The journalist Ellen Goodman called traditions “the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds.” This season is one rich with traditions—some superficial, others deeply meaningful—all helping us mark our days and years. And this year, all of those precious traditions are on the block as we face the reality of a Christmas unlike any other we’ve experienced. And to be honest, some of us are having a hard time coming to terms with this strangely-shaped Christmas.
Tradition—loosely defined—is something we do at a regular interval of time, which when we observe it, calls to mind the previous experiences. Cyrus and I have started a tradition; on the last day of the week when I pick him up from school, we stop for french fries—because it’s “Fry-Day.” Now, when Tatia picks him up, she gets caught up in the tradition, too, and we can look back to past “Fry-Days” when we sat in the parking lot and visited. It’s not necessarily a good tradition, or a bad one, it’s just a repeated experience. The repeated Christmas carols, the Advent reflections, these are traditions. The frustration of shopping in all the crowds, eating way too many Christmas treats—those can be traditions, too. They are repeated, and they call to mind the times we did the same thing in the past.
Traditions may be most noticeable when we have to set them aside for a moment. There may be a lot of folks who—in past years—struggled with the idea of getting together with their extended family. Family gatherings can be stressful. But this year, when it may be that we can’t gather, we’re missing what we once hoped we could skip. Even with all the labor that goes into many of the church traditions around Advent, I find myself troubled that we can’t recognize them—largely because of the sense of loss that setting them aside causes in our community.
It’s probably natural to mourn the loss of some of our traditions. It’s sad to miss out on things that gave shape to the season, that called to our minds the joys of past Christmases. A little bit of grief makes sense. But less reasonable are some of the other emotions that may manifest—things like bitterness and resentment, anger, hostility, and stubborn pride. To one degree or another, the loss of what we anticipate causes a certain amount of stress, and that stress creates a certain anxiety. For many, it’s minor—just a little discomfort because we’re having to adapt to a constantly changing and unpredictable world. For others, the anxiety is severe; the loss of cherished and needful connections, the strain on family relationships, the concern over an insidious sickness that haunts them. That anxiety can cause some of those old, earthly characteristics—stuff we’ve been called to put to death by the Apostle Paul—to raise back up from the grave and plague us again.
Having some of our traditions stripped away from us can be profoundly troubling, but it’s also an opportunity to evaluate those traditions and ask ourselves if we need to maintain them. Those traditions that bring joy and celebration to our lives, those traditions that deepen and enrich our relationships, those are traditions that we will miss and that hopefully will be restored in time. But there are some things—done at a regular interval of time—that we might just as likely do without, and be better for it. The frustrations, the frayed nerves, the escalating tempers—if we’re honest, these can be part of the holiday season, too. And these traditions should be skipped this year—and every year. Yet it seems that these manifestations of the old life—that should have been left behind as we have set out faithfully in our discipleship journey—are some of the only traditions that we’re hanging on to this year.
So, this Christmas season—as we look back at what we missed and what we lost, and as we look at what we held on to (maybe things that we should have let go of)—I want to invite you to embrace a tradition that makes sense, and can never be preempted. Instead of being frustrated that we didn’t get the Christmas we were used to or the one that we thought we wanted, be thankful that there is a Christmas, that Jesus came to earth, walked among us, loved us, and through His grace and faithfulness gave us a chance at redemption. When all the stuff surrounding Christmas gets stripped away, either voluntarily or involuntarily, we can begin to see again the true miracle that Advent has revealed to us. This “stripping away” may be stressful, but it should not be a source of bitterness, anger or hostility. It should be a source of joy, as we see anew the refreshing and restoring relationship we can have with Jesus—and with each other.
Christmas traditions can be comforting. And it is discomforting to have them pulled away from us. But if these traditions are “guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds,” then where do they lead us? To a more self-centered place, where we fume about not having things the way we want them? Or to a place more influenced by Christ’s sovereignty, a place where regardless of the circumstances, our love for each other is primary, solid and secure? Loving others is a tradition that is not dependent on circumstances—we can do it regardless of the trials and tribulations and inconveniences we encounter. In fact, there is even greater need for us to do it when times are unsettled. Following Jesus and obeying His word is the best Christmas tradition there can be.