Faith in Culture

Being a Maker of Memories This Advent

11 Minute Read - By Hazelle Schenk

When my husband, Luke and I got married, my mother-in-law gifted me one of our family’s greatest treasures: a box full of memories that meticulously documented my husband’s early childhood life. In it were notes and journals he kept, the cutest tiny shirts and wee shoes, accompanied by photos of special moments when the outfits were worn. Detailed baby books recorded information about his many firsts. One of my favorites is my husband’s little Stan Smith sneakers, purchased by his grandma, costing her a whopping $25 - a quarter of her salary that month! Many of these outfits (and even ones that were kept from his own dad’s childhood!) have since been passed on to my children. 

By contrast, I am a first-generation immigrant here in Canada. When my parents and I emigrated from the Philippines, we arrived with nothing but six suitcases and the clothes on our back. We brought what we thought we needed in our new life here: our warmest clothing, and perhaps a few dinner plates. Consequently, that meant there was little to no room for anything that held sentimental value. No vintage dresses to pass on to my daughter, no written record of what I was like as a child. 

Because of this, I assumed the role of being the “Keeper of Memories” for our family. I've seen firsthand the delight it brought to see glimpses into the past of the people we love, so I wanted to make sure that as our lives unfold in the day to day, I'm capturing and curating different things that our future selves can look back to and fondly remember as “the good old days”. Technology has worked in my favour in that my phone has become a trusty sidekick in capturing all the silly, wondrous things that spill out of my children’s wild imaginations. Being able to instantly send photos and videos halfway around the world has also helped me forge a way for our distant family members to feel somehow included in our daily lives. I take pride in being the ‘Keeper of Memories’ because I think story has such a powerful and positive impact on our lives. As an immigrant, I think it is especially important that I capture the memories I have of my first home, recording what I can and sharing when I can so that the story can continue to live on through me and my children. 

These past few weeks, I have been ruminating on the importance of memories and the stories they tell. Especially in this season of Advent, as we brace ourselves for a major holiday during a pandemic, I can't help but wonder what kind of memories we will keep this year. The year that we “stayed home” and “stayed apart”. It felt bleak, to be honest. What good can come from such memories?

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit intervened. This time, it was through the words of a fellow mother, who reminded me that as a parent, I’m not just the ‘Keeper of Memories’ - I'm also the ‘Maker’ of them.

It got me thinking. How do I experience this joyful season of Advent, with all its wonder and awe, to make good memories for my family? How do I help shape the stories my children will one day get to tell? How do I embrace my role as the ‘Maker of Memories’, while weaving in cultural, familial, and spiritual traditions? My children are growing up in a mixed-race household and they have the privilege to learn and embrace so many traditions that are part of who they are. 

I wanted to honour our families and introduce our cultures to our children, so I reached out to family members to ask about some of their fondest Christmas memories, their favourite traditions, and why they stuck out. After some digging and praying, I realized that though our memories were vastly different, the reason they became core memories was the same. It was more about the sentiment behind the tradition, not the act itself. With that realization, I came up with three main themes— three true statements— that form the foundation for the traditions I want my own family to cultivate through our years. I pray that these truths will accompany each member of our family for the rest of our lives. Guided by these truths, I compiled a list of traditions that we will be continuing on or starting anew this year. Perhaps there are some ideas here that may be fun for your family too!

Truth #1: I am known.

 I grew up in a lower-middle-class family in Manila. We didn’t have a lot of money, so there were hardly ever big, expensive gifts under the tree. But there was always an abundance of little things, often snacks found from the grocery store. Imagine the thrill of a young girl finding her favourite chocolate bar waiting only for her under the tree! Similarly, my husband received a special Christmas ornament each year. It was an ornament that highlighted whatever interest he had that particular year. By the time he moved out, he had more than 18 different ornaments: various cartoon characters, sports, travel. Both family traditions remind the receiver of the gift that they are known and loved. My grandparents knew the little nuances of my favourite things, like that I preferred the vanilla-flavoured wafer sticks over the chocolate ones. And my husband’s mom carefully selected one ornament that summed up an entire year’s worth of fun memories. 

