[Life Back West] December 2010 – New Traditions

Julia Child
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One of my college nicknames – a byproduct of a seemingly ceaseless quest for everyday relevance as a kid at the SAE fraternity house at Willamette University – was “Right On Smitty.”

While the nickname was usually meant with mixed affection, the striving to be relevant was a constant. I was keen that the things we did in the frat house made sense for us. Tradition not just for tradition’s sake, but traditions because they supported what we were trying to do.

Not too long after college my older sister Claudia and I outed the secret that the perfection salad – a gelatinous molded mass that was the joy of our mother’s Thanksgiving – was something that none of the kids really enjoyed. Great if my mom wanted to have it, just don’t expect us to ask for seconds.  Hours of hurt feelings and tears later I better appreciated that sometimes the better part of smarts is to keep some secrets to yourself.

Math teacher Curtis Ingraham at my son’s grade school, Marin Country Day School, notes that one of the things he thinks differentiates the MCDS program is “that there’s lots of scaffolding to hold kids up.” I’d agree with that assessment, and I’d offer the same prescription on traditions; you want enough scaffolding to hold things up, but not too much that it gets in the way of daily living. Like Goldilocks and porridge, finding the sweet spot (“Not too hot, not too cold”) is the art.

Since our son Traylor was born over eight years ago, my spouse and I now join millions of people from around the world hosting a sawed off evergreen in our house for the period around Christmas. The dead evergreen replaced a living Meyer lemon that we wheeled in from our deck – judged not Santa-friendly early on in Traylor’s childhood.

While the tradition of a tree is something many think of as being Christian, it is in fact something that Christians co-opted from the Egyptians, Romans, and European pagans as part of the celebration of the winter solstice. While we’ll skip the “drunken, parade of excess that marked the Christmas celebration, a day set aside for ignoring laws and even terrorizing citizens” that characterized the holiday season of yore, we have created our own set of family traditions to mark the season complete with specific roles for outdoor holiday decorating (Traylor), duck a la Julia Child (because Traylor gave me her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” ), and chronicling holiday gifts and securing the tastiest bouche noel possible (Chris).

Traditions – whether new or old – are what give structure and shape to many part of our lives. They are helpful when they aid, and not so helpful when they are bereft of contemporary meaning or value. The Great Recession has been awful but like most clouds has had silver linings, including, as Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal notes, the opportunity to redefine what it means to have a holiday tradition.

So however you celebrate the holiday season, I’m hoping that you do so with traditions that are meaningful and relevant to you and your family. As somebody whose college fraternity house had my best friend, who is African-American, as a house president, female “Little Sisters” who were quasi-house members, and a male law student as a “house mom,” what else could you expect?

So Happy Holidays, and the best of wishes for the New Year(s)!

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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