Ah, Christmas. What other time of year has more traditions wrapped around it? It seems that as a species, humans thrive on tradition and as much as we sometimes complain about it, we will create traditions where there is a hole.
As a child growing up, my Christmases followed the same rhythm each year. Christmas Eve we went to “the barn,” a live reenactment of Jesus’s birth in a real barn, sitting on real hay bales next to sheep and a donkey with members of our church acting out the scenes (I was the first live baby Jesus). Audience participation involved singing the story’s corresponding Christmas hymns by candlelight. (People crammed into a tight space with limited exits and surrounded by hay, animals and fire—talk about a fire hazard.) Each year, the scene is the same and it’s been going on for more than 40 years, run by the generosity and hospitality of one family. People come from far and wide now.
After the barn, we headed to my maternal grandparents’ house for food, present opening and usually a loud game or two of Uno or spoons. After opening our presents Christmas morning and eating kougan (a cinnamon-roll-like yumminess my great-grandmother used to make), we headed to my paternal grandparents’ house, where the annual celebration included grasshoppers (virgin red milkshakes for the kids) and singing carols—with real caroling books.
Over the years some traditions have gone by the wayside, but most of them remain intact even if slightly modified. Even though my dad’s side now celebrates Christmas on Thanksgiving Day, to allow for my grandma and her husband to head to Arizona for the winter, the grasshoppers and caroling are a must.
In my 20s these traditions started to feel hokey and contrived to me. I didn’t want to sing “Deck the Halls” in a round or be the “five gold rings” when we sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The last time I went to the barn service I couldn’t capture the childhood magic—the sheer religiousness of it all overwhelmed me (and yes, I get the irony that I was taken aback by the Christmas story being religious).
Then my husband and I moved 1,000 miles away and traditions really went by the wayside. We spent the holidays like nomads, sometimes hiking, sometimes dinner with friends. About six years ago, a new tradition emerged: Christmas Eve at the Zoo Lights with our “Colorado family,” another couple transplanted far from their families. No matter how cold or snowy, we go. We even went the night my daughter came home from the hospital (don’t judge, she was snug in a sling inside my husband’s jacket). It’s a tradition that makes Christmas feel a bit more like Christmas to me.
Since my daughter’s birth, we’ve added some traditions. Each year she and I build a gingerbread house, and “Santa” brings my husband jerky in his stocking. I’ve also brought traditions back from childhood. I buy my daughter an ornament, just as my mother did for me and as her great-grandmother did for her. We bake cookies and kougan. This year the kougan unraveled and tasted a bit like dust, but I still ate it this morning. I had to—it’s a family tradition.
Who knows which traditions will remain steadfast, which will evolve, which will fade into the past and which are yet to be born? Somehow tradition is both the same and ever evolving.
What traditions do you recall from childhood and which ones have stuck with you and carried on?
Maybe we are drawn to tradition because we are creatures of habit or because we seek solace in the familiar or because it brings order to our sometimes chaotic world. Maybe it’s simply because tradition makes our hearts feel like they’ve found a home.