November Reflections: On Creating New Traditions

For my partner Michael and I—along with many of our peers who live far from the places they grew up—it can be easy to get bogged down in logistics around the holiday season. Will we travel or stay put? Is there a way to spend time with all of the people who matter to us, or will we have to choose, and if we have to choose, whose turn is it? Last year, Michael and I spent Thanksgiving in Minnesota with my family. This year, as my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews gathered together in the Upper Midwest, Michael and I flew to the UK to spend the holiday with his family. 

Michael was born and raised in England, so Thanksgiving isn’t a cultural touchstone to him the way it is to me. His dad is American, though, so his family does observe the holiday in their own hybrid, half-British way. In deference to my American upbringing, this year they agreed to prepare a classic American Thanksgiving dinner—turkey and gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce—rather than a traditional English roast. And in deference to my Minnesota roots, they asked me to contribute a Jell-O salad. 

If you’re not familiar with this iconic Midwestern dish, here’s what goes into Jell-O salad: Jell-O in the flavor of your choice; Cool Whip; and a can of fruit cocktail (I think this is the part that makes it “salad”). Michael’s family thinks the concept of Jell-O salad is very funny, and they are also under the impression that I really love it. 

“Love” is probably too strong a word to describe my feelings for Jell-O salad, but I can’t deny that it was a holiday staple in my home growing up, and continues to feature on my mom’s menu each Thanksgiving and Christmas. For me, a single sweet, slippery mouthful is enough to unlock a cascade of memories from past holidays around my family’s dinner table, which in turn reminds me of the place and people I come from. It’s not the dish, really; it’s the way that traditions large and small can give us a sense of continuity and belonging, no matter where we are. Michael’s family has their own set of rituals and traditions, of course, so I’m grateful for the way they’ve made space not just for me but for this most dubious “salad,” which will always remind me of home. 

As we grow up and branch off from our families of origin to create new communities, partnerships, or families, the holiday season inevitably becomes more complicated. On any given occasion, there are only so many places we can go, people we can see, dinner tables we can converge around.  But many traditions travel well, or require no travel at all: the annual reciting of a beloved poem, prayer, story, or song; a favorite family recipe; a long walk after a big meal. Shared traditions can collapse time and space. They can become a way of being together regardless of geography. I was with Michael and his family in the English countryside; my own family was 4,000 miles away in the northern Minnesota woods, and there was plenty of Jell-O salad for all.