On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, December 10, 2010

Traditions, Choices or Impositions

I've been watching from a slight distance as my daughter incorporates new traditions into their holiday celebrations. She's made a Jesse Tree (something I once attempted and failed at miserably), has decoupaged the O Antiphons, will be making St. Lucy's bread from my friend Karen's recipe, and has purchased a nice Nativity set. She's made either a conscious, or unconscious decision to drop some of our traditions (like not setting the Nativity up until Christmas Eve, and bringing the tree in earlier than we do). It's made me think again a little bit about our own "traditions." What I realized as I did so is that they came from various places, that like her and her husband we made conscious choices to embrace some things that neither family had done, and we kept some parts of both families traditions as well. As I watched Alton Brown last night talking about Christmas foods I had to laugh because some of his Christmas foods were things like Wassail that were attempted here, but essentially bombed (should we give that tradition one more try before we discard it entirely, I wondered last night), were things we've never done (like oyster stuffing) because the whole idea was distasteful to some one or another of the participants, or were something he found a substitute for (a duck is not a goose Alton!). His traditional foods mostly came straight out of Dickens (and he had Dickens there to prove it!). Some of our traditions (like plum pudding) came straight out of Dickens as well, neither of our families ever attempted them. except for a very small number of things (like plum pudding). For years we've made my mother's Christmas bread (which my son told me last year that he really dislikes) and my father's omelet (which my daughter admitted a couple of years ago that she's not all that fond of). Other than that our traditions were my in-law's traditions Christmas Eve church, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, and Auntie's tea cookies or shared traditions like Christmas stockings, tree, and mince pie. We've experimented with Christmas dinner for years. My parents always did ham or turkey, we started with turkey, but switched to roast beef because it was easier. In recent years my son started clamoring for goose, so we did both roast beef and goose, which was harder than just doing a turkey. Chesterton talks about tradition being the democracy of the dead, so by bringing in things that former generations did were we being somewhat democratic, taking our elder's opinions into account, I think we thought so.

But, wait a minute, just how far back did any of those family traditions actually go? The Christmas tree and stockings probably made it back to at least my parent's generation on 3 of the 4 sides. My maternal grandparents didn't do Santa Claus, stockings or a Christmas tree. I guess that probably the only solid universal was of all things, the mince pie (which the Puritans tried so hard to suppress). My parents and my in-laws actually embraced parts of Christmas celebrations that none of their parents or grandparents had embraced. They made choices we followed a lot of the choices they made. In many respects it almost seems like their choices were based in large part on how the culture as a whole celebrated the Christmas season rather than for any specifically religious context other than the Christmas Eve service that my in-laws routinely went to (I've got to ask my husband whether they actually did that when their kids were little, I'm not sure). Our church had a Christmas program at some point during the holiday season (always before Christmas, we didn't "do" Advent), but that was more a bone of contention than a joyful thing, since my mother could rarely get my father to go to it.

Our choices (other than the Dickensian ones) were based more on trying to have a religiously based holiday. We read books like Clem the Clumsy Camel, Born in a Stable, Santa are You for Real, instead of poems like Santa and the Christmas Mouse. I remember making a felt banner to put up at the beginning of Advent one year and we tried repeatedly to have an Advent wreath. Doing the readings seemed to peter out pretty quickly every year and the wreath itself became a fire hazard long before Christmas. We waited until Dec. 24th to set up the Nativity set and baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph didn't arrive until after church on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men didn't arrive until Epiphany and the tree stayed up until at least then, while everyone else's trees were in the garbage at least by New Year's.

We didn't do Santa Claus the way that my parents and grandparents did. Rather we put the emphasis on Jesus's birthday and read the story of the real St. Nicholas.

Through the years things have gotten dropped, things have been added, and things have inevitably changed. We no longer have 10 or more people around the table on Christmas Day. This year there will only be 4 of us. There are foods we've tried in the past, but don't bother with anymore. There are things like sugar cookies with frosting that my mother always did, and that I did when the kids were little, that just don't seem to make it onto my list of things to do. However, because none of those things are of particularly long tradition they don't seem like a huge loss.

