Playing by House Rules

Hi folks, one quick announcement: later this week, I will have a new short story out!  Watch this space for more details!

I hope, if you are reading this, that you are enjoying a fine Thanksgiving weekend.  I hope your time with family and/or friends was enjoyable, and I hope that if you’re traveling, that your journey is safe.  A safe journey is a good thing to wish anybody, because we are all journeying, in one way or another.

In honor of a holiday deeply steeped in ideas of family and tradition, today I’d like to talk a bit about traditions.

Traditions are a bit like house rules for that old, well-loved board game you’re always playing.  Maybe the house rules make the game sillier, or more challenging, because that’s what the gaming circle likes.  Different gaming groups will have different house rules, because the dynamic is different and people are looking for various experiences.  House rules arise organically and stick around because (ideally) they work.

For example, I’ve spent the past several years enjoying Thanksgiving (and every other Christmas) with my in-laws.  Prior to every holiday dinner, deviled eggs and a shrimp platter are brought out as appetizers.  The deviled eggs are there because my brother-in-law brought them one year and they caught on like wildfire.  So he continues to bring them and we continue to enjoy them.  The shrimp platter is there, presumably, for a similar reason:  one person did it once and everyone liked it, so it stuck around.  So now, our family holiday tradition involves deviled eggs and a platter of fresh shrimp.  It’s assumed that, barring catastrophe, those two items will be present.  They are the house rules.

But here’s the thing about both traditions and house rules: sometimes they don’t work.  Sometimes they change over time.  Just as they arise organically, they can be phased out or altered organically.  People move away, social connections shift.  Life happens.

Let’s go back to that gaming group.  Maybe half of them like a good challenge and they insist on using the house rules to make that favorite game harder, while the other half of the group would really prefer a lighter experience, and feel frustrated and left out.  There are many ways this particular situation could shake out, based on the players and what they agree to.  But the point of my extended metaphor is this:

The ultimate point of traditions is to create a positive group-bonding experience through the use of shared emotional touchstones.  And if the traditions you’re familiar with don’t give you that, it’s okay to create different traditions.  It’s okay to have prime rib for your Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s okay to have a friendsgiving dinner, and host or attend a gathering of folks who don’t or can’t visit family.  It’s okay to sit at home playing video games with your significant other.

This can be hard.  Thanksgiving is always presented as one very particular experience in our media.  And if recreating that experience is difficult or impossible for you, it’s easy to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me?”

Nope, you’re fine.  Sometimes traditions leave people holding the short end of the stick.  Sometimes they pressure people, through the invisible web of social obligations, to enter situations detrimental to their well-being.  You are not obligated.  Traditions are not set in stone.  They are implied social contracts that are always subject to re-negotiation.

So for those of you celebrating a non-stereotypical Thanksgiving, I hope it is a great day for you.  I hope you have fun writing your own house rules, making your own traditions, and telling your own stories.

One thought on “Playing by House Rules”

  1. It’s good to point out that one’s own Thanksgiving can consist of things we wish to give thanks for, not things we feel we *have* to do. In our household, a tradition isn’t a tradition until we’ve done it three times: Once to try it, twice to like it, and three times to bring it into the family (“family” being a thing of choice, heart and joy rather than forced circumstance). Under those conditions, traditions will last. Even when they change and grow, they’re still traditions and we know where they came from. That gives a feeling of roots and security to even the weirdest traditions!


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