A `How to' of Traditions

Author says they signal that life is full of things to be grateful for

WHEN Elizabeth Berg was asked to write a book on family traditions, she declined, saying "I can't write it, but when it comes out I want to buy it."

But the writer - a columnist for Parents magazine and New Woman - was soon persuaded. She began gathering information and ideas on tradition from various people, some she knew and some she didn't. The result - published this year - is Family Traditions: Celebrations for Holidays and Everyday (Reader's Digest, 287 pp., $22).

A visit to Ms. Berg's home in a Boston suburb finds her donning an apron and baking cookies. A fire glows in the fireplace, one of her daughters arrives home from school, two collies and a few cats roam around. "I'm really not the Martha Stewart of tradition," she says, laughing.

For someone who seems to have quite a traditional life, Berg says she has a loose view of traditions. They aren't those strictly observed, 100-year-old, never-to-be-broken customs, she says, settling into an interview at her kitchen table. "I see ritual, custom, and tradition mixed up together."

A good tradition adds comfort and richness in life, is rewarding, and says something about you or your family or both, reflecting in some way what you are, Berg says. The important thing is keeping open the lines of communication and making time for family togetherness and strength, she says. "The premise here is that we really do need tradition in our lives. It insists on itself."

Celebration "lifts days away from other days, gives us something to look forward to, makes a formal statement that life is full of things to be grateful for," Berg writes. Yet inasmuch as celebration makes for extraordinary days, the ordinary ones also serve as tradition, she says.

In addition to talking about holidays and "everydays" in "Family Traditions," Berg highlights the different seasons of the year and celebrations, such as "welcoming the new baby" and family reunions. She offers hundreds of suggestions.

Berg admits that she couldn't help putting in some of her own ideals. Included is a chapter on "Saving the Earth" and several writings from Native Americans, special interests of hers. "I'm not exactly pro-military, either," she adds.

Of course, no one could possibly take on all the "traditions" she has chosen to highlight, and some might consider particular entries too cute, sappy, or otherwise inappropriate. But Berg says the book is a permission-giving device, not so much a how-to:

"I mean for this book to inspire people to do things with their family and think of their own traditions. It's a taking-off point, not the be-all and end-all," she says.

Can one ever be too traditional?

"You can be," Berg says. "You're tradition-bound when you're doing things you don't want to do." It helps to ask yourself "What is this for? Why am I doing this?"

One tradition the Berg family will institute this Christmas is asking family members: "What can I give you that I can't buy?"

"It focuses on gifts from the heart," Berg says, "and shifts away from materialism. I'll be interested in what my kids come up with."

Yet traditions shouldn't be just seasonal, she reminds. Traditions are for all-year-round and for everyone. "Regardless of culture or background, we all need that sense of belonging, comfort, giving and receiving love," Berg says. "Our needs are all the same."

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