What would seem like a loss (and did to my daughter a couple of years back when she was ragingly sick on Christmas Eve)would be to not go to church. In a family sense it's not a tradition of longstanding, but for us it's an important choice we've made (even before it was a Holy Day of obligation for some of us).

I sometimes wish that we had traditions that went back for several generations. I wish we really had a family history where we could participate in that kind of democracy of the dead. I wish there were a history of reading the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve before bed instead of a tradition of frantically wrapping presents. My daughter is doing far better there than we have. Her gifts were all purchased by December 1 and she's spending Advent doing meaningful Advent things. I'm scarcely half finished with my shopping and I can absolutely guarantee that my husband and son haven't even begun. However, that seems to be an important part of making someone feel like Christmas around here. That last minute hustle is apparently an important part of the tradition to my husband (his family were all last minute shoppers as well). What we seem to have to a large part is traditions that are one generation or so old. Yet, I think to my children there was a sense of we've always done it this way, that some people don't have. At least I hope that's the case.

My mother and my in-laws were very good about not imposing Santa Claus when we said we'd rather not do that particular myth. I hope that my children never feel we are imposing something on them (or their children) that they'd rather abandon. Traditions are important in helping us to remember that we are celebrating and even in helping us focus on what we are celebrating (there actually was a symbolic reason for many of the foods associated with Christmas). However, a tradition that's only one generation old is certainly one that can be examined and discarded. For example, my mother's Christmas bread (which we've always had on Christmas morning) was not something we had on Christmas all the time at my own house. It was a bread my mother made for her Home Dem club Christmas party every year. She only made it for us once in awhile. The omelet we have on Christmas morning was one that my father made yearly, just not necessarily on Christmas. In point of fact I don't really remember Christmas morning breakfasts all that vividly at all. They were far more ceremonial in my current family than in my birth family. Christmas dinner was a far more memorable thing. So, if I abandon Christmas bread this year since it my son doesn't like it, my husband is ambivalent about it and my daughter isn't going to be here, will I be abandoning something of import? I hardly think so. Can my daughter actually secretly rejoice that she's going to miss the plum pudding (which she's never really liked all that much) and decide never to make it for her own family? Of course. Plum pudding was something I introduced, she doesn't need to keep that tradition going. Does she have to have oyster stew on Christmas Eve? Well she's scarcely likely to since her husband doesn't eat shell fish. Will we continue to have it? Oh, yes, we will, not because of tradition, but because it's something I really look forward to. Could she decide to do a Buche de Noel instead of plum pudding, certainly.

What if, like some families we know, they decided to abandon Christmas tree or Christmas stockings. Wouldn't that really be denying the democracy of the dead? Well, probably not really. Christmas trees really never made it into anything other than Lutheran celebrations before the 19th century and Christmas stockings aren't a whole lot older. I'd be more concerned if they abandoned the creche or Christmas church. The fact is that all of the traditions surrounding Christmas really are for the most part a matter of choices made by families within just a very few generations. If the choices of the current generation are somewhat different out of a conviction of trying to make Christmas more about the Savior then I have nothing but kudos for the attempt.

As Catholics we have traditions from all over the world to choose from. My daughter's husband has Irish, Yugoslavian, and Puerto Rican roots. If they choose to add some of those elements to their Advent and Christmas celebrations it would be entirely appropriate, just as it's been appropriate for us to look back into English cultural history and add plum pudding, goose, and oysters to ours.

