The Patheos Pagan channel has reached out to people on other faith channels offering to work with them on projects about ancestors. I thought this was a great opportunity because while I’m fascinated by stories about the people in my family, I don’t feel a strong connection to ancestors through genetic lines. Being a believer in reincarnation I’ve always felt like my past and my history is more connected to my own past lives than to my family tree. At the same time, of course I love my family and I have been very lucky to have so many wonderful relatives who mean the world to me. Still, connection to ancestors is important in Hinduism and I don’t know my history and my ancestors as well as I would like. Today and the next two Fridays will be dedicated to this project. To start out with my partner, Peg, and I answered some questions about our family traditions. Here are our answers…
I grew up thinking most people had similar upbringings and engaged in similar family activities. As I got older I started to understand that not only was my own family not typical, but many other ways of life were taking place even in my own community. It was exciting to me to learn about different ways of celebrating holidays. The strongest elements of my own family’s traditions centered around food, so it was always surprising when others didn’t place primary importance on this. I enjoyed learning stories about my ancestors growing up but I feel that I know very little about them; my father’s people were Italian/Sicilian and my mothers family came from Ireland, England and Scotland. My maternal grandmother once told me there was an Irish princess way back in our family. My Italian paternal grandfather owned a fruit and vegetable stand. Both sides of my family were very creative and loved the outdoors; these qualities were, of course, very suitable for someone like me who decided to leave behind Catholicism at a young age, wander through the world as a melancholy agnostic, and eventually discover paganism.
“Railroad Crossings Look Out For Cars. Spell that without any ‘R’s”
Peg: What are your favorite family traditions?
Hallowe’en was always fun; my mom made our costumes, usually on the sewing machine but sometimes putting together creative objects. She’d make homemade treats, too, like cookies, candy apples or popcorn balls. The scare around contaminated treats back in the 1970s put an end to that and everyone was expected to had out storebought candy. My mom was upset about that; I remember the first year that happened, and one kid burst into tears when he realized he could not have one of my mom’s delicious homemade caramel popcorn balls.
Christmas was also a big deal; we’d go to midnight mass at our local church, which had beautiful caroling at the end. We lived about a fifteen minute walk from the church so it was nice to walk there, and sometimes it would be snowing. Christmas eve dinner was spent with the Italians: I don’t recall anyone referring to the food as the Feast of Seven Fishes, but there was a lot of yucky seafood (calamari, eel) that I would not eat. My grandfather would sneak my some of his delicious roasted chicken before midnight.
Christmas day we were allowed to open up our stockings (hung by the fireplace) full of small gifts before the family arrived; there was always an orange in the bottom and this was an old English tradition from when they were considered a great delicacy. There would also be mixed nuts from the bowl in there; I think this was an Italian thing. Christmas’s dinner was more Irish-English: a turkey or ham, lots of vegetables (mashed potatoes, string bean casserole, squash), plenty of pies, and my grandmother would sometimes make Yorkshire pudding or cranberry sherbet. My father often made stuffed oysters or oysters Rockefeller. We were fairly lower middle class so these indulgences were a real treat.
Peg: Are you able to trace where they came from?
It was sometimes clear that some of these foods or customs came from one side of the family and not the other; having Christmas split between the two families helped identify this to some extent.
Peg: Do you find that you get more traditions through your mother’s side or your father’s side?
I think it’s fairly equal to be honest. Both sides had very strong foodways, for example. But on my father’s side, we had family reunions nearly every year when I was growing up; so in a way there was amore direct and visible connection my heritage form that side of things, though I did sometimes attend gatherings of my mother’s side of the family, which was large. Family relations were somewhat dysfunctional on my mother’s side, and after a point I stopped seeing the cousins I had grown up with. I think in general lots of kids of my generation spent a lot more time with their cousins back then; they were almost like sibilings.
Peg: Did you modify or add to family traditions for your own family?
I don’t really have my own “family” (I am divorced and have no children) but I do have a very close-knit “tribe” of friends that are engaged in the pagan community. This concept of one’s chosen family is very popular among modern pagans; possibly because most of us left behind the spiritual traditions of our childhood, partly because we may simply feel more comfortable identifying with people of like mind. But I have noticed that many of us bring our family traditions to gatherings and celebrations: certain favorite dishes, for example, or ways that we decorate our homes at holidays. I still make the same decorated sugar cookies my mother made at Christmas time and send them to friends and serve them at parties. I love to entertain and I think this is based in my family’s very social habits learned from childhood onward.