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by Rebecca Koerselman
Throughout the year, and especially during the holidays, I hear a lot of talk about tradition, especially family traditions. As a historian, I fully support rituals, reminders, and thinking about the past. As a person of faith, I know the rituals and reminders of the church not only establish the rhythms of life but encourage us to remember. For me, the problem is when people or institutions cannot explain the value of a tradition. If you cannot explain why a tradition is valuable, is it still a tradition? Or just a habit?
On our wedding day, I did not wear something old, something new, something borrowed or something blue. That was a tradition that had no meaning for me. So I didn’t do it. I also didn’t do a garter toss or throw my bouquet on our wedding day. Without any clear meaning for us, I had no difficulty ignoring those traditions. Not surprisingly, we also do not follow the traditional anniversary gifts. Sorry, Emily Post. I’m all for etiquette and manners, but these prescribed anniversary gifts only make me roll my eyes. And many of them smack of the trappings of consumerism. Instead, we skip gift-giving and endeavor to do something fun together for our anniversary. So far, we’ve done a spa day, gone hiking, seen a live U2 concert, taken a dune buggy ride, moved (right, not the best fun, if I’m honest), participated in a roller derby tournament, and many other memorable activities. For us, doing something fun together is a more relevant and meaningful tradition.
My family observes many traditions. Some have evolved. Some we have discontinued for a variety of reasons, and some we create on a more regular basis. Advent is one of my favorite traditions that I practiced with my family when I was a girl, and now practice with my own family. After dinner, we dimmed the lights, lit the prescribed candle on the wreath, read a devotional, prayed, and sang a Christmas carol around the table together. We have continued this tradition with our own family. Our three-year-old daughter loves this ritual. Singing carols is a little harder, since she only knows three Christmas Carols and one of them is “Jingle Bells,” but her favorite part is “changing the light.” After we read, sing, and put one more nativity magnet on the fridge, our daughter uses the candle snuffer (or “sniffer,” as she calls it), to extinguish the light of the candles. I recall fighting with my sisters over this same privilege as a child. It is mesmerizing to see the light disappear into tendrils of smoke. Our daughter said she wants to “change the light,” which is a term from “Children and Worship.” It references the way that Jesus is the light of the world, but when we extinguish the candle the represents Jesus, that doesn’t mean he is gone, only that, like the smoke, he is now all around us. Pretty existential for three to five year olds, but I was surprised to see how our daughter connected the light of the Advent candles to this deeper meaning. Advent is a tradition that has meaning for us. It is not a habit that is mindless or automatic, but a time when we stop, read, and think about what it means to wait, and what God has told us about the coming of his Son in the past and in the future.
Our family enjoys a take on grasshoppers during Christmas Eve. For us, grasshoppers are a delicious concoction of vanilla ice cream with crème de menthe and crème de cacao. Is this a habit or a tradition? It strikes me as a tradition, since it is the one time of year that we make them. Does it have a deep meaning? Probably not, although sitting around as a family after the Christmas Eve candlelight service, noshing on grasshoppers and talking is an enjoyable ritual.
As you hear the word “tradition” around the holiday season, ask yourself, what is this tradition and why does it require preservation? If you cannot explain what a tradition is and why it has meaning, then why preserve it?
Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.