I think the only time that Christmas makes me sad and tired is when I'm trying to live up to someone else's rules and expectations. My in-laws really imposed very little, but one thing which was intended to make things easier was an imposition of sorts. It made me tired when I had to do all of the shopping for my kids when they were little because the family gave us money for the parents to spend instead of shopping themselves. It made me sad and when I felt like I had to buy more for my sister's family than I felt I could afford, but wasn't allowed to buy for my sister-in-law's family that I was closer to. Last year I actually sort of enjoyed Christmas because I did a whole bunch of knitted gifts, and did a lot of the rest of my shopping online. What I realized is that while I like giving gifts, I don't really enjoy shopping. This year I've decided I'm only doing the things I actually enjoy and find meaningful, and I'm doing them on my schedule (which is why the plum pudding still isn't made!). It doesn't mean I'm ditching tradition. We'll still have a tree, a goose, plum pudding and mince pie. We'll still have presents, we'll still go to church. However,I'm not stressing that the plum pudding wasn't done on Stir Up Sunday, nor that the Christmas cards haven't been addressed. I want to spend Christmas in a peaceful fashion with people I love. We'll find some new ways to do he day after Christmas this year. I'm campaigning for goose and plum pudding on Christmas, roast beef and mince pie on St. Stephen's Day and oyster stew before church and eggnog around the tree after Midnight Mass.


At 1:41 PM, Blogger Abby said...

No worries, the Christmas bread will live on - just at my house instead of yours! My husband and his whole extended family love it just as much as I do :)

And, to be fair, we don't do our tree any earlier than you - it goes up on the 23rd and is decorated the 24th. I think the first year of our marriage it went up earlier only because we were headed for Pittsford for Christmas Eve. Our nativity isn't "up" - there is a shephered and a few sheep up, when Jim put it up "early" I took it back down! Of course, LW is carrying baby Jesus all over the house because we can't seem to get him away from her without massive tears. We're looking at buying an extra baby Jesus tomorrow, probably, as this one may be destroyed by Christmas (a pinky finger is already gone).

But yes.. we never felt like the traditions were impositions. I've enjoyed getting to discard things that didn't mean all that much to me and incorporate some new ones, but mostly I do like what I grew up with. This has, however, been the happiest Christmas season since we got married, because there's finally enough time behind enough of our "new" traditions for me to not feel like a complete transplant at Christmas time (which is pretty much the best possible way to ruin Christmas for a traditionaphile like myself).

At 2:30 PM, Blogger Liz said...

I just figured that if baby Jesus was being carried around the house that the creche must be up already. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

I've got a nativity set for LW that will be totally safe for her to play with, but I'm not sure whether the baby Jesus in it will meet with her approval. She won't be able to break anything, but it may not look as much like a real baby.

I think that Christmas along with some other things has been hard for me since I've lost my entire birth family. While I tried to bring some traditions along (like the Christmas bread and the sugar plums) somehow they never quite clicked. What I've realized is that we had very little for traditions in some respects and that some of the ones we did have were ones that never met with a lot of approval around here (watching the Wizard of Oz while sipping hot chocolate and eating Ritz crackers for one).

We spent so many Christmases in the car going to my grandmother's in Concord that what I mostly remember is the rush, and then turkey sandwiches and gingerale in the evening before making the long trek home again. For someone who got car sick on that trip it sort of took some of the joy out of it. Then there were the Christmases spent at Aunt Eleanor's where her kids were given reams of expensive stuff that we couldn't even have dreamed of. The contrast wasn't much fun, and Aunt Eleanor's idea of a Christmas dinner wasn't much fine either.I think I put as much effort into creating traditions in large part because other than the largely secular ones we had so very few when I was growing up.

We've always made a far bigger deal of Christmas than my parents did. They certainly did a tree and gifts, we even had some years where the extended family did the whole name drawing thing (but only on the Drown side, and only before the whole family feud thing). Christmas for one side of the family got colored with sadness very early and the other set of grandparents was just not into it. I don't know that I ever got a Christmas present from my Lyon grandparents. I know that only one aunt on that side ever gave us gifts.Everything got very centered in our nuclear family, and even there there was the fact that my father for most of my life was not any sort of practicing Christian. So we had a much more Santa Claus sort of Christmas than you might have imagined.

