The 4th of July Isn’t Cancelled: 6 ways to cultivate traditions during a crisis

I have always loved the 4th of July.  I could name a myriad of reasons: BBQs, family time, patriotic music, fireworks, the fact that it’s a summertime holiday.  There are certain things about the way my family has celebrated the 4th over the years that simply speak to my soul.  I love the togetherness I feel with my fellow Americans as I watch the firework stars exploding and raining down from the sky while Lee Greenwood sings in the background.
This year, though… Man, this year will be different.  I don’t even like writing it, because we’ve all experienced so many cancellations, so many losses, so many “it should have been different” things this year.  All swallowed up by Covid-19. And on top of that, I have an acute sense this year that what I feel when I hear the words of Lee Greenwood, the goosebumps I get and that sense of “this is who we are,” isn’t necessarily shared by many of my fellow Americans.  There is sadness in my heart this year, and for good reason: our world is in crisis. And is a crisis really the time to be reminiscing about lost traditions and celebrations? Is it appropriate to even think about celebrating when we are in the middle of chaos? My heart and my hopeful spirit cry YES!
Ask any teacher what children in trauma need at school, and they will tell you: In addition to love, they need consistency and routine. I don’t know about you, but when I think of why humans have traditions, this is a major part of it.  Consistency and routine help us to feel safe.  They give us something we can label as our own, a sense of belonging: this is how WE do this.  For me, growing up in a blended family often meant that traditions could change, and change quickly. I clung to the safety net of knowing what to expect for Christmas dinner (ham and turkey) and the routine of Fridays spent with my grandparents.  As I’ve cultivated what traditions look like in my own family, that sense of safety and belonging has often been at the center, even when I didn’t realize it.
So, how do we cultivate traditions in the middle of a crisis? Our fireworks shows have been cancelled, wisdom dictates that large BBQs should be delayed, and life is anything but normal at the moment.  This is a perfect opportunity to reframe how we might celebrate this year. I’d like to share with you 6 ideas for how to cultivate tradition during a crisis.
Find small moments of joy
The changed face of 4th of July celebrations this year doesn’t have to signal only sadness and loss.  I’ve learned over the years to hold my traditions more loosely than I used to cling to their safety net as a child. My own children are nearly grown now, and as you might imagine, the pull of jobs and girl/boyfriends to spend their time with sometimes outweighs the pull of Mom and Dad. Now, I find myself looking beyond the specific “act” of our traditions. Instead, I find ways to look further and deeper.  Traditions are, after all, simply a way of finding connected-ness and common ground with family.  Last year, knowing that two of our three kids would be working the firework shift, we celebrated by going for a morning downtown walk and having breakfast together.  The point wasn’t in sharing a fireworks show.  The point was being together.  Maybe this year looks like red, white and blue pancakes and whipped cream fights and belly laughs.  Take joy in the small moments, even while you might still mourn the loss of the wider celebration.
Take a walk down memory lane
I am a big fan of memory keeping and scrapbooking, especially in times like this.  This Saturday, I’ll probably pull out some old pictures and scrapbooks and share stories with my family of 4th of Julys-past (like Christmas Past, only different).  We’ll probably have a few rounds of “Do you remember?” and I’ll share and I’ll listen, and chances are, I’ll probably learn something from the way they remember things that I didn’t know before.  Even though we might not be able to go to a community fireworks show this year, we can celebrate by remembering.
I think back to when I was a kid, and the 4th was spent knee deep in Brown’s Lake, waving our sparklers over the lake, and hoping the Park Ranger wouldn’t catch us.  Other years, we did firecrackers, and smoke bombs, my dad would always set off a few bottle rockets (before they were illegal).  Later, when my dad moved to the Tri-Cities in Washington State and I spent part of my summers with him, we made new traditions.  At some point before the 4th, my dad and I would go to the fireworks stand, just the two of us, to buy the fun.  Roman candles, bees, tanks, snakes, ground bloom flowers, snaps… all the things.  Always a mortar or two, and the giant pack of firecrackers for my dad.  And always a pagoda for me (mostly because it had a panda on the package).  We set off fireworks and later would go down to the river to watch the show, set off from a barge in the middle of the water.  I remember that Dad would light the fireworks with his cigarette instead of a lighter or a punk.  (Why are they called punks?  I’ve always wondered.)
These are stories that I want to tell my kids, to share some of my own history with them.  I don’t have a lot of pictures from this period in my life, and that means that those stories will only live if I tell them.
