Tradition and Change

Growing up, I was a Christmas freak. Every December I spent hours transforming my room into a winter wonderland. Paper snowflakes dropped from the ceiling, disembodied Santa Clause heads floated on the walls, electric candles shined on my nightstand, and a cardboard English village spread out over my bureau, complete with paper Victorians hurrying to-and-fro with presents, taking sleigh rides, or skating on an icy pond. For awhile, I dedicated one shelf to displaying my nutcrackers year round. Each week I lovingly took them off to dust and rearrange. I guess middle school is an awkward time for everyone.

Like Dylan Thomas wrote, Christmas was “the-never-to-be-forgotten day at the end of the unremembered year.” And how could I forget it, when we repeated the same December traditions year after year? On one Saturday we picked up the tree and garlands, on another we made dozens upon dozens of cookies, another we spent decorating the house, and on another we headed into Philadelphia to see the big tree and light show at Wannamaker’s, and on and on, even down to the food. Except for some slight variation, we’ve eaten the same dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas for at least fifteen years. When I was young these routines were familiar and fun, and after I first left home I found them familiar and comforting to return to. But in recent years, I’ve come to see the flip side of tradition, which is that it can feel stifling, monotonous, and at worst, infantilizing, because it denies you a choice. Tradition says, “This is the way it’s done, so this is the way we’ll do it,” without asking you if that’s really the way you want to do things. Tradition is the voice of the parent, and I’m not a kid anymore.

I’m looking forward to breaking the mold next year, when everything in my life will be different. I’m not saying that we won’t do fun Christmas things with our child. On the contrary, I can attest to how special the holidays can be for a kid, when normal things suddenly take on a new appearance. The night becomes bright with lights, sweets are readily available, the outside invades the inside when the tree goes up, and people you love and don’t see very often gather together. These routines mark the passing of time from one year to the next in a very basic, old way, which is probably why a lot of holiday traditions stem from pagan times. As a child it’s exciting. And I can imagine that helping to create that experience and seeing it through the eyes of my child will be fun and fulfilling. At this point, that’s the best Christmas present I can imagine – a change from the usual, a new beginning, a kid to put some magic back into the holiday. I can’t wait for ’09!


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