Traditions are a truly wonderful thing; until they are not. I love hanging onto holiday traditions for as long as I can, and then I like letting them go.
So, before you think I’ve had too much spiked eggnog let me explain what I mean.
I grew up in a home filled with so much Christmas spirit it made Whoville look like a cemetery. My dear mother, the queen of Christmas traditions, filled every magical year with the exact same routines; the Christmas meal with the exact same things every year (including capon), the singing of The Happy Christmas Comes Once More, the reading of the Christmas story, the lighting of candles on a wax cake and singing Happy Birthday to baby Jesus, the dancing around the Christmas Tree culminating with the singing of mom’s favorite Danish Christmas song, the opening presents slowly for hours under the light of the Christmas tree, a special Santa surprise at the end of each night and then midnight mass. The same thing, every year, without the slightest alteration. My brother Rich used to joke that if someone ever fell and broke their leg on Christmas Eve we would be forced to have a ritual re-breaking of a leg each year.
But we loved it, every Christmas Eve was filled with magic and the regularity of it all gave me a sense of stability and deepened my sense of belonging to something every special. To this day, we still do most of these traditions.
I emphasize the most on purpose. As wonderful as it was to hang on to all of these traditions, at times, it became just as important to let some of them go. As we grew older, married people who also (to our surprise) had families with expectations, and had children of our own, holding on to some traditions started to create tension between our world and the worlds of others. Over time, my dear mother, showing that she was the truly selfless Christmas elf, guided us in deciding which Christmas traditions we could release each year.
This evening, we will get together with my family of origin, and we will do many of the same things we have done for more than half a century. There will be capon, and Mom, at nearly 91, will join us in dancing around the Christmas tree and signing her favorite Danish Christmas carol, and much will be the same. And much will be different. I am so grateful that my children can share in this unbroken line of special rituals. But I am equally grateful that we have learned to let go of some traditions, which, if preserved, would only create unnecessary holiday tension. Somehow a balance between tradition and flexibility has been struck that gives us, for the most part, the best of both worlds.
Fiddler on the Roof is my favorite play because of what it says about traditions. In the play, Tevya clings to his traditions so that his family has stability (so that it can avoid feeling like a Fiddler on a Roof). But then, when faced with the tension between an outdated rule and the love of a family member, tradition gives way to flexibility. I suppose, in the end, it is that same old balance between roots and wings. We want to feel secure and having some things in our life that remain steady creates a feeling of calm. Yet, we also want to eliminate many of the “shoulds” that get in our way of our freedom and happiness. It is a magical balance that I will wrestle with all of my life. I am grateful to have learned from one of the best Christmas elves of all time.