Learn something
This could be anything.  Find a new game that your family wants to learn.  Decide to finally make one of those many recipes from your Pinterest board. Find a YouTube video for a skill you’ve considered, and start learning.
I have some friends who are really, really great about learning about celebrations from other cultures and teaching them to their children.  I’m not talking about appropriation here, I’m speaking of appreciation.  It might be interesting to learn how other countries who have won independence celebrate that independence.  Perhaps, if you’re into history like my family, it would be cool to have a family discussion about how India gained their independence, or Australia.  Many American students are not taught much of the histories of the countries on the other side of the globe, so learning about their celebrations and struggles might be a rewarding way to spend part of this 4th of July.
Eat good food
Just because the bigger celebrations have been canceled doesn’t mean that good food is gone.  If food is usually a part of your pre-Covid 4th of July celebrations, then proceed!  (And who are we kidding?  Americans know how to celebrate with food!)  This is one area that can actually be important for a sense of normalcy for your family.  So much of 2020 has been so discombobulated, having as normal as possible of a feast to commemorate Independence Day can be a comfort and a healing balm for many.  If burgers and hot dogs and apple pie is your 4th of July jam, then do it!  We’ll be having BBQ’d baby back ribs and potato salad.
Give back
Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, thousands of Americans volunteer at shelters and soup kitchens.  But what about the 4th of July?  Granted, restrictions this year might make it more difficult to volunteer at a soup kitchen, though it is still an option (check with your local organizations for details).  There are many other ways to volunteer, even while exercising wisdom and social distancing guidelines.  Perhaps your family could go for a walk and bring along a garbage bag, collecting trash as you go.  Maybe your elderly neighbor needs their lawn mowed.  That cute doggo that never seems to get out for a walk because its owner is a frontline healthcare worker and is exhausted?  Offer to take their dog on a walk.
Just Be (Together, that is)
It’s very possible that after the upheaval of the last few months, you might not have the head- or heart-space to do any of the above suggestions.  Some of my friends have weathered this storm as if it were merely an annoying fly in the room, while others have had their entire worlds flipped on their heads.  Sometimes, simply being is the best that we can do.
Several years ago, my family had to navigate how to keep our traditions alive in the middle of a crisis.  Our matriarch, my grandmother, had passed away just two weeks before Christmas.  We all knew that Christmas would be a subdued affair, and we knew it would never be the same.  In that moment of pain and grief and memory and loss, we had to simply be.  On Christmas morning, we gathered at her home, knowing that it would likely be the last holiday we would spend there. A place that had held decades of family gatherings, traditions and love.  We were gentle with each other and our memories, slowly opening presents, even the ones that she had already bought and labeled for the great-grandchildren. We did not attempt to have a traditional Christmas meal; we simply sought time together. We held each other, we cried, and then we said good-bye.  I knew that I would still be in and out of the house; there were still months of items to go through, years of memories to sort and decide what to keep and what to garage sale.  But as we left, we knew that our being together was a way to honor my grandmother, the years of tradition she had cultivated with all of us, a way to say good-bye and to take what she taught us and bring it into ourselves. When you are living through a crisis, sometimes the most important thing you can do is just be together.

Where ever you are at with cultivating tradition, I hope to encourage you to do something this 4th of July to mark a remembrance.  Maybe you are struggling with all the current social restrictions, or maybe you’re an introvert and are doing just fine.  Maybe you are adjusting your lens of what it means for all Americans to celebrate Independence Day.  Maybe you’re hoping against hope that July comes in quietly and sits down and doesn’t make any noise (can I get an amen?).  Maybe you are a new mom, trying to navigate raising littles with a socially distanced village. Maybe you are like me, on the verge of empty nesting, and traditions are changing constantly.  This year, I hope you give yourself permission to celebrate in a new way, to honor your memories and what you hold inside of you, while also being open to something new.  Mostly, I hope that you are open to hope.  We will all look back on 2020 as a year of strangeness and loss, but there is also hope.  Find a way to mark this time, and then take it with you on your journey.

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