When Traditions Continuously Change

By Miriam

Traditions are usually thought to have existed for a long time and passed down from
generation to generation through a family, religion, or by society more generally. If you look up
the definition of tradition, the wording will be along those lines. However, my holiday traditions
have varied greatly over the course of my life, depending on what people and organizations
were present in my life at that time.
Halloween is a good example of a holiday where how I celebrate has changed over time
as the people in my life change. When I was younger, my elementary school held an annual
Halloween parade. Students would come to school dressed in costumes. At a scheduled point
during the school day, we would all then go outside into the school yard and walk around in a
large circle as part of a costume parade. Parents would often come to photograph their kids as
they participated in the parade. Eventually, I would of course move on from attending
elementary school and therefore no longer take part in traditions unique to the one I attended.
My high school still celebrated Halloween, but with different annual traditions. In high school, we
had an annual costume contest on Halloween instead of a parade. We would create a catwalk in
the cafeteria and play music as people showed off their costumes. For the filmmaking elective I
was in, I could count on our teacher to have us watch and possibly analyze a horror film each
Halloween. The day before Halloween, there would be a student-led effort to decorate after
school. One year, I realized the student who had organized these efforts previously had
graduated. I ended up being the one leading the effort to decorate the school that year and the
following years after realizing there was no planned successor for their role. To prevent the
school’s Halloween traditions from disappearing, I made sure to train younger students before I
graduated in how to organize volunteers for decorating the school. I showed them the process I
went about to get fellow students and teachers to donate decorations, where we stored the
re-usable decorations, methods I used to recruit volunteers for when we would put up the
decorations, which staff we needed permission from for different aspects of it, what parts of the
school we were allowed to decorate, and anything else required to pull this off. I wonder what
would have happened if I had not stepped up or trained someone to replace me once I left,
especially considering many of the tactics I used to get the decorating done I had learned from
watching the student who used to organize it when I volunteered freshman year. From what I
have heard, my high school has continued to celebrate Halloween after I graduated, though
they adapted their traditions a bit over time. It makes sense for a student-led effort to change
over time, considering who is enrolled as students at a particular high school changes over time.
Outside of school, my Halloween traditions also changed with age and as the people
around me did. As a kid, there was a group of friends and family I trick-or-treated with each
year. When some of the people in our small group lost interest as we got older, I shifted to
trick-or-treating with some of my younger relatives in their neighborhood. Eventually, we all grew
out of trick-or-treating and I had to find other ways to celebrate. A couple years, I spent
Halloween simply watching horror movies with various people in my life either at my house or
theirs. Freshman year of college, I went to my first haunted house (the commercial production
kind with people in costume as opposed to somewhere believed to actually be haunted). One of
the main reasons I went is because my college was offering discounted tickets for a group of
students to go together, which again shows how the organizations in my life can influence how I
celebrate holidays. Unfortunately, few of my friends or family members are at all interested in
haunted houses when I tried to find people to go with during the following years. Of those
interested, it was hard to find someone who lives locally and shared my availability. Especially
after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic had made it next to impossible to do more for
Halloween in 2020 then stay home and watch a movie, I wanted to do more than that when
things started to re-open in 2021. The last two years, I ended up going to haunted houses by
myself due to the lack of people in my life who share an interest in going. However, I was far
from alone, given the attractions I went to were very crowded. It is certainly a unique experience
being around the company of strangers for this as opposed to going with people you know. One
of the performers this year called me a “brave soul” for walking through a corn maze alone
(though again, with the company of strangers not far ahead and behind me), working me being
alone into his skit by repeating lines around me walking alone and being a brave soul as I
walked past him. Even though I went to these haunted houses alone, I was still influenced by
other people and organizations in the sense that few of these places had been open the first
year of the pandemic and I had to wait for them to re-open in order to go. Time will tell whether
this becomes a tradition for me or not, but so far, I have done it two years in a row, choosing a
different place to visit each year.
Other holidays have varied in their traditions for me over the years as well. In elementary
school, students would make enough valentines for each student in the class and pass them out
on Valentine’s Day. It was mostly just a way to share candy and funny notes on commercially
printed valentines designed for kids, often with cartoon characters on them. This was not a
tradition that continued in other schools I went to as I got older. Valentine’s Day became more
about the romantic, couples based aspects of it when I was older during the years I was in a
relationship. Some years, it just felt like the commercialized, meaningless thing some people
complain it to be. Sometimes, the only significance of Valentine’s Day was waiting until it was
over to buy candy on sale afterward when stores had extra inventory. Without school or a
partner making it meaningful, I often did not celebrate it at all. At most, I might watch the
romantic comedies that are released around that time, but those types of movies also premiere
at other times of year, especially when it comes to Christmas themed romantic comedies in
December. The year after a bad end to a relationship, I made Valentine’s Day about self-love
and took myself to the movie theater, but that did not become a tradition.
