December 7, 2009 by Stacy McDonald
With Christmas fast approaching, I started thinking about the many “family traditions” we have in our family. Some we joke about, and others we fiercely protect! I wrote an article for Homeschooling Today magazine a few years back that talked about the importance (and dangers) of family traditions. I’m posting it here in its entirety:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our ??epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, ?who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and ??good hope by grace, ?comfort your hearts ?and ??establish you in every good word and work. (2 Thessalonians 2:15-17)
When our family decides to watch a movie, the event is carefully planned, the movie is cautiously chosen, and the entire family gathers for the rare occasion. Recently, we watched Fiddler on the Roof, a 1960s musical set in a small town in Russia just before the Bolshevik Revolution.
Tevye (the Papa) introduces the film with a powerful song describing the “traditions” of the Jewish culture within their small Russian community. “Who has the right as master of his house to have the final word at home? The Papa! The Papa! Tradition!”
The film focuses on the courtships of the three oldest of his five daughters. “Five daughters!” he stresses, with a tone that reveals his bitterness over not having been blessed with any sons.
Though Tevye acknowledges a desire for the sweetness of the Scriptures, and despite the fact that he loves his daughters and seems to yearn desperately for a loving relationship with his contentious wife, there is still something missing—something that will forever hinder his wish for a godly familial continuation of the tradition that he so loves.
While he talks to God throughout the film (sometimes rather disrespectfully) and clings to many good and beautiful traditions (the Sabbath meal and wedding scenes are particularly moving), there is an emptiness that is so starkly obvious that it is distracting—something so tragically missing that it comes close to ruining the story—what is missing is Jesus. The Lord Jesus Christ is absent from Tevye’s precious traditions (Galatians 1:14), even though many of the Jewish traditions are rooted in the Holy Scriptures and point to the Messiah. It is a fact to which he is spiritually blinded . . .and it is heartbreaking.
When the town matchmaker matches Tevye’s nineteen-year-old daughter with the financially well-off (and much older) butcher, Tevye visits him, and without consulting his wife or daughter, they “shake on it.” Traditionally, this is a done deal—marriage will soon follow. However, when the daughter is told about her match, she tearfully begs her father to reconsider, and he reluctantly agrees to break the engagement.
Tevye later discovers that the reason for his daughter’s distress was not the butcher’s age but that she has already given her heart away to the tailor. According to their tradition, this is unheard of. One doesn’t make a match for oneself; a match is the job of the matchmaker, and the Papa is to decide if the match is a good one! Tevye laments, “They gave each other a pledge? Unheard of—unthinkable!”
Yet, Tevye battles internally over the happiness of his daughter and the traditions he holds so dear. “But look at my daughter’s eyes—so hopeful—she loves him.” Eventually he grants permission for her to marry the tailor.
Though all seems to have turned out well, the other two daughters, emboldened by their older sister’s breach of tradition, continue to push the boundaries further. The second daughter becomes attached to the communist student whom Tevye naively invites into his home to tutor his daughters, but who instead teaches them “new ideas.”
Enamored by his persuasive speech and challenged by his questioning of her “silly” traditions, she falls in love with the zealous stranger. Though this daughter and her suitor ask Tevye for his blessing of their marriage, they do not ask for his permission. Tevye, in an attempt to hold onto a shred of tradition, gives his blessing and his permission! Eventually, this daughter moves to Siberia to join her fiancé in exile.
The third daughter’s marriage is the most heartbreaking of all. It symbolizes the grievous results of a father who failed to truly gain the heart of his daughter—he failed to pass on to her his faith. She secretly meets and elopes with a man of the Russian Orthodox faith. She betrays her heritage and her family and walks in the path of strangers. This is perhaps the most ironic tragedy of the whole film. Although Tevye was Jewish, not Christian, we can still relate to his grief. Symbolically, he is a father who has lost his daughter to the “heathen.” In Tevye’s mind, his daughter is dead. As Christians we would not give up hope for a daughter in this situation; however, the warning is there. Empty traditions do not win hearts.
While Tevye didn’t do a very good job of guarding his daughters’ hearts, he also didn’t offer them traditions that held any weight. He often misquoted Scripture and complained about the hard life God had given him. While his children watched him work hard and diligently observe the Sabbath, they also saw him hung-over from a night of too much drinking and witnessed a marriage with little affection or respect. Instead of beauty and passion, Tevye’s children experienced a religion of dead traditions, dry prayers, and futile striving. Without Jesus, our traditions can become superstitious burdens that create a life of bondage and sorrow.
We must teach our children traditions that are saturated in the Lord Jesus Christ—we must pass on a living faith, presenting Christ in their midst daily. We must do this if we want our traditions to span generations.
Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates. (Deuteronomy 11:18-20)
We may have family traditions that seem meaningless to others, but to our own children they communicate Christ. Because we live in Christ, the simple traditions we create in our own families are powerful. They don’t have to end in the word Christian or Jesus to reflect Christ.
Our primary purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. By glorifying God in our daily living, we can pass on that purpose and joy to our children. As we tell the story of Christ’s birth to our children—maybe over a cup of hot spiced cider or warm pumpkin bread—we are creating a memory. And if we do it every year, we’re creating a tradition.
When we gather our little ones around us each night for family reading or prayer time, we not only are obeying Deuteronomy 11:18-20 but we also are creating a godly tradition based on the principles taught in Scripture.
The success of our family traditions isn’t based on how creative we are or how much money we spend on a certain yearly or monthly event, but on how well they reflect Christ and how real they are to our children. It might be that a child experiences the love of the Lord in the special birthday dinner you prepare for him each year. Maybe your children will remember how you taught them to care for the sick or aged by visiting that nursing home each week. Whatever the tradition, it’s yours to make and keep.
At the wedding of Tevye’s oldest daughter, she and her husband received their own Sabbath tablecloth as a wedding gift. It was made of delicate lace and would only be used for their Sabbath meal each week. Christians could likewise set apart a precious tablecloth as a tangible way of showing our children the sacredness of the Sabbath. Alternatively, we could use special candlesticks or china, particular music, or even certain foods.
Of course these are just material things; they are not sacred, but they could still be used as tools to effectively communicate to our children how we can set apart this special day above others. Imagine a young bride setting her first table in her own home for her Sabbath meal. Holding the delicate fabric to her cheek, she closes her eyes and recalls memories of Grandma unwrapping the same special tablecloth for Sunday supper.
This is the stuff of which traditions are made. Our traditions won’t all look the same. We will each have different family recipes, heirlooms, and memories of special gatherings, but the familiar scent of the gospel should permeate every bit of it.