The English word “tradition” comes from the Latin word, tradere or traderer, meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safe keeping. While we often think of traditions, especially those involving Christmas, as developing over long periods of time, it was less than one hundred and fifty years ago that Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the United States, on June 26, 1870. (An internet search failed to reveal the corresponding date for Canada, but the evolution of Christmas appears similar.)
There was a break from English customs following the American Revolution. Then, in the early to mid-1800’s, the messages in a couple of books – The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – helped influence the way Christmas is celebrated in North America. Irving depicted it as a peaceful time of people coming together to celebrate “ancient customs”, regardless of economic status. Most of us are more familiar with Dickens’ message of goodwill, through crippled Tiny Tim at the end: “God bless us every one!”
But celebrations around winter solstice, December 21st, the shortest day of sunlight each year, have been going on for a very long time, even centuries before the birth of Jesus. There is good reason for this. Feasting took place because cattle were often slaughtered then, so they wouldn’t have to be fed during winter, and drinking took place because there were drinks to be had – wine and beer was finally fermented. And who wouldn’t want to light a fire with the largest log possible, and keep it going as long as possible, like the Norse did in Scandinavia, when the nights are long and frigid?
And one can imagine Santa Claus as a newer incarnation of the ancient pagan god Oden, honored during mid-winter in Germany. Germans believed he traveled through the skies at night to observe his people, so he could decide who would prosper or perish.
Evidence suggests Jesus wasn’t even born on December 25th – why would shepherds herd mid-winter? – and it wasn’t until the 4th century that Pope Julius I chose the date to correspond with the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia (honoring Saturn, god of agriculture) festival in Rome. December 25th was the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, an infant god, born of a rock.
Just as we’ve allowed the traditions of Christmas to evolve over millennia as a species, I think they must also evolve over decades within our own families. While family traditions hold us together during stable familial times, when we’ve suffered a loss, or multiples as was the case in our family a decade ago, traditions can serve to highlight our anguish.
Hugh died on November 29th, so now I ignore or avoid what is going on in stores – the Christmas music and decorations – until after I have gone up to the cemetery with a Christmas arrangement for Hugh (with bright blue ribbon and ornaments), his mother (hot pink) and our nephew (royal purple). Depending on where in the world my kids are, I try to have someone with me – this year it was Jetanne and her daughters, Simone and Naomi Lou – and we take stock of accomplishments over the previous year and discuss plans for the coming year.
Hugh and I always had a real tree, but several years ago I bought a beautiful fake 10-footer that B has become expert at putting together, all six pieces of it. I string the outside lights, while B strings the inside lights, then we have a rum and egg nog – almond milk egg nog for me this year – and decorate the Jolly Green Giant while watching and listening to No Quarter – Unledded by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. You see, I used to be mad about Christmas music, would drive Hugh crazy with it, but I just can’t get that excited about it anymore. When I hit play on No Quarter the other day I was amazed at how the opening notes, as well as the opening scene, with that wise-looking, hawkish bird flying over the lush evergreens of Wales, now represents the coming of Christmas for me.
For several years our tree and celebrations were at the cottage, just to switch things up, so we wouldn’t be home where we used to celebrate as a complete family. There are granddaughters now, though, so we’re back at home. That way the girls can be close to their other grandparents, and their own home too, to get to bed early, for when the Big Guy comes down the chimney.
And this year, the patriarch of our family, where we spent every Christmas Eve since my children were born, is in ill health, so we are sad this tradition must change.
Family traditions help define us, unite us, but I think it’s wise to etch them in snow – or sand, if necessary – not stone. That way, when one melts away, you can just go find an old stick and write a new one.