Interestingly, the traditions that Aunt Mim took to her family were the secular ones. They did Santa Claus big time and the poem apparently was always a part of their celebration. Their tree went up early, they weren't involved in Sunday School programs (the only religious part of our celebrations when we were little) until her kids were much older, and they rarely went to church on Christmas,

I'm actually not unhappy with the traditions I inherited from the Swifts or with the ones we've sort of accumulated along the way. I'm just realizing that things can be dropped if they no longer serve the original purpose, or if the people who are involved really don't particularly appreciate them. The whole idea is to celebrate the feastday with joy and to celebrate the coming of the Savior, not to impose a particular food or a particular custom that isn't meaningful for those involved.

I'm honestly hoping that we've given you some traditions to keep that will keep things feeling familiar, but that you'll also find some new additions to pass on and also to make things special for your own family. It is nice to pick traditions with some degree of care, so that they are ones you can embrace year after year with some degree of sense that they carry some real meaning. Somehow ribbon candy, and The Christmas Mouse just didn't do that for me.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Liz said...

Oh, and Auntie's tea cookies with the eggnog. I'd miss Auntie's cookies far more than I miss the iced sugar ones. I did miss the St. Nicholas cookies this week, but I was far too sick to make them.

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Abby said...

Also, the sugar plums did find a home with us as well. Jim would be most sad if I didn't make those.. as would I! So maybe several of your family's traditions just skipped a generation, and landed in our home.. or maybe they just didn't appeal to my brother.

But yes - nearly all my most dearly held Christmas traditions are, in fact, quite religious in nature. The most upsetting thing to me, the first year Jim and I were married, was having to go to midnight Mass *somewhere else* - where they just so happened to, for some strange reason, sing Advent hymns instead of Christmas ones. I got a bit teary, thinking of you and Daddy and Gabe all at CTK, with the choir playing O Come All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World with a whole small orchestra, etc. But I was still happy to be at church, receiving Christ and worshipping with others, rather than sick in bed feeling most deprived :P

So you did well - I associate Advent and Christmas with Christ, the Nativity, and all the feast days of the season. I also do associate it with trimming the tree on Christmas Eve, oyster stew (yes, I actually miss the oyster stew, and keep plotting ways to include that in the menu. Maybe now that LW is old enough to have some...), Christmas bread, and presents. Presents aren't quite the same without the forced anticipation of waiting for Daddy to be done with the chores, but then again, nothing is quite the same as an adult as when you're a child. So perhaps we're both looking at and evaluating our traditions. Much of what you said reminded me of Alice Lawhead's Christmas book...

At 9:29 AM, Blogger Liz said...

Actually, I think Gabe does like the sugar plums. The interesting thing about that recipe is that I think my mother only made them once, and of course I didn't make them until your teens when I finally found the recipe in her cookbook. However, I really do like them and they do sort of remind me of one particular Christmas when I made them with her when I was probably about 10. They more remind me, however, of making them with you.

My sister always clamored for me to make homemade chocolates because I did that one year when we were actually probably both in our twenties. I did do it one year and mail them to her, but I was never as big a fan of my chocolate covered lemon fondant as she was. It is odd how something that actually happened only once can be such a profound memory. There was the year that Aunt Mim made this scalloped corn dish which we ate along with the hot chocolate on these buffet plates I bought for my mom years earlier, while we watched the Wizard of OZ. I didn't always like Aunt Mim's cooking, but that particular recipe came out really well, and that particular night is a fond memory. Of course thinking about those plates then reminds me that my Grammy D had similar buffet plates that we always had our turkey sandwiches on, they had a special slot to put your glass of gingerale even. Silly, but a nice memory anyway.

I think a lot of my reconsideration right now has to do with the fact that I've been sick for nearly 10 days, and I'm pretty discouraged, tired, and very short of air. I'm just trying really hard to get through the absolute essentials, and really think about dropping anything I can possibly drop. It isn't necessarily dropped forever, just eliminated for this year.


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