I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of this story: the young person is making the holiday meal for the first time, and their parent explains how to prepare the roast for the oven. One must cut a slice off each end before putting it in the roasting pan. Why do we do it that way? They ask. I don’t know, the parent replies, we’ve just always done it that way, it’s how my parent taught me.
When the holiday arrives, and they sit down to the holiday meal with the grandparent, the proud new cook asks the grandparent “why is it that we cut the ends off the roast each holiday?” “Because” replies the grandparent, “we had a small roasting pan, and that’s the only way it would fit.”
This story is a clear example of the wisdom and foolishness of tradition. We wisely cut the roast to fit the pan, but when the pan changes, we keep the tradition that is no longer useful.
Traditions are an intricate and mysterious web of life hacks. Our winter holiday traditions contain generations of wisdom gathered over decades and centuries from cultures all over the northern hemisphere. How wise to have a celebration to anticipate during the difficult transition to winter. How wise to reach out to family and friends at a time when we might easily become isolated. The blue and white and silver of the Hanukkah tradition reflect the beauty of the winter night sky. The red and green colors draw our attention to the persistent life around us- the green of the evergreen tree, the red of a holly berry. The traditional foods are ones that could be made from local seasonal larders, like the traditional beef brisket and potato latkes, made from the potatoes and onions that most folks could have on hand in the winter. Like the fruit cake that lasted through winters before shrink wrap and refrigeration, long after the fresh fruit of summer and autumn were gone.
In my own family the holiday traditions are an intricate set of family accommodations that have evolved over the years. I grew up in a family that did most of our traditional celebrations early Christmas morning before breakfast. My husband’s family did most of their celebrating Christmas Eve before midnight mass. Now we have to consider things like my Christmas eve work schedule, and a complicated dance of visiting relatives who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s challenging to sort out, but once the traditional holiday dance is working, miraculously meeting all those conflicting calendars and expectations, it tends to continue on its own magical rhythm, until something changes- a marriage, a death, a new child, a new job. One change can throw the whole family tradition into flux, until we find a new balance again.
This is the miracle of cultural traditions, as hundreds of thousands of people try to sync up their collective seasonal spiritual, logistical, emotional and economic needs and desires to observe and celebrate.A good symbol, like the light that does not go out for 8 days, means something to the spirit in a prosperous year, and still has relevance in a year of scarcity. It offers hope when hope is hard to find. It speaks of resilience. Over the thousands of years people have celebrated Hanukkah, those traditions have been touched by generation after generation, smoothed into a shape worn by the touch of ancestors, the warmth and wisdom of each generation adding to its richness.
Thomas Moore, who was a Catholic monk for 12 years before leaving for secular life, writes:
“Traditional rituals and images rise out of an historical fog in which the founders and authorities are more mythological than personal, and in which so many different layers of meaning lie packed together that the sacred literature becomes genuine poetry. .. Tradition is a pool of imagination...”But the humans and cultures that create those traditions have shadows, and so inevitably our shadows find their way into those traditions too. I agree that our traditions carry a great depth of wisdom, but they also carry our oppressions we never intended. A patriarchal culture tends towards patriarchal traditions, for example.
Or consider the shadow side of cultural hegemony- the American Christmas calendar is so powerful, that it shuts down banks and schools, giving folks a much needed pause to spend time with spirit and with family.
But that machine has been used to fuel consumerism as well, hijacking the traditional wisdom of the winter holidays and cover our screens with images of an empty soul filled with a new car, or with a pile of toys to open. Our superficial, materialistic culture brings a superficial focus to our traditions, eclipsing the true miracle of new life, a miracle that comes to us out of the long nights of waiting, the labor of birth.
The Christian calendar also eclipses the wisdom and traditions of other cultures. No American school will schedule your final exam on Christmas day or on Easter in our Christian culture, but it is not uncommon for folks to have exams, or other secular obligations on the Jewish High Holidays, or during Ramadan. Traditions can be oppressive to folks who find themselves on the margins. If you were listening to Weekend Edition yesterday, you might have heard Jewish Author Arthur Levine talk about feeling “really erased by Christmas” as a child. Even the most beautiful traditions cast a shadow.
That’s why Unitarian Universalists have always had a complex relationship with tradition. For parts of our history, we have even tried to let go of all traditions; when the chalice lighting was first introduced in our congregations it was met with skeptical resistance, even so innocuous a ritual felt dangerous. I believe, with Thomas Moore, that tradition is not what is dangerous, but the authority it holds.
“Tradition is often confused with institution, yet we could be guided by countless generations of ancestors without becoming oppressed by the words and structures they have left behind. We could be members of an institution without sacrificing our intelligence and our capacity to think and choose.This sounds like a wise way for us to engage with tradition, that we allow ourselves to be guided by our generations of ancestors, while continuing to think and choose.
Tradition is a pool of imagination, and not a basis for authority.”
This year, when many things will be different, it’s a chance to re-evaluate the traditions, and find those that serve us today. This winter holiday season will not be like last year, but we are not the first generation to observe the winter holidays during a pandemic. We are not the first to observe the holidays during a time of great economic and political stress. Consider the wisdom that both Hanukkah and Christmas ask us to share what we have with folks who are struggling. In the Jewish tradition sharing with those in need is called Tzedakah. Union for Reform Judaism encourages folks on the 6th night of Hanukah:
“On the 6th night of Chanukah, we encourage families to teach their children about the needs of those less fortunate and donate the value of the gifts they would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the poor..”Or consider the origin of Hanukkah itself- it comes from the need to purify the temple after it was destroyed by King Antiochus IV. The desire to honor tradition as part of healing that devastating loss to the community created a new tradition that now speaks to people of hope, of religious freedom, of light in the darkness.
|mask card from https://lafamiliagreen.com/|
The changes we are pressed to make to our traditions this year may help shape and add to the wisdom of the traditions we inherited. Maybe years from now some parts of these new traditions will live on. The Christmas masks? The Hanukkah zoom call? Because we are wise too. We will add our wisdom to the centuries of wisdom that have shaped our rituals,
Traditions are like touchstones, made smooth as they have passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. As we hold these traditions in our hands in this very difficult year, we connect back to all those who have struggled with illness, with pandemic, with poverty, with political oppression, with sorrow, with depression. We connect with all those ancestors who have found hope and creativity and affirmed life in difficult times. We know when we enter into these traditions that we are not alone, that we are not the first to pass this way, nor will we be the last. May our wisdom, our choices, our imagination connect us to our children and our children’s children, their struggles and hopes. However you choose to observe the holidays this year, let our traditions be a reminder that we stand in a long line of humanity’s struggles and hopes that holds and supports us in this difficult time.