Family traditions are important. They help build family identity, unity and connectedness – in the immediate family, extended family and across generations. For my family, one such tradition concerns birthday celebrations – and the ubiquitous carrot cake.
Families may be the building blocks of society, but they are neither static nor predictable. They are dynamic, ever-changing entities. This is why it is important to establish family traditions.
When I was a young mum, I read What is a family? by Edith Schaeffer. It had a significant impact on my thinking about the nature of family and the importance of family traditions. Here are a few selected passages from What is a family? Chapter 1:
“A family is a mobile. A family is the most versatile, ever-changing mobile that exists. A family is a living mobile that is different from the handcraft mobiles … an intricate mobile made up of human personalities. … [It is] an artwork that takes years, even generations, to produce, but which is never finished. The artwork [requires] … imagination, creativity, originality, talent, concern, love, compassion, excitement, determination, and time. … A family is a grouping of individuals who are affecting each other, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and psychologically … toddlers, young schoolchildren, teens, young married couples, middle-aged couples … grandparents. … A family will in some tiny way picture the beauty of the gigantic art form of the complete “Family” of those who have come to God in His given way and been born again. … A Christian family is a mobile blown by the gentle breeze of the Holy Spirit.“
In the midst of incessant change (within families and in society generally), families need stability and constancy. Family traditions help build family identity, unity and connectedness – in the immediate family, extended family and across generations. They help us honour and appreciate each other. They strengthen family bonds and allow members of the extended family the privilege of contributing to our lives as the years go by.
Clearly, producing a strong, happy, resilient family doesn’t just happen. It takes time – years – and requires much patience, effort and commitment.
Family traditions have to be established, maintained, celebrated and remembered.
These traditions include patterns of behaviour, routines, regular activities and events shared by various members of the family – parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins. Other families and individuals may be included in a family’s traditions as well. This is an aspect of hospitality.
Photographs, video-recordings, books, newspaper cuttings, diaries and mementos help enliven and preserve the memories of these traditions.
Over the years, our family has established many family traditions.
Here are just a few:
1. “Just for fun” activities and games (indoors or outdoors, quiet or crazy)
These include table games, after dinner “rumbles” on the carpet, doing actions to classical music, playing games or sport in the backyard or nearby park, going for a walk or a bike-ride. It’s the regularity and predictability of these activities that makes them a “tradition”.
2. Mealtime routines
As an example, for the evening meal on week days, the routines include: setting the table, serving the meal, saying (more often singing) “Grace”, sharing about the day’s events, cleaning up after the meal (in our family, the person who cooks does not clean up afterwards – that’s our rule).
3. Food appreciation and preparation
We acknowledge each other’s “favourite” meals by providing them at regular intervals. At the same time, we help younger members of the family learn to appreciate, enjoy and share in the great variety of food and meal options available to us. With the exception of my husband, each adult member of our family loves to cook and considers cooking an art form. We encourage the children to contribute to meal preparation and assist in cooking, as they are able.
4. Bedtime routines
With each child (separately, whenever possible), we read a story, read a Bible passage, sing songs and pray together.
5. Personalised family songs, jokes and nicknames
My husband has a great sense of humour and fun. For him it is natural and easy to make up a family song, a ditty for each member of the family (using their name, rhyming words, etc.), family in-jokes and nicknames. My husband and I and each of our children and grandchildren have a unique and treasured nickname.
6. Sunday worship
For Christian families (such as ours), this is an important family tradition to establish. Setting aside time each week to worship the Lord, participating in the services ourselves (as an example for our children), spending time with other Christian families and individuals who love the Lord, nurtures our family spiritually, psychologically and emotionally.
7. Family holidays
Family holidays can be repetitive and predictable: this is the basis of the tradition. We go to stay with parents/grandparents, because they don’t live in the same city. But we don’t mind. The children and grandparents in particular look forward with great anticipation and excitement to the regular visits. Or we go camping at the same seaside resort or National Park each year. We’ve been there before, lots of times and we know what to expect. But that’s what we like about it.
8. Birthday, Christmas and anniversary celebrations
Our family, like many others, has traditions related to birthday, Christmas and anniversary celebrations. For us, these celebrations typically involve a family get-together, special food and drink, gift-giving, personalised greeting cards, and a celebration cake. Sometimes we invite our friends to share the event with us.
“The Ubiquitous Carrot Cake” is a story about one of our family traditions: birthday celebrations.
The birthday cake has always been an important part of our family’s birthday festivities. When my children were little, from their very first birthday, I made a novelty birthday cake. When they were old enough, they were able to choose the cake and its design.
The Bung-in Cake is my cake of choice for the novelty birthday cakes I make. And I have made lots of them over the years! The recipe is versatile: it allows for a plain vanilla cake, chocolate cake, orange cake or cupcakes. It is easy to prepare and I have never had a failure using this recipe.
This tradition concerning birthday celebrations continues with our daughter (Ruth) and her children, our grandchildren.
Our daughter’s cake of choice is the Carrot Cake.
Ruth has a wonderful carrot cake recipe, which she has been using successfully for at least 10 years. This recipe has been used over and over again for family birthday celebrations during that time (hence the “ubiquitous” carrot cake).
As a birthday cake, the carrot cake is a great choice because it is:
- healthy and nutritious (especially if you omit the cream cheese icing)
- firm but moist
- nutty and spicy
- versatile (you can use different spices as you prefer)
- able to be made the night before, and stored
- at your fingertips (you’re likely to have all the ingredients at hand)
- irresistible (especially with the naughty but nice cream cheese icing)
- a feel-good cake (you don’t feel full or bloated after indulging).
We include members of the extended family, young and old, in our birthday celebrations. Sometimes we have had four generations present ranging from little ones just walking, through to great-grandparents in their 80s and 90s, with their wheelie walkers in tow! It doesn’t matter whether the person is young or old. We celebrate the birthdays of the older members of our family just the same as for the younger ones. Each person gets a cake, a cake of their choice. There is the obligatory singing of “Happy Birthday” and the ceremonious cutting of the cake.
But there is a twist in the tale of the ubiquitous carrot cake!
Ruth’s husband, aware that Ruth loves carrot cake, decided to make a carrot cake for her birthday a couple of years ago. However, in trying to juggle household tasks, three small children, Saturday sport, as well as preparing for a birthday celebration, he forgot to add the flour to the mixture! The result?
A very well iced carrot and nut slice!
Ruth recalls: “The icing layer was almost as high as the carrot layer.”
Here is Ruth’s carrot cake recipe. I hope you try it and enjoy it as much as our family does.
1 cup white sugar
¾ cup cooking oil
1⅓ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1⅓ teaspoons bicarb of soda
1⅓ teaspoons baking powder
1⅓ teaspoons cinnamon
2 cups grated raw carrot
½ cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans, preferably)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
- Grease a 20 cm round or square cake tin and place baking paper on the bottom.
- Heat oven to 150 degrees Celcius.
- Beat eggs and sugar until frothy.
- Add oil and stir in sifted dry ingredients.
- Fold in grated carrot, nuts and vanilla essence.
- Bake in the oven for 1 hour.
- When cool, remove cake from tin and ice with cream cheese icing. Decorate with walnuts or pecans (optional).
Icing ingredients and method
Combine by beating:
125 g cream cheese
250 g icing sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla essence