During college, I participated in certain holiday traditions I have not done at any other
point in my life because a group of friends in college wanted to do them together. More than one
year, we had a Friendsgiving a few days before Thanksgiving. We would make a list of
categories of food, such as desert, and assign a category to each person so that they would be
in charge of bringing that part of the meal. It was like a potluck, but a bit more planned to make
sure everyone did not bring the same thing. We also made sure to assign both vegan and
non-vegan options, since some of my friends were vegan, and to take into account any dietary
needs among the group. This same group of friends did a Secret Santa multiple years in a row.
We would put each person’s name on a scrap of paper and draw a paper from a hat one by one.
You then had to buy a gift for whoever you drew from the hat. We usually placed a budget on it,
such as ten dollars, so no one felt obligated to spend a lot on the gifts. We would then set a date
to all gather again to exchange the gifts together. None of these traditions lasted past college
and neither did this friend group. Among other reasons, geography separated us once college
was over. Many of the people in the group lived far away when not attending school, including in
other states. What brought us together was either attending the same college or being the
friend, partner, or family member of someone attending that college as the group expanded to
include friends of friends more and more. Many of us stayed in touch virtually, but it is hard to
have a Friendsgiving or Secret Santa, let alone all gather in the same room like we used to,
when you live that far apart.
College was also one of the few times I helped put up Christmas decorations, even
though it is not a holiday I celebrate. Some of my friends simply wanted help putting up
decorations around their dorms and I was willing to help. That was not the only time I have
taken part in traditions for holidays other than my own. Growing up, I was in my elementary
school’s choir and we sang a mix of songs each winter that were associated with more than one
holiday, along with some songs that were just winter-themed without being holiday ones. I
became used to the many radio stations and stores that switch the music they play each year to
Christmas songs as December draws close. As a kid, I would watch the Charlie Brown
Christmas and Thanksgiving specials on tv each year, along with Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph
The Red-Nosed Reindeer, and other specials that aired each winter. Sometimes, my parents
would drive around trying to spot the various Christmas decorations others had put up, similar to
how we enjoyed walking around the neighborhood in the fall to see what Halloween decorations
people had. The more secular aspects of Christmas tended to be part of my life each year,
despite the religions associated with it not being mine. Hanukkah is the winter holiday my family
celebrates, yet certain parts of Christmas were still a major part of my childhood. At times, I
found myself enjoying it and other times, I wished the radio would just stop playing the same
few Christmas songs on repeat and that holidays besides Christmas would get more
recognition. If I was attending Jewish events or around Jewish organizations, I could immerse
myself in Hanukkah instead. As soon as I would leave the presence of the synagogue, USY,
Hillel, etc, I would be surrounded by other holidays, especially Christmas. Some years, my
teachers in school would put a conscious effort into learning about holidays besides Hanukkah
and Christmas, though usually that did not go beyond a lesson on Kwanzaa and maybe one or
two other holidays. Even then, few of my classmates were familiar with the Jewish holidays,
especially ones other than Hanukkah or what Hanukkah actually is. As I got older, I learned
there are many other winter holidays that the people around me had failed to recognize at all.
The foods I eat on the same holiday each year have also varied greatly based on who
was in my life at that point in time. Over the years, I have not celebrated Thanksgiving in the
same place with the same people every year. When I was younger, some years we had it at my
grandparents’ house and other years, my family celebrated at my house. The foods would vary
depending on who was cooking and where we were cooking the food, especially since my
house does not have a full sized oven. We do have a toaster oven and some other ways of
making Thanksgiving food, though it does place a limit on what we can cook compared to years
we cooked in a house with a full sized oven. The number of relatives attending also impacted
how much food we planned to cook. During the pandemic, we certainly started cooking less
food when it was only the people I lived with eating it as opposed to years where our extended
family gathered for Thanksgiving. Some years, I had Thanksgiving dinner with the family of a
person I was in a relationship with at the time. Some of the foods his family chose to cook were
different from what mine would have made, although neither of our families seemed to make the
exact same recipes for Thanksgiving each year, instead having fun experimenting with new
recipes and changing the menu each time. One tradition different to his family than mine was
the adults tended to have alcohol on the holidays or during other large gatherings whereas my
parents rarely drink. Having alcohol as part of the meal or not was definitely something that
varied depending on who I was with. The same could be said of some New Year’s Eve parties
as I got older and sometimes celebrated with friends instead of just my family.
