Such a pretty word, isn’t it? It came into use in the early 15th century, in the form of ayre lome meaning primarily “implement or tool.” As with so much language, the origin of the word reminds us of a time when a good shovel or axe made a real difference in survival. If cared for properly, these things could be passed down.
But today we are more likely to pass down other things. Moms pass jewelry to their daughters. Grandmas pass down china and precious collectibles like Hummel or Lladro figurines. Granddads often give their sons watches, military medals, or odd collectibles from their own fathers.
Of course, not every heirloom is welcomed by the younger generation. Countless sets of silver and china sit in thrift stores because they don’t match the “lifestyles” of today’s modern gal. Plus, an heirloom implies responsibility for the weight of its history. It needs to be cared for, dusted, polished, preserved. And, ideally, passed on. Not everyone is in a position to accept or do that.
So it’s good to remember that “heirlooms” don’t have to be physical items. Of greatest import are spiritual heirlooms: the concepts we were taught as children, poems our parents read to us, proverbs repeated by aunts and grannies.
Especially at this season, we are storing up spiritual heirlooms for our children. For example, the minutes spent around the dining-room table lighting the Advent wreath is a distinct heirloom. (And by the way, it’s never too late to start. Just light three candles this coming Sunday.) Every time we turn away from the bustle of commercial Christmas and opt for a walk in the park, a quiet cuddle with the kids, or a few blissful moments for ourselves to watch a sunset or read something inspirational—these are spiritual gifts. They are “heirloom moments.” They teach a message and values that matter.
Then there are “heirloom experiences”: things we do that teach lessons to pass down. A prime example would be doing things for others. Not buying and giving, but doing! These are things a child never forgets.
My mother made a lot of custard to take to “shut-ins.” Her custard kitchen was particularly busy in December. At the time, I didn’t understand why these fragrant little bowls blessed others, but I do today. I still hear her voice telling me to go make custard (or soup), and take it to people whom it will bless. It’s one of my main spiritual heirlooms from her.
If we’re fortunate, we inherit another kid of spiritual heirloom in the form of scriptural passages. These are words that our parents, grandparents, and others dear to us bequeath. My own mother’s favorite Psalm 91. She also taught me to love the words:
May the Lord bless you and keep you,May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,and be gracious to you.May the Lord lift up his countenance upon youand give you peace.
A child may not understand all that this means, but the sound of such words will remain forever in his heart.
Rather than decry the things we cannot have or “get done” in the pre-Christmas weeks, let’s try to treasure the things we can do and enjoy in Advent—both the physical heirlooms that grace our home and the small gestures that comfort and bless others. These will be the spiritual heirlooms for our children, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors. No heirloom is too small, and each is precious.