On being ... non-traditional

By Ingrid Sapona

I laughed when I first heard last week that the Pope decided to move the Christmas Eve midnight mass to 10 p.m. I figured either I had mis-heard or the story was a joke. Subsequent news articles, however, confirmed the time change. I guess, contrary to what I had assumed, there is no religious significance to holding the mass at midnight -- it was merely a tradition. This got me thinking about tradition.

Of course, traditions abound in many aspects of peoples’ lives, but the number of traditions people observe around the holidays is pretty amazing. Take food for example: many families have traditions about what they eat and when they eat it (whether it’s turkey on Christmas Day, champagne at the stroke of midnight, or pickled herring on New Years Day), not to mention the sweets they enjoy (chocolate Hanukah coins, fruitcake, candy canes, stollen, Yule logs, etc.).

Many have traditions related to gifts: around what is given (stocking stuffer type things, practical items, luxury items, edible gifts, potent potables, money, donations, etc.), and who they give to (friends, relatives, neighbors, bosses, and so on). Some offices or groups have traditions around gift swaps featuring rules about only giving gag gifts or spending less than $X. Families often even have traditions around when they open gifts and with whom, for example, opening gifts at grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, and at home Christmas morning.

Hell, when you get right down to it, even using the phrase “the holidays” to refer to the period from mid-December to early January has become a tradition (at least in Canada and the U.S.). For example, people can be heard asking pretty much everyone -- regardless of their religion: “What are you up to for the holidays?” Or, “Will you take any time off during the holidays?”

It may be impolitic to say this -- especially during this tradition-rich time of the year -- but I’ve got mixed feelings about traditions. Traditions can be very comforting. They connect us to the past and can remind us of things we value. Often, carrying on a tradition is a way of showing respect for how previous generations might have struggled or how they did things. One tradition in our family, for example, was that my father was in charge of the Christmas Day dinner. Since he died, I’ve taken over the job and I love trying to re-create his feast. Just reading the recipes (which he dictated to me as we made the dinner together the year before he died) I can hear his voice. The meal is not just my tribute to his cooking -- it’s our family’s way of feeling his presence.

For many, the act of developing new traditions is a source of joy. When people get together, for example, they often develop traditions of their own as a way of signifying to each other that they are united (as a couple or even in a business or charitable venture). Some traditions get started accidentally, but they endure through intentional actions. For example, a number of years ago my sister found it was cheaper to fly into Toronto and for us to then drive together to my parents for Christmas than for her to fly directly to where my parents live. Though the flight costs are now pretty comparable, it’s become a tradition that she flies to Toronto because it gives us a chance to spend a bit of extra time together.

But traditions can also be a source of stress and tension. We all know lots of people who get particularly stressed out during the holidays in the name of carrying out certain traditions -- whether it’s feeling they must bake dozens upon dozens of cookies, or spend hundreds of dollars on gifts, or feel obliged to see people they don’t much like.

Traditions often are surrounded by expectations, so there can be a tremendous amount of guilt tied to trying to modify a tradition, much less break one. And, anytime expectation is involved, the possibility of disappointment is always lurking. Take my Dad’s stuffing, for example. I never cared that much for it and when I follow his recipe, it never seems to turn out. But, it’s taken me a long time to get up the nerve to even consider varying it, for fear that others will miss having Dad’s. This year I finally broached the subject and, rather than trying something completely new, my mother and I agreed on how I might tweak Dad’s recipe a bit. (Given how it turned out this year, I suspect my family might welcome the idea of me trying something completely different next year!)

Another problem inherent in modifying a tradition is the fact that people often read things into the change that aren’t intended. “Aunt Ethel didn’t send us a fruitcake this year and she’s never not sent one before, we must have done something to offend her.” Indeed, eyebrows can be raised (and whispers heard) even when there’s a perfectly legitimate reason for varying a tradition. The skepticism voiced in response to the Vatican’s explanation that the decision to hold midnight mass at 10 p.m. was simply “to tire the (82-year-old) Pope a bit less” is the perfect example of this.

So you see, I truly am ambivalent about traditions. But, after having thought about it all week -- though I’m not Catholic -- I’ve decided to use the Vatican’s willingness to vary a long-held tradition as an example in my own life. I’ve decided that in 2010 I’m going to try not to cling to tradition just for tradition’s sake. I’ll do my best to honour traditions when I can, but if they don’t make sense for me and my life any more, I’ll modify them when possible, or let them go, choosing instead to simply hold on to the memories.

All the best to you in the New Year -- and thank you so much for indulging me this past year by reading On being…

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


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