For as long as Amy Young Goetz can remember, her mother's quiche has been the centerpiece of Christmas mornings. For as long as she can remember, her stepfather has made julekage.
This year, both traditions are in flux. Cancer has slowed each parent and, while Goetz is confident about taking on the quiche, she'll have to wait and see if her stepfather will once again bake the bread, or if it's time for her to learn.
Goetz, 41, is among the many adult children who are on the brink of becoming the keeper of family traditions.
"It's a slow-motion torch hand-off, and that's OK," she said of the transition that is, by its nature, tinged with sadness. And while theirs is a blended family, she is Brenda Cumming's only daughter, and happy to take on the role, so it's a straightforward shift.
But passing the role of tradition keeper can be tricky. The duty may be thrust upon a reluctant son or daughter. Sometimes, one sibling seizes the job in a sort of tribal coup; others may grouse about being stuck with the responsibility. And woe to any keeper who doesn't do things precisely the way they've always been done.
Often, though, transitions happen almost unconsciously.
"In families where things are working pretty well, you just sort of have a conversation, usually about the most sensible logistics," said Meg Cox, a New Jersey researcher who has written several books about family traditions. "Is there someone who lives in the same town as Mom? Maybe everyone lives in apartments, so who has the biggest space?
"And this changes over time," she added, noting how the hosting duties for her own family's Christmas shift depending upon who has the youngest children.
Given today's more far-flung families, and the reality that many may have issues regarding divorce and remarriage, deciding who will preserve hallowed traditions "can cause some resentment," Cox said, "especially if there's a dueling-kitchens mentality."
Consider this recent letter to a syndicated advice columnist: An older sister wrote that she always hosts the family Thanksgiving, only to have her younger sister arrive with a duplicate holiday meal in hand. What to do?
Maybe, the columnist advised, Big Sister should ask if Little Sister wants to trade off on hosting the gathering -- something the older sister apparently hadn't imagined sharing.
Keepers as the family "glue"
Bill Doherty, professor of family and social science at the University of Minnesota, said the hand-off from generation to generation is important, because the keeper is the "glue" that holds together a family. But it also can be emotionally charged because the family matriarch "had sort of a divine right. The challenge is more that when they give that up, or die, a mere sibling takes over, and that person doesn't have the same authority."
The happiest tradition keepers, he said, are those who involve others in the workload. "Share some of the decision-making," Doherty said. "You don't have to do it like the queen. A lot of times, the tradition keepers are burned-out hulks by the time Christmas Day comes along and if someone doesn't like something they've done, they'll melt down or be difficult people to be around."
(Cue: "You're not the boss of me!")
In Goetz's family, she's happy to assume the mantle of tradition keeper, but admits that it comes with an undercurrent of reality, most obviously her parents' failing health. "But I'm also 41 years old and still feel like a kid," she said. "Can I do it well enough?"
For instance, she said, "nobody does Christmas stockings better than my mother."
Brenda Cumming's stockings were the stuff of kids' dreams, filled with Lifesavers candy "books," oranges in the toes, "and always my jar of macadamia nuts," Goetz said. Her mother always mails stockings to her two grandchildren in California, "which is the very definition of a box of Christmas."
Goetz already knows it would be overwhelming for her to take over the tradition of the California box -- nor would it be the same coming from her.
Doherty would agree. "Making it less stressful is OK, and sometimes it's time to reinvent," he said. He talked about a family in which the mother always prepared an elaborate feast of beef Wellington and delicate ethnic cookies. Then she became ill and told her family, Either I teach the recipes to you, or we switch to an easier menu.
"The kids, unexpectedly enough, said, 'We're switching to an easier menu,'" Doherty said. "Sometimes, you get to remind yourself what the real point is."
This refocusing on family also lends some flexibility to the tendency to pass this role from woman to woman -- which can be tough in a family of sons whose partners have their own family traditions. There's danger in behaving "as though there are no other nests," Doherty said. "Be really careful that you don't put your kids in a loyalty conflict with their in-laws."
Cox sounded the warning for striving for a Christmas-card perfect holiday. "We have such high expectations, which just builds in stress," she said. "Remember: Perfection is the enemy of a good time. Humor goes a long way."
This year, Goetz will drive from White Bear Lake to south Minneapolis to help her mother lay out the Spode china "and the glasses from Aunt Elizabeth's side." They're not sure if her stepfather will be able to prepare his traditional Christmas Eve meal of standing rib roast with oxtail au jus. And, she added, there probably are some things they won't even recognize as traditions -- until they don't happen.
"It's amazing how many solid traditions there are that are so minor, things that you wouldn't even write down," she said. "But that's what your family does. It's sort of like remembering how to be a little kid, but better."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185