Monday, November 23, 2020

An Unexpected Thanksgiving

We have a movable feast tradition in my family. Holidays happen when you have time for them.

People matter more than calendars, and if you can get people together on one date instead of another then that’s when you should celebrate. It makes things much more relaxed and less worrisome. We can go months from the scheduled calendar date if need be. It’s all about getting people together.

Which is why we had Thanksgiving yesterday.

We really weren’t planning to do much for Thanksgiving, since the current plague has ramped up exponentially over the last few weeks and every responsible leader in the nation has been emphasizing to us commoners that getting a large group of people together for Thanksgiving is a great way to get a large group of people buried by Christmas. Oliver was going to stay at Small Liberal Arts College and Kim, Lauren and I were going to hang out at home.

But Oliver had a doctor appointment that couldn’t be changed easily, and since he and Dustin have been essentially quarantined since September (SLAC is a pretty small place and was recently held up by the New York Times as a national success story in how to hold a college semester without creating a coronavirus outbreak) and we’ve been mostly holed up at home for months now, we figured a small group like that would be okay. So he and Dustin drove up Saturday and we spent most of Sunday getting ready and then we ate and talked and it was a grand time.

I am thankful for many things, even in this weathered old world, and at the top of that list is my family. The fact that we could be together, however briefly, is a gift to be savored.

They go back to SLAC as soon as the doctor appointment is over, and on the calendar date for Thanksgiving we don’t really have much planned. We’ll try to whomp up some Zoom meetings with the rest of the family on the various sides because that’s better than not seeing them at all, and we’ll hang out at home and not do much of anything – a nice break after eight straight months of frantically trying to figure out how to teach college level classes and advise students in a pandemic.

But it was a lovely Thanksgiving, and we were grateful for it.


Ewan said...

What is the needlepoint quote? I can't quite squint hard enough :)

David said...

"Insolita causus, insolitis facimus" which more or less translates as "We do odd things for odd reasons."

Oliver said that once when he was very young and we adopted it as a family motto, and we decided that a good family motto should be in Latin, thus proving the point.

LucyInDisguise said...

Events shouldn't be tied to dates on the calendar, they should be LOOSELY tied to tradition if convenient, but in all cases happen when it feels right.

Our family motto does not translate well into Latin. "All things turn to shit eventually. You are not excluded from this." It does, however, translate perfectly into Danish, which works out well:

"Alle ting bliver til lort til sidst. Du er ikke udelukket fra dette."


David said...

Tradition is just doing the same thing more than twice in a row on purpose. I like traditions. :)

Sometimes the reasons for these traditions aren't apparent for many, many years. I was in college before I figured out why Christmas Eve was always the bigger holiday in my family than Christmas itself.

I like that motto. I'll have to add it to my collection, with your permission of course.

LucyInDisguise said...

You may, most certainly, add that to your collective.

Re: Traditions. I love your definition. And I also like them. My wife's family, on the other hand, put all of my family's traditions to shame:

My wife is a full-blooded Dane. There is a tradition in her family going back through 44 generations of passing on the oral family history in the original tongue from maternal grandparent to firstborn grandchild. My wife (Generation #45) has spent the last year of so doing this with our grandson, and I find it nothing short of utterly fascinating. It begins with the exploits of a berserker named Revna (raven), granddaughter of √Āsvald Ulfsson which would (I think) make her a second cousin(?) of Eric the Red. The exact year is unclear but that tie to a historical figure puts the beginning of this oral history circa 985 CE.

My wife is not fluent in Danish. Far from it. She was raised here in the US and her exposure to Danish was only incidental. It takes her roughly 50 minutes to recite the oral history if she is not interrupted. (Listening to her recite this to our grandson and teaching him how to say it reminds me of the scene in the 1985 movie Enemy Mine where Drac (Louis Gossett, Jr.) teaches his genealogy to Davidge (Dennis Quaid), the difference being that this is not in anyway sung.) She understands the stories only minimally and does an absolutely dreadful job of translating any of it into English. Google is proving invaluable - but only when we can figure out the spelling.

However, the true depth and history of those stories lived, and probably died, with my wife’s grandmother, the last Danish speaking member of her family who passed on the oral history and who’s grasp of her native language allowed her to understand the oral history in full. None of my wife's cousins ever learned the history as my wife was the firstborn. She's tried to get them interested in learning, but distance and the time required make it ... difficult.

Indeed, we do not now, nor is likely we will ever know if the tradition will continue, or end here.

This is a particularly regretful thing.


David said...

Wow - that's a fantastic tradition. Over a thousand years of oral history! I hope you record it somehow. That way it can be rediscovered even if there is a break.

