A Few of Our Favorite (Traditional) Things: Lessons From the Von Trapp Family
Singing Catholics offer insights in reprinted book.
The story of the “Family von Trapp” has enchanted people of all faiths since it was put to music by Rodgers and Hammerstein in the Broadway and Hollywood hit musical The Sound of Music, and although the popular portrayal of Fraulein Maria and all those children has taken on fairy-tale status across the world, it has a solid foundation in reality.
Around the Year With the von Trapp Family — published in 1955 and now reprinted for a new generation of Catholic families — confirms what the musical portrays: Maria really was a postulant at a Benedictine convent in Salzburg, Austria, and she really did become governess in the employ of World War I Navy veteran and widower Georg von Trapp. Maria and Georg really did fall in love, get married, and sing with the family at festivals all over Europe, and they really did flee Austria after the Nazi takeover.
The musical ended there, and the credits rolled — but the real-life story of the von Trapps was far from over. As Maria relates in her memoirs, by 1939, Maria and Georg had had two children of their own and had another on the way. Just as war was breaking out all over the Continent, the von Trapps emigrated to America, where they continued to perform as a family. In 1942 they purchased an old farm in Stowe, Vermont.
For more than 20 years, they delighted audiences all over the world with their music. The old farm in Stowe has been converted into a world-class resort that is still operating to this day, with some of Maria and Georg’s grandchildren at the helm.
Meg Marlett, a home-schooling mother from Livermore, California, had heard of Maria’s second memoir years ago but never found a copy of her own because it was out of print.
However, when the new edition of Around the Year with the von Trapp Family came out, she snapped it up immediately. Even though she and her husband, Mark, are seasoned parents — they have eight children and four grandchildren — Maria’s book provides much-needed inspiration for the “home stretch” of their parenting journey.
“The book is beautifully laid out,” Marlett said.
But what she appreciates most is the theme of family unity that runs like an unbreakable cord through the entire book.
“We segregate by age so much in the world, and even in the Church. Maria’s main point, though, is to integrate the whole family into all the traditions and activities, so that all ages can celebrate the high times and low times together.”
As their youngest children enter their late teens, the Marletts are determined to continue providing the same rich and solidly Catholic upbringing as their older children enjoyed. Mrs. von Trapp offers plenty of inspiration.
The book begins with Advent, Christmas and the winter feasts, including a charming pre-Lenten season called Carnival. Lent, Holy Week and the Easter season follow. The great swath of Ordinary Time that comes after Easter gets its own lovely chapter entitled, “The Green Meadow,” so named for green liturgical vestments and for the single summer feasts that are “like isolated peaks towering above the green meadow.”
With a tone of gentle and joyful nostalgia, full of hope that many of the old traditions will be revived, Maria teaches the reader about Christkindl, the joys of feasting and fasting (“high tide and low tide”), and ways to commemorate important family days (like baptismal anniversaries). She provides handy lists of saints for various occasions, and in the chapter on celebrating the sacraments, she gives one of the best explications of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit (from the prophet Isaiah) that I’ve ever read.
But she also writes with candor and concern about the shocking differences between Austria and America, which serve as stand-ins for the Old World and the New World — or, even more broadly, for Christendom and secularism. A chapter called “The Land Without a Sunday” is particularly timely.
She writes that “the Christian Sunday is threatened more and more both from without and from within — from without, through the systematic efforts of the enemies of Christianity, and from within through the mediocrity and superficiality of the Christians themselves who are making of Sunday merely a day of rest, relaxing from work only by seeking entertainment.”
She then quotes Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei: “The results of the struggle between belief and unbelief will depend to a great extent on the use that each of the opposing fronts will make of Sunday.”
But Maria doesn’t merely lament. She’s practical and positive. To combat a pernicious secular problem, she writes, “There is no use in just talking against it. Something better has to be substituted.”
And for that, Maria’s book is full of ideas. Even though it was published more than a decade before Vatican II, modern Catholic parents will still gain much wisdom and practical help from this book. The new 2018 edition is a keepsake-quality, hardcover book featuring illustrations by Georg and Maria’s daughter Rosemary.
Naturally, a book about the musical von Trapps will include music, and this book is filled with seasonal songs, many with lines for harmonizing with the melody. Some of the songs include piano staves, but it would have been much improved and accessible to more families if all the songs had been arranged for piano and included guitar chords.
Another minor fault of the book is that numerous pre-Vatican II references received no editorial comment to provide context for the benefit of modern readers. Some of the recipes also should have been updated if present-day Catholics are expected to use them.
Nevertheless, with the combination of practical “how-to” advice and inspiring, relevant essays, this book is a welcome addition to every Catholic family library. Parents searching for a way to build a distinctive Catholic family culture that is intentionally different from the culture “out there” will find this book especially helpful. Parish priests would also benefit from this book because they could use it to reinstate worthy traditions and practices from the past, such as having a special service on Candlemas Day and giving every family a blessed candle, or ceremoniously veiling an “Alleluia” plaque at the beginning of Lent. It also makes an excellent wedding present or gift for a young family at their first child’s baptism.
Lent is here, so picking up this book now will give you time to peruse it and make some plans for “The Great Fast.” As Maria exhorts her readers, “Let us not be so soft anymore!”
Maria also writes, “When Hitler’s troops invaded Austria in 1938, my husband and I felt bound by conscience to save our children from yielding to the religion and philosophy of this neo-paganism. … Only the Church throws light onto the gloomy prospects of modern man — Holy Mother Church — for she belongs, herself, to a realm that has its past and present in time, but its future in the World Without End. ... With every passing year, I [realize] more deeply how joyful our religion is. The more one penetrates into what it means to be Catholic, the fuller life becomes.”
Joe and Joannie Kuefler live in suburban Boston with their eight children, ranging in age from 4 to 25.
Joannie advises Catholic parents to study Maria’s book (and books like it) to gain whatever inspiration they can, but “choose what will work for your family and your own family culture.”
“The whole of Western civilization is suffering from Modernism and secularism,” Joannie told the Register, “but books like Maria von Trapp’s help reassure us that a lot of the worldly seasonal practices actually come from Catholicism. It’s a simple matter to add meaning and richness to them by explaining the religious significance to children.”
Clare Walker writes from
Fruits of Family Traditions
A little goes a long way in family life, as the von Trapps can attest. When parents deliberately incorporate Catholic traditions and practices into their daily life, even small ones, they often “stick,” staying with our children into their adulthood.
For example, Kat Millard, a 2009 college graduate, vividly remembers her parents’ emphasis on daily prayer. “Every morning the family gathered around the table to pray with Dad before he left for work and before the school day started. Then, in the evening, we read aloud together and then prayed, either the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.” She and her husband, John, now try to make prayer a cornerstone of their day with their four children in their home in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
And Andrew Kelly, an actor from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, remembers family travel, Catholic-style: “Saying a quick prayer for passing emergency vehicles is a fairly ingrained behavior for me,” he said.
Brothers Noah and Josh Billing, both college students in Illinois, have strong memories of many Catholic family traditions growing up, such as going on retreats and to daily Mass as a family, kneeling down and praying at the Christmas crèche before opening presents, and making dinner together a priority. At these family dinners, the conversation often turned to the Catholic faith, which had a big impact on both of them. Their friend Jake Bartley, also an Illinois college student, had a similar experience of dialogue with his parents about the faith and about life: “Open discussion about faith and morals was encouraged and fostered in my family.”
— Clare Walker