“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years,” Dylan Thomas writes at the beginning of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The Welsh writer calls Christmas “the never-to-be-forgotten day at the end of the unremembered year” never-to-be-forgotten, perhaps, because his holidays followed the same template of tradition upon tradition.
My childhood Christmases did as well, and playing the lovely film version of Thomas’s classic memoir on our VCR was a huge part of it. One December in middle school, or maybe even early high school, I watched a bit of the show each day upon returning home, before I tackled my homework. Or maybe I did that for several years, I can’t remember.
In addition to those annual viewings, my family baked dozens of cookies; festooned garland around the doors both inside and out; replaced all of the usual knick-knacks with figurines of elves, angels, and, my personal favorite, nutcrackers. We made a pilgrimage to see hundreds of model train cars whistling choo-choo while chuffing over miles of track, and took an actual SEPTA train to Philadelphia to sit on Santa’s lap, where we also oohed and aahed at the three-story holiday light show at Wanamaker’s, and strolled through the animatronic, three-dimensional, life-sized Christmas Carol at Strawbridge & Clothier.
In short, Christmas was just packed. My mom would take down the calendar in November and fill the too-few weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas with her curly script, each note promising a trip backwards in time. Remember last year’s Christmas Eve dinner? We’re having it again. And again. Each meal, just as delicious. No wonder I believed in Santa till around the fifth grade! Christmas was some potent magic.
Even the gifts were ritualized. My grandmother always received a fruitcake, along with jokes about its insane heaviness, and how she’d get a buzz from one rum-loaded bite. After she died, we gave one to my uncle, with the same cracks. Except that he didn’t like fruitcake the way his mother did. Months later, at his Fourth of July picnic, we found it still in his pantry and only a few bites were gone. And so, a few years later, we stopped buying him one.
Because that’s the downside to traditions. They establish a convention, a norm, which isn’t questioned even when you get older and the routines start feeling humdrum; the smiles forced, the jokes stale, the familiar motions yielding a diminished return. Tradition can become less of a pleasant dance with Christmases past, and more of a forced march wrapped in chains, laden with the weight of expectations. To be more specific, taking an hour-long car ride at 22 years of age in order to see model trains in a dark room full of little kids doesn’t hold much appeal. In fact, it left me feeling a bit pathetic and depressed.
But fatherhood has sparked my interest in tradition again, because I see the spell that it works on my son Felix. Just this weekend, we had so much fun building a gingerbread house that we’re already talking about making one again. Similarly, this year he has an advent calendar, and he loves it so much, we know that we’ll bring it out next Christmas.
Other traditions have deeper roots. I took him to see Santa at Macy’s when he was one-and-a-half because I remembered how much I loved seeing the big guy. At 3 years old, Felix asked if Mommy could come with us too. This year he knew the deal, and though he still doesn’t want to sit on the jolly old guy’s lap, he didn’t shy away in fear. Visiting Santa has become a part of the rhythm to which Felix keeps the holiday season, and thus part of how he envisions the passing year. For our children, traditions organize the rush of time. They let them know what’s coming, and what they might possibly be able to expect. Traditions can be empowering.
At some point, the magic will fade for my son. There’s nothing I can do to prevent that; it’s an aspect of growing up. As Corinthians says, “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” And it’s then that the routine may become suffocating. This is why we must investigate and examine our traditions each year, and not enact them simply because, you know, it’s what we do.
Traditions are wonderful things, but they’re not absolute. Like us, they should change and grow over time they should have a life of their own.