Friday, December 20, 2013
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2013
Once Grandpaw ditched us on Christmas Eve 1995, the first Christmas following Grandmaw's death, to visit his new "ladyfriend" I started understanding that our family's Christmas tradition had changed forever. Oh, we tried it again the next year, but it was awkward for three reasons: 1) the frenzied manner in which Dad's large family engorged, in verbal silence, on the traditional five pounds of cold shrimp with cocktail sauce at our dining room table, 2) Mom's discovery that Dad's family washed off the sugary glazing on the three HoneyBaked Hams she bought them annually, 3) and Grandmaw was the only reason anyone had fun at Christmas anyway. We didn't meet again the year after that. I think we all were relieved.
This isn't a story about how our family has overcome loss and discovered a true meaning of Christmas, or how we gather annually with candles on Christmas Eve on a hillside in Virginia to sing "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella" around Grandmaw's grave. That didn't happen. In fact, I'm not sure there is a lesson to be learned from all that but this: That the traditions around Christmas we celebrate probably need to be changeable. The specifics of tradition are often unthinking accidents in their first instances, and as we repeat these accidental rituals in later years, we often confuse the accidents with the substance that at one time animated them. The repetition of the tradition without the animating spirit sounds hollow and rings awkward, like the slurping of human mouths on cold shrimp.
Of course, traditions remind us of the substance -- this is why we do Eucharist, after all. Sometimes the substance surprises us and animates the tradition, and we experience something real and present. But Eucharist for me is perhaps the exception that proves the rule -- five pounds of cold shrimp do not necessarily transcendence make. Of course it can and of course it did for my family before 1995, but you can't count on it.
Don't mistake me: I'm not saying traditions are bad. I'm just saying as we roll towards Christmas morn we should think about the whole idea of tradition and the particular traditions we find ourselves celebrating. We should probably try to think intentionally about why we are doing what we are doing, and what relation any of it has to our remembrance and celebration of God's gift of life and hope and forgiveness and redemption. I don't begrudge you your Precious Memories tree ornaments that you have purchased each year -- if you have them. I'm just asking you to think about why you do.
- Rob Kilgore