It’s the 3rd day of Christmastide, and I’m sitting on a busy street in front of my parents place waiting for a tow truck. On this particular occasion, I had a lot of time to think. I often wonder about how my parents raised me, how I came to be who I am, and what I prioritize.
My parents were not bent on many specific traditions, although we did have certain patterns that I enjoy to this day. Christmases were simple, but festive. I remember always having plenty of decorations, church plays, music, and an emphasis on Christ. I’m very fortunate that I married into a family that has perhaps even more traditions.
There is something healthy, perhaps holy, about traditions. Especially ones that are sacred, meaningful, and communal. They have a way of binding the community together and inviting the outsider in. They have a way of instructing what one cannot explain, and enhancing what one already knows.
It is unsettling and a sign of danger that traditions and customs are being lost in our era. Not just in the United States, either. Read this article by American Brian Kaller, who now lives in Ireland, who laments the loss of Wren Day; a custom that dates hundreds or maybe thousands of years:
I realise that I’m complaining about the loss of a tradition I didn’t grow up with myself, but the same is true of local culture in my native USA. Songs of the Appalachians and Ozarks, the rituals of towns and clans, are more and more preserved in amber by aficionados or tourist boards rather than lived by children, while family traditions grow more homogenized and dictated by the mainstream media, more focused on buying things quickly and discarding them. The same process has happened across Europe and, I’m told, non-Western countries where children are raised now by screens rather than blood.
It should be clear that all around the world, local and sometimes ancient traditions are being lost or assimilating to popular culture and losing their distinctiveness. Pop culture – a mix of bad and lazy talent, mindless entertainment, and immoral content – draws people in because it is endless, easily accessible, and often feeds innate desires. Its fast food for the mind. It feels so good, but leaves one extremely malnurished. And its all the same! There’s no variety, no history, no distinction. Not even sentiment!
For Christians, tradition is just as important as theology and wisdom. Our repeated practices are exercises in communal binding and instruction. Our religious traditions reinforce the religious truths that many of us (especially Protestants) claim are essential to living faithfully. How can we really know love without habitual giving and sacrifice? How can one know patience and reliance without traditions like fasting? How can one know the mind and heart of God without rehearsing Holy Scripture? Traditions have a bad rap in Protestant Christianity – although even Martin Luther did not really condemn all Church tradition; only ones that violate Scripture – but we are speaking now more about habitual customs and patterns of spiritual practices.
For this reason, I’ve had my family embrace the liturgical seasons, like Advent. The liturgical seasons are useful because 1) they force us to consider an entire season sacred, not just a single day, and 2) they are rich in tradition. In addition to all the fun Christmas stuff we’ve done yearly – tamale making with the family, going to watch The Nutcracker ballet, lots of Christmas lights – we gather on Sundays to follow an Advent liturgy. The songs, the scripture, the prayers, the candles – they help reinforce the truths of Christmas that we believe. Our house is also filled with classic Christmas carols, Christmas stories, good food and friends. These all get our minds and our hearts to focus on Christ and his coming for 4 whole weeks.
We’re now in Christmastide (or Christmastime, or just The Christmas Season), which is Christmas day and the proceeding 11 days. How wonderful that we get to celebrate Christmas for 12 days! (you know, “on the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me”). Although we don’t do much in terms of formal traditions, it is nice to have 12 days to celebrate that Christ has indeed come, is present, and will return, even if it is just simple prayers as a family or continuing to sing Christmas carols.
Maybe an Advent liturgy is not exactly what you are looking for, but I encourage you to build traditions in your family and community of believers. The father of modern psychology, William James, has said something to the effect that you are what you pay attention to. This tells me that traditions are needed now more than ever. If left alone, our families and communities will be submerged in a pop culture tidal wave that is unfriendly to Christianity, to say the least. We will become that meaningless mix of mindless entertainment and destructive attitudes that makes up most pop culture. If your family has traditions, embrace them. If they had some, revive them. If it never had any, create some, or borrow some from history or the Church.
If interested, here is the Advent Liturgy that my family and friends have done the last couple of years. Feel free to use them next year.
Merry Christmas, everyone!