This time of year, when I’m hauling out containers full of Halloween and Thanksgiving adornments, I hear my mother saying, “Ugh, Halloween, all that sugar!” I also think of her scribbly cursive-meets-printing handwriting in thick black marker on the tops of all of her cardboard holiday boxes — Halloween Stuff, Mantel Trim, et cetera. The boxes came out from the attic and basement every year, brimming with holiday ornaments, electric window candles, and extra dishware for fall entertaining.
The box I treasured the most wasn’t in the attic or basement; it was stored in the kitchen pantry. The day before every Thanksgiving, my mom would ask me, “Can you get the candles out and put them on the table, please?” It was our thing, and I knew exactly which candles she meant. I would quickly get a chair to stand on, so I could reach clear to the top of the pantry shelves for a beat-up shoebox with rubber bands around it. Inside, wrapped in lots of old tissue paper, were about six or seven tiny wax figurines, each about 4 inches high. There were a couple of little girl pilgrims with yellow hair and blue dresses; boy pilgrims with gray jackets and pants, and black hats; and a turkey.
It was so fun to once again see their little faces, and I’d carefully place them around the floral centerpiece. This seemed to be one thing I could do well with absolutely no assistance. It was my big Thanksgiving responsibility! On either side of the centerpiece were two candlesticks with tapers, usually white or colonial blue, that my dad or older brothers would light just before dinner. But we never lit those little pilgrim candles and, as a kid, I just couldn’t understand why. Candles were made to be lit!
Why do I now, while bringing out my seasonal treasures, think of that simple candle task and feel pure joy? Maybe it has to do with what child psychology and behavior experts say about how important it is that children experience customs like this growing up. They believe family routines and the symbolic nature of rituals may be closely linked with developmental processes and provide a healthy emotional climate. In a nutshell, the rhythms of family life make children eager to be involved. Of course, if any of these routines have to do with mealtime, it’s all the better.
This time of year, there are so many opportunities around the home to create traditions — whether it’s baking pies, setting a special table, or lighting a fire.
One of my sisters recently told me that she often hears Mom say, “Somebody bring in a few logs so I can start a fire!” It was Mom’s daily custom in autumn, shortly before dusk, before Dad came home from work. We’d hear her scrunch newspaper under the grate and snap a match. The crackle of dry wood would spark and glimmer. The ritual of making a fire — and the nightly glow and warmth of that hearth — seemed to relieve any anxieties we may have had, and made us feel safe and secure.
Although our elderly mother’s fire-lighting days are long past, the rituals our parents set forth are, thankfully, deep-seated.
Guess who has those petite Thanksgiving candles now? They’re not stored in an old shoebox, but in a sturdy box from the Container Store (hooray for the two Container Stores that opened in our area recently!). As I unwrap the little wax shapes this year, I’ll hear Mom say, “Get out the candles, please.” I’m glad she never lit them.