Despite volumes of parenting advice and research, which seem to have multiplied over the past generation and get revised annually, when it comes to the day-to-day labor of love of raising our children, most parents do what their parents and parents' parents did before: go with our gut. In other words, we make a lot of it up as we go along.
Depending on our life circumstances and cultural milieu, we make up different things. Some parents get creative with nutrition or finances; others make up educational curriculum, family mythology, sleep-over rules, or what constitutes the grounds for punishment and discipline. I have made up how we celebrate a holiday tradition.
I belong to a faith with virtually no rituals, and holidays almost no one around me has heard of. As a Baha'i, we avoid rituals but we do worship God, have sacred writings and prayers, a rich history, a worldwide community, laws (like getting the consent of living parents before marriage), and guidelines for daily living (like personal daily prayer and meditation, prohibiting backbiting, putting a very high priority on gender and racial equality, education, and avoidance of all mind-altering substances like drugs and alcohol). The idea is that realizing wider and wider circles of unity among members of the human family amidst a process of personal spiritual transformation helps to build a world that will one day realize peace and justice, contributing to an ever-advancing civilization.
Without rituals my faith felt unencumbered. But after I became a mother, I felt particularly challenged once a year, during the Baha'i holiday, Ayyam-i-Ha, celebrated each year from February 25 to March 1, when I strove to carve out a meaningful tradition from a ritual-free holiday in the dead of winter that sounds like a motorcycle brand. In principle it's not about replacing Christmas, but in reality I did seek to offer a fun, exciting, highly anticipated alternative.
During Ayyam-i-Ha (translated as "Days of Joy" or "Days outside of time") Baha'is and friends perform acts of charity, give gifts to friends and family and attend social gatherings, before a period of fasting begins. Some think of it as parallel to Fat Tuesday before Lent. Baha'u'llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith, about a century and a half ago, said of Ayyam-i-Ha: "It behoveth the people of Baha, throughout these days, to provide good cheer for themselves, their kindred and, beyond them, the poor and needy, and with joy and exultation to hail and glorify their Lord, to sing His praise and magnify His Name." The rest is left wide open. No mention of lights or fireworks or dragons or trees or candles or unleavened bread or money. No particular colors, specific decorations, foods, or ceremonies associated with this season.
More recently I've felt reinforced in my attempts to create traditions through supportive blogs and Facebook groups, where Baha'i parents from around the world have begun sharing widely their own family traditions: Advent-type calendars counting down to Ayyam-i-Ha, gingerbread houses in the shape of a nine-sided Baha'i House of Worship (there is one Baha'i House of Worship on each continent, each with nine sides and nine entrances, symbolizing a welcoming of all faiths and peoples into its doors), and special gifts to honor teachers, who are highly revered in the Baha'i writings, among the creative ways to mark the holiday.
Thanks to this new phenomenon of on-line support, I feel less isolated preparing my made-up traditions, and even forums among Jewish moms or adoptive parents have sparked ideas. I also have noticed in the past 10 or so years that with the wider acceptance and celebration of holidays like Diwali and Lunar (Chinese) New Year in mainstream America, I am more confident explaining Ayyam-i-Ha to friends, neighbors and teachers who had never heard of this before and that they can more readily get their heads around an unfamiliar holiday.
Larger societal trends also help me feel less alone. According to the landmark Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, fully 37 percent of marriages are between interfaith couples, and 44 percent of Americans switch faith affiliations in their lifetimes. About 15 percent of new marriages in 2010 were between couples of different races or ethnicities. These are unprecedented numbers, reflecting a merging, mixing and openness to new ideas and lifestyles never before seen in the U.S. or likely anywhere in the world.
As a result, many types of families are making up new traditions. The more parents I talk to, I realize that very few feel like everyone else, or know exactly what they're doing to raise the kind of people they hope their children will become. We might not feel "normal" because the target for normal changes constantly. We've all been different, just as we are all making up so much of what it means to be a parent in our seismically shifting world. But once we start talking to each other we realize that we share many of the same values and aspirations for our world and for our children.
So, as I get my Ayyam-i-Ha crafts and dozens of cupcakes ready, and our teacher gifts assembled, just as all my neighbors have finally put away the last vestiges of their decorations spanning a party season from Halloween to Valentine's Day, I take comfort that I can offer a burst of sunshine amidst the winter doldrums, and am joined in "being different" by millions of others, who all feel different for one reason or another. They might celebrate Hanukkah, King's Day, or nothing at all, and they might be straining to understand their mother-in-law's English, or their children's new religion, or the ceremony at their brother's wedding, and thanks to our shared differentness we can connect, create community and celebrate. Happy Ayyam-i-Ha!
A version of this piece appears in InCultureParent.com