Is this written down somewhere or is it entirely an oral tradition? As a historian I would strongly urge that she do that if she hasn't already. Historians are not good at that sort of tradition, oddly enough, and it would be tragic if it were completely lost.

The oldest tradition in my family goes back to the mid-1920s, so far as I am aware. I am simply amazed at the depth of your wife's heritage!

Ewan said...

Europe: we don't have distance but we do have (recorded) history.

One of my mother's bigger regrets is ceding the family bible - then some 500 years old; not quite predating Gutenburg - to her cousin, who allowed it to be used as a substrate for his kids' scribbling.


LucyInDisguise said...

I kinda had a feeling you were gonna go there. So, hunker down - and away we go:

We begin by jumping into the Way-back Machine …

In November of 2001, three of my wife’s cousins, together with their spouses and kids, embarked upon a pilgrimage to the Land of Zion (aka Utah) to celebrate the beginning of the season of hygge. ( which, apparently is something that Danes do year-round but is especially tied to the Christmas holidays in my wife’s family …)

At anywho, they spent nearly six weeks renewing familial ties which culminated in my wife’s recitation of the oral history of their ancestors (and caught me completely off guard. We’d been married for fifteen years at that point and I didn’t have a clue …). Her cousins all recorded the presentation (two of them did video, one very high-quality audio). It was a really important formal ceremony which, as I understand it, occurs every twenty-three years or so, (tied in some manner to their version of one generation) and will be repeated (presumably) again either in 2024 or 2025 (as soon as somebody works out the exact period) and if we can work out all of the details The difference the next time is that it will be presented jointly by both my wife and our grandson.

Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. Back in 2002, after my wife’s parents died, her cousins set about transcribing the history and immediately ran into a hopefully not insurmountable problem: about two-thirds of this is unintelligible to any Modern Danish speaking Dane. They’ve been working with some Norden & Pohjoismaat (Finnish) friends to see if they can work out the parts that appear to be strictly Old Norse ( ). Oddly enough, there are apparently quite a few examples of it as written, but it’s been a few months since anybody has actually heard anyone conversing in it.

If there is light at the end of this tunnel, it is that this one oral history doesn’t exist in a vacuum - cousins have cousins and other family members by blood and marriage and this tradition runs deep in many families, especially those with direct ties to Viking ancestry; and so, there are family members who have taken up the gauntlet. They’ve been able to isolate some names, dates and places - even a few exploits have been loosely translated - the goal being to get this all into a more permanent (and intelligible) form that can be added to by future generations - but there are many things which may have been forever lost due to subtle differences in tonal stress, pronunciation, or maybe just shit my wife or one of her ancestors simply got wrong & passed along unknowingly.

It’s an issue with any oral history.

As an amateur historian, not only am I aware of your reaction, I heard that groan from clear. over. here.


David said...

@Ewan -

Seriously, they let their kids scribble on a 500-year-old Bible!?! Hanging is TOO GOOD for them! Did she demand it back? Steal it back? At least make copies of the records in there?


We don't have any Bibles that I know of (my dad's side kept very little except photographs, and my mother's side came over to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs, as near as I can tell), but we do have some records. And a LOT of photographs. I spent a couple of years scanning them all as a side project a while back, so now everyone in the family has copies.

@Lucy -

That's really cool that they have that ritual! I hope you are prepared to make similar recordings this time. :)

I do know from a friend of mine who studied Old Norse that it is almost identical to modern Icelandic - people in Iceland can read Old Norse sagas without too much trouble today (it sounds a bit archaic to them, as if you or I were reading Laurence Sterne or perhaps Shakespeare, but it's pretty intelligible nonetheless). Maybe that's an avenue to explore. My friend has since passed away so I can't ask her for leads. But surely somebody can put you in touch with an Icelandic speaker somewhere. It's a big and interconnected world.

Oral history is a fascinating subject, and I've bounced around the fringes of it on a few projects though it's never been a main focus. A lot of things get preserved that way. I'm always happiest when it gets written down - even if it gets written down in however many variants (or, perhaps, especially so) - because oral traditions tend to die when the people who remember them do, whereas writings can survive longer. I'm glad you have family members who have taken that as a mission. Oral traditions tend to wander, but if you can get other versions you can reconstruct them and see how and when things diverged (which is interesting in itself).

I have to say this sounds like a wonderful tradition and a fascinating project!

David said...

Hi Lucy - Check your email when you get a chance.

LucyInDisguise said...

Ahhhh, Check yourin. Right back at ya. (My email changed ...)