Toothpicks and Traditions and Musing on Meaning

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
― W. Somerset Maugham


We were traveling for Thanksgiving. I was looking out my window as Mark drove; I was looking at the trees, all nearly bare, although some still had a furze of copper leaves. It was a gray day, and we drove in and out of rain, and my mind wandered.

I thought about the jar of cranberry sauce we’d left snugly in the pantry, and the stuffing mix, secure, at home, on the pasta shelf in the broom closet.

“We’ll have to shop when we get there,” I thought hazily, and then, unbidden, a question surfaced. “Should we buy stuff to make toothpick turkeys?”

I hadn’t thought about toothpick turkeys in years. On childhood Thanksgivings, while the turkey cooked, and when the parade was over, (I have to admit, while I looked forward eagerly to watching the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, I always found it, in reality, to be dull), my mother would plunk the stuff to make toothpick turkeys on the dining room table.

Apples formed the bodies.  These were three-legged turkeys; they got a tripod of toothpicks for legs. I had to pluck an olive (Ick, I always thought; and olives still aren’t my favorite food) from a tall, skinny, brine-filled jar and spear it on a toothpick. Then the delicate task was to tease out the end of the pimento, tease it out just long enough to resemble a tom turkey’s red gobbler. If I was hasty or too forceful, the pimento escaped, and it was not easy to put it back in and begin again. There was always a little bowl full of empty olives drying on the table when I was done.

Finally I made tail feathers by skewering raisins onto more toothpicks, tightly stacked, with just enough pointy wood left at the bottom to stick them into the back-end of the apple. Each turkey took eight or nine raisin-laden toothpicks

And that was a toothpick turkey. One would go by each place-setting.

After the meal they would sit, ignored. None of us really liked either the olives or the raisins. My mother would finally take them apart, throw out the toothpicks with all their attachments, and use the poor, mutilated fruit to make apple cinnamon cake.

Still, they were a sort of tradition, and, grown, I would always provide the material for kids to make them. One year, at my brother’s house, Matthew and Ben and Tom–who must have been in the eight to eleven years old range–grabbed the playing field and concocted creatures unlike any seen before or since.  They might have had seventeen legs or five staring heads, pimentos long lost. The tail feathers might be anywhere, upside or downside; there might have been one raisin or thirty studding them. Several had fields of empty toothpicks, much like porcupines.  They marched across the table, an army of deformed toothpick aliens.

We laughed and took pictures and put one scary creation by each seat, and we called them the Turkeys From Hell. After dinner, we didn’t bother to dissect them. We just threw them away, wholesale.

That’s the last time, now that I think about it, I remember making toothpick turkeys.  That was a tradition that was easy to let go. It had no real meaning, except I suspect, to keep my annoying little self occupied on a holiday when my mother had many kitchen tasks to attend to.  There was no true sentiment attached. There was no reason to hope that generations moving forward would embrace the habit.

It’s not always that easy to let go of tradition.

So, say, you might have newlyweds Bob and Taja struggling to negotiate holidays, especially when both come from families who have ALWAYS done things this way. Both families have the big feast and the opening of gifts on the eve of Christmas. If they go to Bob’s parents, Taja’s will be bereft, their baby girl missing, their family unit cracked for the first time in 25 years.

“This is our TRADITION,” they will wail, and Taja, sitting on the edge of her chair with an unopened package in her lap, will be yearning, at her in-laws, to be taking part in the REAL Christmas celebration. And Bob will be awkward and uncomfortable, knowing his wife is not happy, knowing his family is annoyed, that they’re thinking, “Why can’t she be more enthusiastic? Why is she ruining our wonderful family Christmas?”

They may spend years, Bob and Taja, running from one house to other, exhausted and unhappy, fulfilling, to the letter of the law, at least, the family expectations. Ensuring the tradition survives intact.

Sort of.

No one examines the roots of the tradition, which was to gather a family group together, and to share joy. (Could they be just as joyful, early Christmas day?)

All this musing reminds me of the Easter ham story I read years ago, in a ladies magazine. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it goes like this:

The newlyweds, negotiating holidays, go to HER family for Easter dinner. And, as in many other households, Easter dinner at this one always has a huge ham at its center.

They arrive, the young couple, at her grandma’s house, and there are hugs and drinks passed out, and good-natured teasing before everyone is ushered to the table. The table is extended by many leaves,and all the people gathered ’round it, as is their custom, join hands and say a prayer of blessing.  Then the grandma gets up and goes to the kitchen.

She returns with the ham, glazed and studded, on a ceramic platter. Her daughter, the bride’s mother, follows her. She carries a plate with the end of the ham on it.

The ham proper goes into the center of the table. The bride’s mother puts the end of the ham in front of her husband, who happily cuts into it and takes a big chunk.

The groom is fascinated. “Why do they do that?” he asks.

His bride is puzzled. “Do what?” she asks.

“Serve the end of the ham on a separate plate.”

She looks a little stunned. “Well, it’s Easter,” she says. “We always do it that way.”

“But why?” he persists, and she gets a little annoyed.

“I don’t KNOW,” she says. “Ask my mother.”

So he does, when the opportunity allows, and she, too, is a little surprised and annoyed at his question. She directs him to HER mother, and he gets the same reaction.