Traditions to try:  This year, I’ll be adding a few of my kids’ favourite treats (including mandarin oranges, which they love!) as well as one special ornament in their individual Christmas stockings. My in-laws have actually started gifting our children with their own sentimental ornaments each year, so the Paw Patrol pups are now forever part of our story!

Truth #2: I belong. 

Both my husband and my dad have been meticulously gathering information for our family tree. They have been doing research, recording information and photos from centuries past. Several years ago, our family met my husband’s distant relatives in Germany over Christmas. On Christmas Day, we gathered around a table and told stories about each others’ lives. Photos dating back from the 1800s were scattered on the table, and it was a true marvel to see faces behind the family lineage. Despite a language barrier, and the fact that we have never met before, there was an unmistakable sense of unity and belonging in the air. We have since stayed in touch with these relatives and try to keep each other updated with our respective lives. Meanwhile, growing up in the Philippines, I celebrated Christmas with dozens and dozens of family members each year. My great Uncle Eddie always had this tradition of passing around a goblet of wine that was shared by all. I remember feeling the sense of belonging so powerfully, in getting to partake of a tradition that seemed only fitting for adults (in retrospect, perhaps it was!). While this tradition of a shared cup amongst many will now just remain in my memory bank, I wanted to practice a tradition where the sense of belonging can be made tangible.

Traditions to try: Take a look at your family tree, and share some stories behind the photos or names in front of you. If you don’t have one yet, there are many free programs online that can help you get started. Ask grandparents, or great grandparents, to share stories of their parents and their siblings; afterall, their memories live on through the stories we tell. In addition to learning about our earthly family, I also thought it would be important for my children to realize that they are an important part of a much larger, in fact, a Royal, family: the family of Jesus!  I decided to purchase a Catholic Jesse Tree guide to learn more about the lineage of Jesus. This year, some of our godchildren and my kids’ godmothers will be doing the Jesse Tree with us as well! Whether in person or via virtual means, our children can together learn about Jesus’ family and how we all belong to one another.

Truth # 3: I am not alone. 

Disney recently released one of their Christmas short films, which highlighted the cultural significance of the ‘Parol’, a star lantern that adorns the homes of Filipinos during the Christmas season. The star symbolizes the light that guided the three wise men to the newborn King. It is a poignant film, highlighting the many emotions that immigrants experience during Christmas while reminiscing vibrant memories of the season back in our home country. The Parol is a visible reminder that we are never away from God’s watchful care, just as He led the wise men towards Jesus, He is always there to guide our way. For me, the light emanating from the star helps me remember that indeed, my Saviour has come. Isn’t that a message we all so desperately need to hear? Especially this year, undoubtedly one of the most difficult years our generation has had to face. Meanwhile, every year on Christmas morning, my husband’s family always read the account of the Christmas story out loud. It focuses the holiday on the true reason for our celebration, the true gift that is given to us all. If I had to choose only one word to sum up Christmas, I would choose this: Emmanuel. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

Traditions to try: This year, we’ll be making a few star lanterns of our own! If you need some ideas, Disney released a simple Parol DIY video to help you get started. We will be continuing the tradition of reading the account of the Nativity and the visit of the wise men to help the children better understand the narrative and the significance of the Parol. Additionally, in order to help other families feel less alone over the holidays, last year we participated in our local food bank’s initiative to sponsor a family over Christmas. We received a list of gifts that the children had wished for, as well as a grocery list for what the family wanted to have for their Christmas meal. We had the privilege of bringing it all to the single mom and meeting her face to face. You can choose a family size that may be within your budget, or you may choose to sponsor a senior. Check your local Food Bank for different opportunities in your city. My children also enjoy “writing” letters (they’re mostly just squiggly lines right now, but the sentiment is the same!), so we’ll be sending Christmas cards to those who may be feeling lonely this season. Since we are not going to be able to see all of our family members this year, I also plan to coordinate some of our Christmas meals by sharing recipes and having the “same meal” though miles and time zones apart. 

It is truly a great honour to be both the “Keeper” and “Maker of Memories” in our home. May yours be filled with moments to savour, and traditions to pass on. I hope that the simplest acts leave a lasting legacy, and the stories continue to live on for generations to come! 

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