Christmas is a holiday resplendent with “tradition.” Many have no connection to history or heritage—but they’re fun, and become memory-laced with time. An example: my mother gets my siblings and me books every Christmas Eve—everything from funny storybooks, to Tolkien’s classic Letters From Father Christmas. We read them aloud to each other around the fire before bed.
There are also the religious traditions, ones that meld with awe and wonder to make the holiday both beautiful and holy. Advent, brimming over with both theology and beauty, helps us refocus on the meaning beyond the temporal. It takes the material and makes it transcendent. It turns the simple—candles, words, songs, prayers—into timeless moments. Christmas hymns, sweet and haunting, transform our normal cadences of worship into something new, yet incredibly old: they transform our patterns of praise into timely yet timeless reverence. These are the most important traditions of the Christmas season.
But there are also familial traditions: ones that are passed down from generation to generation, ones that become embedded within a family’s very fabric and essence. And though these may not be pregnant with spiritual meaning in the way our spiritual traditions are, they are also incredibly important—to present and future community. And these are the sorts of traditions I’ve been considering most often this particular year.
When my grandmother passed away in September, I knew this Christmas would be difficult, painful. Christmas was her favorite time of year—the year when she transformed her house with decorations, when she cooked and baked her heart out for friends and family, when she painstakingly bought and wrapped presents for all her loved ones. And she was the queen of Christmas traditions, too: she always took her daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters to the Nutcracker every Christmas. She would teach us granddaughters how to make classic candy recipes, ones she or my great-grandmother had written out on faded yellow index cards. Others were memorized, and she show us the steps and measurements she knew by heart.
Many familial traditions seem to center on the sensory: the making of caramels, or our Christmas ritual of eating soups and homemade bread on Christmas day, followed by Grandma’s cranberry steamed pudding with cinnamon sauce. My husband’s family makes pecan rolls for breakfast, and Swedish meatballs for dinner. My sister and mother and I watch “Little Women” together every Christmas season. “It’s a Wonderful Life” is almost every family’s favorite Christmas movie (although mine is partial to the “Muppet Christmas Carol” for some reason). Certain songs bring back a swath of memories—whether it’s Bing Crosby’s crooning, or Vince Guaraldi’s classic Charlie Brown Christmas music.
Why do these family traditions matter so much? Can’t you institute new ones, when you become part of a new family unit? What’s stopping me, or any other newly married person, from wiping the slate clean and beginning our own, new Christmas traditions?
Nothing, really. Except for this: the fact that this Christmas, tradition has made my grandmother feel close, every step of the way. I went to the Nutcracker, and I wore Chanel No. 5—her favorite perfume. I stayed up till midnight one night, making a huge batch of caramels. I wrapped presents the way she taught me. Tonight, my husband and I will eat our time-worn traditional Christmas Eve meal.
Tradition takes the sensory and the temporal, and makes them transcendent: through meaning, through history, through love. Tradition takes the material of our lives, and gives it eternal significance. It ties us to the fabric of the ages, so that someday, I can take my daughters to the Nutcracker, or teach them Grandma’s caramel recipe, and they will know her, at least a bit of her, though they never met her in this life.
It’s important to note here that not every family has these traditions, or these memories. Some of us have to start afresh: to take the remnants of perhaps a painful or tragic childhood, and create a new chain—a new set of memories and traditions—from the ashes. This takes more courage than I can imagine, and I am so thankful for the people who are willing and eager to redeem the past to create a new future for their children and grandchildren (in many ways, my grandmother was one of these people). But it is important to know that each of us have a chance to transform or redeem the chain of memories: to influence it for good and ill, for the following generations, to turn Christmas and all it stands for into something beautiful, or something paltry and materialistic.
So we keep the chain of family, community, tradition, and service alive. So we love and bless each other, with these countless rituals of belonging. They seem like simple, even meaningless things. But when we trace their history, we find a tapestry of beauty that is not easily forsaken or overlooked.
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.