#fetesGL: Why Tradition is Important (and Why You Should Start One of Your Own)

It’s that time of year again–thousands of evergreens are being kidnapped to stand in living rooms across the world, yards upon yards of gift wrap are being sacrificed to the Recycling Gods, and this giant Swedish Goat has probably been burned to the ground.

THAT’S RIGHT FOLKS, CHRISTMAS IS HERE.

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I’ve been in Amherst with Anna since December 9th, and I’m not back in Toronto until January 4th–meaning that this is the first-ever holiday season I’m spending entirely away from my family. There’s a lot of mixed feelings that go into being away for this particular timeframe: on the one hand, it makes my heart soar to be welcomed into Anna’s family and to be so warmly received into their myriad holiday traditions. On the other, I miss my family back home, and I miss the traditions we follow every year to welcome the holidays.

The eAmbassadors are all writing #fetesGL posts centered around our holiday traditions. Seeing as it’s the first time I’ve done holiday things away from home, I thought it would be nice to include short lists of traditions from my own family, and also from my partner’s (trust me, there’s some good ones in there. We’re a bunch of weirdos.) But because it wouldn’t be a Tuesdays with Sisi post without an extra 1000 words of philosophical discussion thrown in there, I’m also poking at Tradition as a concept–the nature of traditions, their purpose, where they spring from and why they endure over time.

Don’t worry, there won’t be too much discussion–I’m on break, after all. My schedule is too full of hot-chocolate-drinking and secret-Santa-ing and WINNING-FIRST-PLACE-AT-DREYDL-AT-ANNA’S-HOUSE to get in up to my elbows with this. Another time.

(Behold, my dreydl victory dance.)

Tradition as Social Glue

On the car ride up to Anna’s mother’s place for Hanukkah, I asked Anna to tell me what the holiday was all about. Being not-Jewish, I had hardly any idea of what the holiday entailed–for the most part I’d always seen it advertised (and I use that word intentionally) as Jewish Christmas. The story behind this Festival of Lights (which is roughly what Hanukkah translates to) is a good one, and you ought to search it up yourself–but culturally, the most interesting part to me was that as it turns out, Hanukkah is actually a very minor holiday in the Jewish tradition! The Big Three (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Passover), on the other hand, were holidays I barely knew about.

To me, this is a big example of how traditions adapt over time. One of the reasons why Hanukkah is as big as it is now is because it happens to be around the same time as Christmas, and–as Anna put it to me–the Jew kids were getting pissed off that all their gentile buddies were getting so many presents. The changes made to the original tradition served to draw two communities a little closer together, to give them something a little more in common.

This is what tradition is for–it’s social glue. It binds people together under a sense of shared history and culture, either to their past and ancestors, or to other existing social groups. It’s a means of preservation and of anchorage.

But you know something?

Sometimes that glue dries a little prematurely. Sometimes it accidentally sticks things together that we don’t want stuck–sometimes it keeps us from pulling apart two things that really shouldn’t be together any longer.

From my observation, society is caught in a large-scale conundrum over traditions: we don’t know whether we should hold steadfast to all of our traditions as a means of grounding ourselves in our rapidly-changing culture, or whether we ought to chuck all sense of tradition entirely because it makes us narrow-minded and unable to adapt to the changes that are happening all around us. This becomes easy to see once you broaden the scope of ‘tradition’ beyond holiday traditions–although I’m sure there are a bunch of holiday traditions that have sexist/racist origin, too, or that are otherwise harmful to society in small but important ways. (Consider fireworks on Canada Day/Fourth of July/Bonfire Night/etc. Are you one of those folks who buys and sets off a bunch of small fireworks in your yard in celebration? Have you considered that there may be soldiers/veterans in your neighbourhood who react adversely to what sounds a lot like gunfire? Is it worth giving up the tradition for the health and wellbeing of strangers?)

Again from my observation, the only solution to this conundrum is self-awareness: we need to carefully evaluate our traditions, understand where they came from and why they persist, and to make conscious decisions about what is no longer feasible or appropriate. When we analyze our traditions in this manner–with all social/historical context intact–we not only arrive at a decision with regards to what (if anything) needs an update, but we also come to a greater understanding of our traditions, which ultimately brings us closer to the sense of self and identity that we draw from tradition in the first place.

So now in the spirit of this, I’m going to let you in on some of the holiday traditions my family’s held on to throughout the years, some of the ones Anna’s family have welcomed me into taking part in–and I’m also going to tell you about a NEW tradition I’m choosing to start!

