“Tradition is a guide, not a jailer.”
– W. Somerset Maugham
Time to leave the fledgling world of my latest project behind for a few posts and pontificate about forthcoming holiday season.
I am something of a traditionalist. I just like consistency. I’m very methodical. I generally do things the same way every time because I find comfort in reliability. I drink the same beer (when available), order the same foods (I have a rotating menu of sorts, depending on where I am eating), sit in the same place when I go to movies, etcetera. I am the original creature of habit. I don’t get OCD about it, but I do prefer familiarity more often than not.
I find it fascinating to look at the traditions of Christmas and how they have evolved. Many people don’t realize that a winter holiday on or around this date predates the Christian claim of Christ’s birthday. The Winter Solstice occurs only days before, and is generally marked because it’s the shortest day of the year and that every day subsequently grows longer. The Romans had a number of festivals around this date as well; Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti to name a few. Certain Germanic peoples celebrated Yule (or Jule) at this same time of year as well (and indeed the name remains in place for the modern-day Christmas holiday as well).
A cursory examination of each of those holidays will show that our modern-day observation of Christmas is an amalgam of traditions. Yule brings us much of the greenery and decoration, Saturnalia brings us the merry-making, and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti brings with it the notion of celebrating the birth of a deity (of sorts). In fact, in the church’s early years, it was frowned upon to acknowledge the day of Christ’s birth, as only false gods and sinners were thought to celebrate their own birthday (I’m glad those folks aren’t around to see My Super Sweet 16; talk about worthless people celebrating their own birthday).
That’s a broader view of just a few historical traditions that we still observe. I could easily write an entire thesis on the evolution of Christmas (and of Hallowe’en; my two favorite holidays) but that will wait for another time. My purpose in mentioning it is simply to observe that there are activities we engage in today that have been ongoing for well over two thousand years, and most of us either don’t realize, don’t care, or cannot appreciate the connectedness that brings us to the past.
Some people – specifically young adults in their late teens and early 20’s, though that’s not all-encompassing or exclusive – seem to think that being a traditionalist and a progressive are somehow mutually exclusive. This is an unfortunate, and often uneducated, point of view.
I am what you might call a progressive traditionalist – and that’s not an oxymoron. I observe tradition, not out of some blind doctrinal mandate, but because I value it on a personal level. It is important not to lose sight of what has come before; the past can teach us. However, I have no qualms about letting something go or changing my observations if I believe it will be of benefit. No generation is perfect. Just because something has been observed for a hundred years doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true or proper. At the same time, it’s foolish to disregard long-standing traditions just because they are old or because our parents believed it. After all, it’s likely they have survived this long for a very good reason.
For my family, this holiday is all about marking the birth of Christ. That is important to me on a personal level. That is why we celebrate in our house. Those who celebrate for different reasons – that’s great. While some believers may get their noses displaced because they feel other holiday observations are “taking the Christ out of Christmas” (don’t get me started on the naive notion that substituting the “X” in “Xmas” is taking the “Christ” out of Christmas; learn your Greek alphabet, people!), I remain thankful that for one day, people of different faiths can take a break from the usual intolerance and promote goodwill towards ALL men. Of course I wish everyone celebrated it for the same reason I do – but I’m not naive. And I’m not going to degrade or insult you for having a different tradition than I do. We don’t have the market cornered.
This year, our family tradition will be a little different (our family party will be on December 23 instead of December 24 because I have to work) but it will still serve its purpose: to bring us together to mark what is, for us and many others, a sacred holiday that deserves to be remembered. And to join in many others of many other faiths to promote goodwill, tolerance, and love across the globe.
Christmas may look different – it may be over-commercialized. But in the end, despite what our money-driven culture wants to do with it, Christmas is what you make it. So make it count for something positive, for your family or for those who may need it. And whatever your observation at this time of year, be it cultural, religious, or secular, I hope you enjoy it to the fullest and that it’s a time that will bless you and your family.
What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? I’m very interested to hear how people around the country (and the world) celebrate the holiday now, or in the past.
I’ll be doing a post on the music of the season in a few days – it plays such a big part in setting the stage, I think it’s worth a post all its own.