Trading in Tradition

I DON’T LIKE ICEBREAKERS ANYWAY, but this time of year they seem even more irksome than usual. Like, how many times — at various meetings and such — will I be asked what my favorite holiday tradition is? I mean for one thing, I just think the Holidays-with-a-capital-H are a bit overwhelming anyway. So coming up with my favorite moment within this miasma that is December-in-America kind of puts me over the edge. Not to mention, for a lot of people that question can be downright triggering; there may well have been some favorite traditions no longer upholdable due to death, or estrangement, or other life situations. Also, sorry, but a lot of the responses that ensue are super boring: I like to decorate the tree and listen to Christmas music; I always bake frosted sugar cookies; I see the Nutcracker every year… I mean great, have fun, but nothing new to see here. You know? My question is, what’s so great about tradition anyway?

When I was asked this tradition question most recently (at a Diversity Committee meeting of all places where we are supposedly tasked to consider inclusivity, as in this question just might be exclusionary for some), I said I like to figure out new things to do each year. Fact is, this will only be my third Christmas in Los Angeles, so not a lot of “usually” has even taken place yet. And I love it this way, because it makes it so easy to change things up — even if it’s just where I buy the ingredients for my grandmother’s Cinnamon Flop. (A tradition: I bake a coffee cake. Not interesting). Also, just like with Thanksgiving, I do feel a slight desire to question most anything people do by rote. The word tradition has its origins in the words deliver and transmit. This makes me think of how actively tradition gets handed down, like “take this damn tradition!” Traditions have to start somewhere, however, in order for them to be handed down in the first place.

So here I just want posit a few thoughts on how cool it is not to have traditions, to try new things without the pressure of coronating them as traditions. Putting aside our map of traditions reveals a bevy of new possibilities. Our little holiday boats can float all over the place, discovering new lands — or foods, or music, or… And just like life in general, some of these explorations are going to yield fantastic discoveries, while others will fall flat, at best. That’s why so many of us are fearful of going off-script, whether we’re talking about holiday traditions, religious ideologies, or career trajectories.

Let me be clear now, if you saw my apartment you would not think I was an off-scripter when it came to the holidays. There are the heirloom wooden figures from Norway, circa 1965, set up on my windowsill; the Christmas tree — which I was really on the fence about, but this week brought news of the passing of an acquaintance and a tree sounded like a happy distraction; the papier-mâché Mexican doll named Lencha, that my mother had on the top of every Christmas tree since I can recall; even some stockings hanging, although just for show now. (They used to be my favorite part of opening gifts, but assorted adults got tired of the labor of stuffing and started bringing gift bags with “stocking stuffers” in them and well, that really set me off. So yeah, no more stocking stuffers – just stockings. Harumph). Also, because of my immediate family’s mixed religious history, I have some fabulous homemade Hanukkah decorations from when my kids were young and making things like that. So, as you can see, lots of traditions here –which is mostly Christmas for me, with a little Hanukkah thrown in, and an inner yearning for Kwanzaa which just seems too appropriative for me to consider celebrating.

In church last Sunday Pastor Tate was asking people in the congregation what their favorite thing was about Christmas. Once again the usual answers abounded. And of course Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas Is You” made numerous appearances. But then one person hollered from the back (we’re in a giant high school auditorium) that they liked the “feel” of the holiday. And yeah, that resonated. Plus it works with the going off-script thing, too. Because some holiday feelings — like stress, anxiety, exhaustion — need to be put out to pasture. But, oh, those other feelings that somehow manage to battle their way through the commercial mania of the time — like generosity, gaiety, whimsy, and hopefulness, to name a few, yeah I like that. Especially the hopeful thing. Because I always think if people can be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more open-hearted just because the calendar has flipped to December, then maybe there is hope for sustaining those kinds of feelings throughout the year. I mean humans don’t actually run out of feelings, they just get pushed aside by other feelings sometimes. It’s a tradition.

So maybe instead of us all asking each other what we’re doing “for the holidays,” we could just ask people how they’re feeling. We all know this is an exceptionally difficult time for so many of us, made only worse by the constant blaring command to be giddy with joy over presents, groaning tables of food, and scads of friends and family. That’s just not a lot of people’s lives. So, as they say, check on your friends. Check on your coworkers. Check on the cashier at the store where you’re buying your Secret Santa gifts. And maybe we can all just buck tradition a little bit and keep the old holiday spirit alive throughout the year. Maybe that could be a new tradition.

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