The Warecki Clan Christmas To-Do List:

  • Reading the Christmas Anthology Aloud. This is an old tradition in my house, and it hasn’t actually been practiced since my sister and I were kids. I’d like to see it revived. Every year my father would pull out this hardcover anthology of Christmas miracle stories, sit us both down before bedtime, and read one story out of the book. I don’t think there was any specific order to the stories–he jumped around as he saw fit. It’s one of the earliest memories I have of having a book read aloud to me (and it has significance to this post outside of this list–read on!)
  • The Annual Viewing of A Christmas Story. As long as this film has existed, we have watched it. Or as long as I’ve existed. Or as long as I can remember. Any way you slice it. It’s the kind of thing where we’ve all seen it so many times that we quote it to each other during the holiday season–and to just about everybody else. In my house, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas until that movie has been put on the big screen. (Bonus Points because some of it was actually shot in Toronto!)
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  • Our Twisted Christmas Mix. Let me lay it out straight: my family are sick people. We’ve all got the same twisted sense of humour. I’ve made jokes about the nausea that nonstop Christmas mixes induce in me on this blog before–but there is one exception to the rule. As soon as the holiday season starts up, my father and his best friend pull out the latest edition of their truly awful Christmas mix, choc full of every horrid Christmas song parody they can get their hands on. The last time this monster was updated was 2008–hopefully sometime soon our family will add a few new songs to the mix. Have a sample:
  • The Reindeer Visit. Yes, we do the milk-and-cookies-for-Santa thing. But in the past my family has also left out a plate of carrots for the reindeer–carrots which, the next morning, we’d find all over the fireplace in slobbery chunks. My sister and I would always have to clean it up before we could open presents. A few years ago we were shown the video that was taken one year, of my parents giggling away while my mother chewed up carrots and spat them out all over the floor. Like I said, we’re sick people.
  • Raspberry Liqueur in the Wedding Demitasses on Christmas Morning. I’m not sure precisely when this started, but I imagine the present version of it had to start after my parents’ wedding, seeing as the silver cups we drink the liqueur out of were a wedding present. It used to just be my mother and father who did this, but for the past few years my sister and I have also joined in for a raspberry-flavoured Christmas Morning toast! That plus the dark chocolate that we inevitably find in our stockings makes for a delicious treat.

A Cashew’s Customs*: Anna’s Holiday Traditions

  • Christmas Morning Staircase Picture. This is something that’s done on Anna’s dad’s side of the fam’ (AKA the Catholic side), and according to Anna it’s been a tradition since her father was a kid. Every year on Christmas morning, the kids aren’t allowed to come downstairs until a holiday staircase photo has been taken. Everybody waits until every family member wakes up (or is woken up) and then they all gather together at the top of the stairs and snap a picture of themselves saying “Merry Christmas!” and then they all scramble down into the living room to tear into their gifts. I’m looking forward to being part of it tomorrow!
  • (Depraved) Elf on a Shelf. This is apparently a thing that a lot of families are doing nowadays–you buy this little elf doll and when your kids go to bed you move it to different places around the house in different positions. Sounds cute, right? Pal, you ain’t never seen Elf on a Shelf like they do at Anna’s mother’s house.
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  • Personalized Menorahs. Anna’s family is massive–the part of it that gets together to celebrate Hanukkah is usually 10+ people once you add a friend or two to the mix. Every one of those people gets their own menorah to set up and light on the kitchen countertop, and the result is mesmerizing. Ever seen almost 100 candles burning in an otherwise-dark room? It’s gorgeous. (And Anna’s thinking of getting me a menorah of my own, which tells me I’ve officially Made It family-wise.)

Bonus Round! A New Tradition Emerges:

  • Reading Tuesdays with Morrie.

What now? That’s right kiddos, all this thought of tradition made me decide to start a tradition of my own–every year I’m going to be reading Tuesdays with Morrie, either to myself, or, preferably, out loud to friends and family and Anna. Just like my father picked a book to read aloud during the holiday season, I’m doing the same.

Even though it’s not a holiday-themed book, I think it’s the kind of book that doesn’t wear out. The chapters are short and the writing lends itself to vocalization; the material never tires, and beyond that, it’s the kind of material that everybody could use a yearly refresher/reminder on–especially with the New Year popping up at the end of December. I think a book including the aphorism “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live” is appropriate for the death and renewal of the year.

How and Why to Create New Traditions

This is how traditions are born. Step One: pick a thing that has meaning and that you wouldn’t mind redoing every year. Step Two: do it this year. Then do it again next year. Rinse and repeat. Step Three: eventually it becomes second-nature, grows into what we’d consider a custom.

This is how cultures are created, one individual custom at a time. And microcultures–miniature cultures among families and friend circles–are just as important as large-scale cultures spanning regions or countries or the whole world. The miniature cultures will inform the large-scale ones, which is why it’s so important to adopt and adapt traditions into your life that affirm the sort of community and culture you want to live in. Traditions don’t just pop up from the ether; individual people make the conscious choice to start them.

So this holiday season, I encourage you to look at your own traditions and to learn about them. Find their origin point, and see if they’ve changed along the way. Look through the customs you adhere to nowadays and see if they don’t need any updating or editing to be more conscientious. If you’ve got an idea for a tradition of your own, start one, because there’s nothing like actively participating in the creation of your culture. And please leave a comment telling me your own stories RE: holiday traditions!

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Sending good cheer to everybody this winter!

~Sienna

PS: THE WINTER SOLSTICE WAS ON TUESDAY. WE’RE HALFWAY OUT OF THE DARK, PEOPLE.

 

*Cashew is a super-adorable term for a half-Catholic-half-Jewish person (as in one parent from each religion).

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