A similar situation with alcohol existed with charoset over the years, which is a type of
food that is eaten on Passover. When attending religious school as a child, families were asked
to make food for Passover seders held at the synagogue. We were asked to use grape juice in
the charoset, even though many people traditionally make it with wine. While there are many
variations on recipes for charoset, it is basically chopped apples and nuts with wine mixed in
and then eaten raw. Therefore, nothing in the process of making it cooks the alcohol out of the
wine. Once I became old enough to legally drink alcohol, my family switched from making it with
grape juice each year to making charoset with wine now, with some claiming it tastes better
when made with wine. That first year we made it with wine, I even picked up the wine myself as
someone newly old enough to do so, after a relative requested we use it. I have grown used to it
both ways, though. Some years, we even made a bit with wine and a bit with grape juice in case
anyone at the seder did not want wine or could not eat it. Charoset is not the only food
associated with a Jewish holiday that can vary depending on who is making it. Latkes, a potato
based fried pancake eaten on Hanukkah, can look more like hash browns or pancakes
depending on the recipe. Some people grade potatoes into pieces large enough to still see in
the final product, like hash browns. Others make the batter into more of a soup consistency
before cooking it, leading to a smoother appearance. Hamantaschen, a type of cookie eaten on
Purim, is another Jewish food with greatly varying recipes. The cookie is shaped like a triangle
with filling in the middle, though I have seen multiple types of fruit or chocolate used for the
filling. If you search for Hamantaschen recipes online, you will find variations that go beyond
fruit or chocolate fillings. Therefore, with so many variations on the same foods out there, what I
eat on the holidays just depends on who I am with when celebrating.
There are some holiday traditions from earlier in my life that I wished had continued. The
pre-school and religious schools at my synagogue growing up had held an annual Purim
carnival where the kids dressed up in costumes and booths were set up with various carnival
games. When I outgrew religious school, I stopped attending these carnivals. Part of me misses
the Purim carnivals sometimes, though at least there are occasionally carnivals not associated
with a holiday that are put together locally that I can still attend. It is not the games I miss as
much as the opportunity to do them with family and friends after making so many good
memories at the carnivals year after year. I also enjoyed creating homemade costumes for both
Purim and Halloween with my family some years. Picking out a costume from a store, creating
our own, or a mix of both was something I looked forward to every year and there are not the
same consistent opportunities to do so in adulthood. There is still the occasional costume party
amongst friends or some other chance to still create a costume, but it is not the same as being a
child on Halloween and having the expectation of wearing one each year. Sometimes, I also
miss trick-or-treating just because it gave me the opportunity to see what decorations people put
up. Some of our neighbors are especially into doing practical effects and animatronics with their
decorations that are only visible walking up to their doorway while trick-or-treating as opposed to
lawn decorations you can see walking by their house from the sidewalk. It was not just about
seeing the decorations as a kid, but also the opportunity to talk to the people who created them
when they came outside to give out candy, along with less directly related conversations that
were sparked among friends of friends on Halloween as we gathered to trick-or-treat together.
At least I can still walk around outside in October and try to spot Halloween decorations,
although I have noticed fewer people decorating their houses in recent years and it does not
have that same level of fun social interaction you get when trick-or-treating as a child.
Halloween as an adult often feels more isolating in comparison so far, though some of that is
due to a lack of local events focused on offering adults ways to celebrate Halloween, especially
events that go beyond bars just offering discounted drinks. Even the haunted houses I visited in
recent years required driving to other towns due to the lack of local attractions. At least in the
face of fewer people decorating or celebrating locally, there are still the Halloween stores and
haunted attractions available to visit. Plus, I look forward to the possibility of someday taking my
own kids trick-or-treating if I have kids in the future.
When times of particularly high COVID-19 case counts during the pandemic have led
friends and family to not want to get together in-person during the winter holidays, I gained a
new appreciation for holiday traditions I had grown bored of repeating previously or had
otherwise seemed to lose significance as I grew older. There was a new specialness to simple
holiday traditions we could still do with few people at home, like lighting candles on Hanukkah.
Just the sense of not losing everything that was possible to do before the pandemic, even in the
face of the highest case counts of the original Omicron wave that came during one holiday
season, was very meaningful. While there are some traditions like lighting candles that we do
every single year consistently, in general, a lack of specific holiday traditions has been my
tradition. When people ask if I have holiday plans, sometimes I just do not know what I am doing
until the day of or the answer changes year to year as the people and organizations in my life
continue to change. Especially during these times of spikes in case counts for multiple types of
viruses, all it takes is for me, someone I live with, or someone I planned to meet up with to
become sick the day of for any holiday plans to be forced to change or be canceled. This is not
just due to people involved waking up sick, despite that being a common saying. There have
been times when everyone I plan to spend a particular holiday with felt fine that morning only for
someone to develop a fever or other major symptoms of an infection later in the day shortly
before we planned to get together. This forces me to be flexible and adapt how I celebrate
holidays to the situation I find myself in at the time, including possibly not celebrating at all the
day of the holiday in order to care for a family member who is suddenly sick or rest if I am sick
myself. Thankfully, we can still find ways to celebrate, get together, or participate in fun
activities. Maybe it means a belated celebration, a smaller one, or just doing something together
when it is not a holiday. That could mean going out to dinner or taking a weekend road trip
during a time when no one in the family is sick. Maybe it means spontaneously deciding to buy
tickets to a haunted attraction only hours before the time I buy tickets for if I find myself outside
in nice weather during a weekend in October to avoid sickness or rain interfering with my plans
if I were to wait for another weekend instead of buying them the day of. Sometimes, it’s just
celebrating the holidays when we can and being extra appreciative when we do.