I don’t know about you, but I have certain “traditions” that I keep every year when Christmas comes round.
The first thing is putting up the Christmas lights. Or rather, untangling the myriad strings of broken lights, frayed wires and other flotsam and jetsam.
The next is adding Handel’s Messiah, Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas, and A Very Special Christmas to my playlists on my iphone and listening always and only to them during December. Number three is getting the Christmas dishes out, the ones Mom bought Karen when we were first married. Number four is, of course, watching It’s a Wonderful Life on PBS during their Christmas Financial Campaign. Finally, is opening a door on the Advent calendar every morning with my girls. Some of these traditions were passed on to me by my parents and grandparents. Others are ones we created as our girls were growing up, but all are important; and it wouldn’t be Christmas without them.
The wonderful thing about traditions is that you usually don’t have to think too hard while doing them. Oh sure, you can, but it’s not necessary. Let me explain. It’s like knitting; how many women do you know who can watch TV, talk to a friend on the phone and sip a cup of tea while knitting a sweater? In Newfoundland, I can remember the baking of bread: older women, some of them in their nineties, would, every Saturday night, pull out the Robin Hood flour, the yeast, the pans, and the butter and bake four or five loaves of fresh bread. In the morning, at church, they would wonder when in the world they baked bread, but glad that they did.
And like a Roman Catholic friend of mine once told me, she can go through the whole service by heart, never once looking at her Mass book.
It would seem that such familiarity, such unthinking actions, would make what was done insincere. But as an Anglican priest once told me: “When I don’t know what to pray or say, or when I’m lost or alone or so angry I can’t speak to God I know I’m still connected with Him and my parents, and grandparents who said these very same prayers before me.” Think of that woman who knits the sweater. She gets something real accomplished while enjoying the small mercies of everyday life. Or think how important fresh baked bread has been to her family to that 92-year-old Newfoundlander.
These small actions speak to me of something deeper than our everyday thought processes. They are about being in touch with the deep places of Life. And it is in these deep places; these still quiet places where we usually find Emmanuel (God-with-us).
This Christmas, like the past thirteen, my quirky traditions will get me through the sadness I feel of celebrating the season without my mom. These traditions help me remember why I do them in the first place: that I believe in something beyond death, something beyond life even. These rituals help me to be open to my wife and girls who need Christmas even if I don’t feel like it.
Because, when I sit in my chair on Christmas Eve, after having led two Christmas Eve services—my girls (in their new Christmas pyjamas) chatting with their mom about who was at church, and “when are we going to Gramma’s tomorrow?”, and “did you see so and so’s awesome dress”… I give thanks to God that, as short as this time is (it will be over in a blink of an eye), it will come round again, next year: with tangled lights, George Bailey, and the “Hallelujah Chorus.