“And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you with one word: tradition.”
– Fidler on the Roof

As Samhain, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and All Soul’s Day approach, I’ve been contemplating a way to create an ancestor-inspired feast to honor those who came before me.

This isn’t just sentimentality.

To truly effect healing in our lives, we need to remember our ancestors. According to the Ancestor Effect1, ancestral remembrance isn’t just a way of remembering those we love, the process actually increases our intellect and helps us feel more confident.

Of course, this is the perfect time of year to engage in ancestral remembrance.

But the more I research what my ancestors ate and did for their harvest festivals, the more I wonder which ancestors to honor and how.

Should I have one dish per lineage?

Like German potatoes, Norwegian salmon, and British Isles soul cakes?

Or should I create an entirely Welsh meal?

And what about the Jews?

I have no idea what they would have eaten since a) I never met my Jewish-turned-Christian paternal grandfather, and b) his parents were from France and Romania and I’m not sure if they would have participated in local customs or adhered to strict Jewish tradition. (I can just hear Tavye singing, “Traditiooooooooon. Tradition!”)

So earlier today, as I wondered what to do, it occurred to me, why not do what my mom did?

When I was a kid, my mom made it her mission to create meaning and merriment in our lives.

At the turn of the weather, she’d redecorate our home with new colors and textures to celebrate the seasons. Some of the decorations were ancestor-inspired while others were not, but they always worked well together and created a festive environment.

For instance, long ago, my mom created a “traditional” Christmas Eve dinner with rib-eye roast, cheesy potatoes, green beans, and a salad. She added small, wrapped boxes of chocolates to each plate, as well as English crackers (the kind you pull to reveal toys, jokes, and a paper crown).

Ever since then, we’ve had the same dinner for Christmas Eve, and because of this, the meal has the feel of tradition and rootedness. In fact, now that I live in California and don’t always get back to Minnesota for the holidays, I make the same dinner for friends, complete with wrapped chocolates and crackers.


Our traditional Christmas Eve dinner with paper crowns (from the English crackers) circa 2004.

There is something healing about tradition.

Even if you love new, as-yet-undiscovered treasures as much as I do, tradition has its place. It roots us. Reminds us of where we come from. And it gives us a sense of grounding and belonging so we can venture off into mysterious places knowing we have a home to return to, even if the “home” is simply a meal we’ve shared with loved ones.

Whenever we engage old rituals and ceremonies, or create new ones, we give our lives meaning because these traditions are imbued with layers of memories that root us in the full flavors of life: joy, sadness, laughter, tears.

For those of us who have been uprooted from our ancestral lands or torn away from our traditions, recreating a sense of rootedness can help us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves, which in turn helps us feel more confident.

Today I’m planning my new Samhain tradition and it will blend together my diverse cultural inheritance as well as new discoveries. It will honor those who came before me and set roots for those who come long after I’m gone.

So what would your ancestral meal look like if you were to create one today?

How can you honor the past as well as the present by mixing the old with the new?

Share your thoughts and memories below – I’d love to hear!

[1] Fischer, P., Sauer, A., Vogrincic, C., and Weisweiler, S. (2010). The ancestor effect: Thinking about our genetic origin enhances intellectual performance. European Journal of Social Psychology. 41 (1), 11-16.