberry sauce in the picture above? Yep, that is THE bowl for picnic cranberry.
While the tradition of food rarely changes, the people do. Friends, aunts, uncles, parents who one year attend, and the next year, they don't. So many reasons why the faces and energies change. Yet, the food and stories remain.
Top: 1991 Labor Day Picnic Top: 2019 Labor Day Picnic
Bottom: 2020 Standard food, I eat. Bottom: 2021 Playing SkipO card game
(no potato salad or deviled eggs for me) Notice the plastic round bowl to Scot's
right ear - that is the ONLY bowl ambrosia
can go in.
As a women over a certain age (I am 51) I feel tired of the prepping, the constant push to please, plan, coordinate, shop, cook, bake, arrange, clean, organize and then have to smile. I am just as tired watching Mom Rogers huff and puff and push through yet another Labor Day family gathering. I was tired watching her - at 79 - hustle and bustle. It's work. While we all try and help in our little ways, the bulk of it falls on her. The matriarch of the family. I received another reprimand just this year when I suggested that Scot buy the charcoal for the grill. I am thinking, gee, Mom Rogers, you're almost 80, lugging large bags of charcoal - and she's short! "I can do it!" She loudly retorted and quickly dismisses me. Even though my intentions were to save her work, I realized it is her work. Her hands. Her house. Her Home. It is her work to maintain the traditions she was brought up with. It must matter to her, right? Why else go through all the struggle, money and stress? The outcome must be of greater value to her than the input, I muse.
I've come to realize, that this Family Tradition work is a type of work that doesn't necessarily get recognized as "work" anymore. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago it was more openly expected that women would maintain a home, keep the families fed, clothed and clean. Now, we do this and so much more. We juggle the priorities of demanding yet fun-fulfilling careers; of little league, dance recitals and volunteering for our community; of going to school ourselves; of driving the homework and cheer leading our kids "You got this!"; of cleaning, recycling, trash pickup day; bill paying and financial choices; yard work and ensuring there is gas for the lawn mower; pet care and kid care, friend care, extended family care, Facebook care, lover and spouse care - and let's not forget our own time to simply take care of ourselves. Now, let's keep with family tradition and host that party again!
Why? Why do we do this? Why does family tradition matter?
For me, I believe I do this to ensure there is a legacy of my family. A legacy of stability. A legacy of familiar. A legacy of stories, of love of history - of our primal need of survival. Family traditions are not just a way for us to gather and share, but its a way for us to survive using our collective knowledge of what works and doesn't work.
It's a way for us to stand steady in a moving sea of uncertainty and crazy. It's about focusing on familiar comforts -regardless of whether we actually like them or not. It's about preferences and clan identity. It is a home-coming of knowing you are worthy.
So, as I sit at the lakes edge toward the end of sunset, with a belly full and with a slight buzz still glowing from the carefully measured Manhattan, I think of Mom Rogers -who by now is in the kitchen separating the food into take-out containers- and I think of my own mother who passed when I was 24 (see previous blog post) and I whisper, yes into the night sky. Yes, it is worth the effort. I say, yes, and I say Thank you.
I have watched my own boys fish in the twilight - whose bellies were full too, and I see in their eyes the flash of anticipation of stoking the Labor Day fire. It makes them giddy and competitive. "I'm gonna put more wood on," one shouts then the other retorts, "No, I'm going to do it, not you!" Off they run. These memories are strong and vibrate each picnic.
I'd like to believe that Mom Rogers is proud to maintain consistency in this ever-changing-evolving world we live in. In some small way, I believe she feels tremendous satisfaction in the stories that are shared, re-visited, remembered, put back together again and then argued about during these family gatherings.
Let us learn from the past, take stock - and even comfort - in the familiar smells, sounds, tastes, touches and sights from our family traditions. Let us pass along to our children, and their children the re-membering of history. Our history. Our families stories.
When you ponder your own family traditions, do you hear what I hear? It's the 1964 musical with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Shledon Harnick and the book by Joseph Stein.
Yes, I am talking about the nine Tony awarded winning gem, "Fiddler on the Roof." Can you hear it now? "Tradition! Tradition!"
In this popular musical we can cull some wisdom from the father character, Tevye. He said,
"How do you keep your balance? Ha! I can tell you in one word. Tradition!
And because of traditions, we all know ourselves.
For without tradition, our lives would be as shaky as, well... a fiddler on the roof."
Val Rogers is the co-host of the "Truth Serum with Maria & Val" a YouTube Channel dedicated to sharing the fun and wisdom of our age with the world because hell, #werenotdeadyetmv.
Reach out to Val at
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