“This is the way MY mother taught me to do it, so it’s how we always do it,” snaps Grandma.

The groom can’t let it go, so after dinner, they head to the nursing home, where Great-Grandma has opted for the communal feast rather than the family’s this year. They find her, replete and resting in her room.  After the obligatory greetings and inquiry, the groom takes her hand.

“Great Grandma,” he asks earnestly, “why does your family always serve one end of the ham on a separate plate?”

Great Grandma looks at him a long moment, taking his measure.  Finally she snorts.

Well, son,” she says, “I never had a pan big enough to fit a ham big enough to feed us all. I always had to cut the end off and roast it separately.”

These days, her daughter has a pan plenty big enough for the festive ham.  But
she still cuts out the end of the ham, even though she doesn’t know why she’s doing it.

It’s a tradition.

I know a woman who created, twenty years ago, a tradition of giving. It involved shopping for a child and donating those carefully chosen things to an organization that would distribute, it promised, her gifts to a child who needed them. She was very quiet about her giving, believing the best gifts are given in silence. But this Fall, she happened to mention the act to a good friend.

The friend looked troubled. The next day, with many apologies for intruding, she showed the woman an article that claimed her charity group was biased and judgmental and, perhaps, a little bit bogus. The woman was shocked.

She did her own research, and what she found disturbed her enough to end her twenty-year tradition.

“I don’t regret my impulse,” she told me, “but I regret the time and money I wasted, when I could have been making a difference.”

This year, she said, she is donating time at a local mission that offers homework help to kids after school. The kids also take turns, in teams, making dinner for their whole group.

This woman I know, a math whiz and a wonderful cook, tutors math on Tuesdays and oversees dinner prep on Thursdays. Her former tradition, she says, let her feel generous at a distance. Now she is right in the middle of the messy, unpredictable stew that is working with kids.

“It’s not a tradition,” she says. “My tradition was a knee-jerk, once a year, rote thing. I traded tradition for action. The kids are annoying and stubborn and beautiful. I look forward to Tuesday and Thursday.”


There are wonderful traditions; there are traditions with meaning and zest and the ability to infuse our lives and our gatherings with spirit. There is music and there is food; there are gatherings and games and giving. There are rich and warm and lovely things we do, singly and together, that give light and life and meaning to our years and to our passages. We should honor and keep those traditions.

But sometimes a tradition lies over the top of meaning like a heavy metal plate. It gets so hard to move it that we don’t; we let tradition cover meaning, and we go, for years and even decades, without budging that metal. And sometimes, when we finally are prompted–by a new family member, by a change; sometimes, even, by a loss–to move that heavy covering, we discover the meaning has gone.  It has tunneled through the dirt to a place where it can breathe. Or it has shriveled into dust that blows away when we finally lift that metal.

Like everything else in life, I muse, as the landscape slips by, streets shining dark on this soaked gray day, traditions need to be approached with mindfulness. With meaning. Without them–without the observant eye and the open heart–my traditions may be no more lasting than a toothpick-studded apple.


(Opening quote retrieved from

7 thoughts on “Toothpicks and Traditions and Musing on Meaning

  1. Pam, the final section of your essay (the last three paragraphs) are wonderful: insightful thoughts presented in beautiful prose. They are paragraphs worth keeping, so I shall. 🙂

    Traditions are difficult to handle, I think, because they are rooted in the patriarchy. Here in the western world that means the patriarchy of the Jewish faith and the Christian one. Genesis 2:24 started it, and Jesus echoed it centuries later in Matthew 19:5. We all *say* as parents that we want our children to grow up and establish their own families, their own ways, but we don’t mean it. Patriarchy doesn’t work that way. Patriarchy tries–desperately–to hold on to the original, root family (whatever that family is), to the lasting detriment of whatever younger families finally manage to assert themselves. This is why patriarchy is bad in the larger sense, and most of us have abandoned it in our hearts. But our annual tug-of-wars over traditions at Thanksgiving and Christmas are continual reminders that we haven’t left it *completely* behind.

    The best traditions are those freely chosen by each generation and modified by them. The great joy of my little-boy heart is that I am allowed to share in the newer traditions established by my sisters’ families, and I can leave the older, outmoded ones behind. Battles over tradition can still leave scars, however; some of them in my family are as fresh as last year. But you point to a solution in those final paragraphs. We need to keep our most valuable traditions–food, music, loving kin–and we must perform those traditions for as long as we can. Most importantly, though, we need to honor those traditions in our hearts and in our memories–the two places where they can be kept the safest, and be renewed whenever we need them to be. Happiness remembered from then is happiness we feel now.

    1. I think we need to listen to those little child hearts of ours…they may be more discerning than those sophisticated ones we’ve evolved over years… This is a beautiful, thoughtful response, John; thank you!

  2. Hi Pam, and happy holidays to you! 😊 I was just thinking as I approached the end of this piece, ‘Hmm, she’s describing mindfulness.’ And then you wrote it! Such a universally helpful practice. Easier said than done, and always worth the effort. Best wishes to you and your family! 😊

  3. I sometimes think, ‘gosh, I really haven’t created any traditions for my now grown daughter’. Divorced young, she’s gone back and forth since the age of 2. I let that fact drive my ambivalence about holidays in general.
    I so appreciate reading this. It changes my perspective.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.