Birthdays have always been a big deal in my family. When I was growing up, the birthday girl (or man, in the case of my father) would be regaled with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" during breakfast.
The special attention continued throughout the day and included letting the honoree choose the dinner menu and being the center of family conversation. Birthdays were not about presents, but about being the center of attention.
Celebrating birthdays is one of the many traditions that our family shares. We also join together on Thanksgivings, Christmas Eves, and mornings, and we have celebrated New Year's with my sister and her husband for decades. While some might view traditions in general as stuffy and old fashioned, I think of them as the glue of shared experiences that hold us together. They represent the shared memories of being together at special times in our lives that we can all remember and reflect upon.
Many traditions are serious, but there are also fun ones. Our son and his aunt and uncle have a tradition before eating of taking their knives and forks in hand and banging the ends down on the table twice to signify that they are about to begin eating. My husband and I both check in on our children before they fall asleep, just to say good night, make sure they are all right and say we love them.
Texts between family members end with LU, meaning "Love You." They are only two extra letters, but on some days, it means a lot to get them from someone you love, to be reminded that you are not alone, and you too are loved.
This sense of tradition and ceremony is one of the reasons that I was drawn to the Episcopal faith. The liturgy and prayers repeated weekly provide a framework for the faith and are the scaffolding of my faith. The process of sitting, standing and kneeling at various times helps to focus my mind on God rather than on myself.
The process of ceremony itself transfers us from the mundane tasks of our everyday lives to a different holy place. This allows us to travel to a different dimension — mentally and spiritually — without leaving our seats.
So is true of ceremonies not only in church, but also in our everyday lives. Blessings before meals allow us to be thankful to God and to others. The simple act of making tea can become a ceremony when done slowly and deliberately. Everything, when slowed and focused upon, becomes something to savor rather than something to push aside in the usual rush to get through one's day.
This week, I had the opportunity to attend the papal audience at St. Peter's Square in Rome. We arrived hours early, as most of the audience does, and waited for the Pope to arrive. The Swiss Guards, wearing red-feathered helmets and blue, red, and orange uniforms, were scattered throughout the square. They represented a reminder of an earlier time and the importance of tradition in the Catholic Church.
The Pope took his time with the crowd, and with those who were near the dais, as if to say to those around him, "I am not in a hurry; I have all the time in the world. You are not alone; I am with you."
This week, we celebrated my father's birthday in Rome as a family. Yes, we sang "Happy Birthday" to him, and yes, he had the opportunity to pick the menu for his dinner, which included calamari, steak and pasta. In that way, we certainly followed tradition.
Our gift was also homemade and was the greatest gift of all — the gift of time. It is the one gift that cannot be bought and cannot be picked out by someone else. It's a way of saying, "I am not in a hurry. I have all the time in the world. You are not alone; I am with you. You are loved."
Our family was blessed to be able to be together this week to celebrate his birthday. I am sure that we will long savor the time that we met in Rome and broke bread together celebrating his birthday.
Happy birthday, Dad!
Jackie Gingrich Cushman is the co-author, along with her father, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of the book "5 Principles for a Successful Life: From Our Family to Yours." Read more reports from Jackie Gingrich Cushman — Click Here Now.