I am an adherent to certain family traditions when it comes to holidays. I am not, as my wife would sometimes contend, slavishly devoted to doing things the way they were done when I was growing up, even though all of those things were right and proper and the only appropriate way to do them. I don’t mean that, of course. Like W. Somerset Maugham, I see tradition as “a guide and not a jailer.” I’m flexible. (My wife is chortling incredulously, but really I am. Really.) I just happen to feel that many family traditions are worthwhile, and so worth keeping.
Christmas is generally suffused with tradition for most families, and growing up ours was no exception. In November we went to a farm and tagged, after much good-natured argument about the merits or lack thereof of particular choices, a tree – in early December we returned to cut it down. We hauled out the boxes of ornaments, and after they were hung my father, and some of my older siblings who had the patience, would painstakingly hang the lead icicles one by one on branches, to be removed after New Year’s in a reverse process and stored for the following year. Christmas Eve we attended the late service, sang carols, lit candles, and filed out of the sanctuary and into the stark northern New England night. We kids got to open one gift on Christmas Eve, primarily to save my parents’ sanity.
Christmas morning. Unload our stockings, eat a leisurely breakfast, and then, only then, open our gifts. Not in a mad rush, but one at a time, taking a few moments to admire each person’s present. For a kid, it was maddening. But it taught patience, and appreciation, and I’m sure loads of other admirable qualities. But it was maddening. Even so, my family does it the same way today – a custom worth keeping.
Christmas dinner always consisted of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and the same suite of sides. The day before, one of my jobs was to help polish the silver. I hated polishing the silver. But it taught patience, and appreciation, and – no, polishing the silver sucked. But Christmas dinner was amazing, and the silver sure was shiny.
A few days ago we received a package from my mother. In addition to the books for the kids and the advent calendars, there was a physical embodiment of tradition, a tangible manifestation of an intangible element of my family history and identity.
It was the late 1950′s and my newlywed parents stood in the snow and the bright light of a shop window, admiring a beautiful wooden nativity set. My father wanted desperately to get it for my mother – then he noted the price tag. (He was the young pastor of a small church, and his salary of $1,800 – a year – was already stretched to near snapping.) “I’ll carve you one,” he promised her.
And then he did. That first year he did Mary, Joseph, Jesus and a cradle, adding angels and wise men and befitting farm creatures for the next few years until they had what he considered a complete set. It was a simple act of love (well, and impecunity), but it was something that became an important element in the bedrock of our family traditions, one of many foundations upon which was built, over time, the elaborate architecture of our shared existence.
Every year the nativity set was pulled from the attic, unwrapped and placed on the mantle above the fireplace, arranged around and on two pieces of driftwood salvaged from the beach. We kids were never discouraged from holding or rearranging the figures, as the glue that cements the donkey’s oft-broken ears attests. The figures darkened with age, acquiring a patina of woodsmoke and sweat and human oils, and the very act of putting them out bestowed a sense of continuity, comfort, and familial closeness – exactly what the best traditions do.
The first Christmas after his children got married, my father would carve them their own nativity scene, in both a continuation of old, and creation of new, family tradition. As the youngest child, I did not get a newly-carved nativity set – I was meant to one day inherit the original. This year, in a cardboard box shipped from Maine to Hungary, it arrived.
I sat on the living room sofa with my boys, allowing them to slowly extricate each piece from its bubble wrap and sharing the story of its origins. It was a straightforward passing on of a tradition from one generation to the next, and it made all of us feel good, and special, and part of a larger shared family history. But is was also a material link to the past – I could hold an angel in my hand, note the tiny chisel marks left by a hand no longer alive, and say to my son, “My father – your grandfather – made this.”
As families grow and scatter, traditions are molded and adapted, tossed aside and taken up. There may be an element of nostalgia involved, but nostalgia of the good sort, the sort that reminisces fondly about the past without disparaging the present. With the often hectic, mobile, and physically disconnected nature of the lives many of us lead, the unity, security, and sense of identity that traditions engender and encapsulate make them not only worthwhile, but essential.
“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”