Christmas traditions are hardly monolithic. The season is celebrated with as much colorful variety as the pretty paper and shiny ribbons encasing the gifts under the tree. And speaking of that tree, history suggests that Reformer Martin Luther decorated the first Christmas tree, a celebration of God sending light into the world. This is impossible to confirm, but Luther’s native Germany was indeed the first to popularize the tradition.
Some families go caroling, door to door with the songs of the season, a distinct tradition from Victorian England. Many children, tucked excitedly into bed on Christmas Eve, hear “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a tradition that is relatively new and is distinctly American in origin.
The practice of leaving milk and cookies for Santa is of Norse origins. Yule logs came from the Celts, as did mistletoe. Poinsettias were first cultivated by the Aztecs in what is now Mexico. Saint Nicholas got his start, not at the North Pole, but in modern-day Turkey. And for reasons still unclear to me, my wife hides a pickle ornament on our tree every year, granting a special gift to the one who finds it Christmas morning.
A friend of mine, being of Italian and Sicilian stock, has a family tradition called the “Festa Dei Sette Pesci,” the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” It is a sumptuous Christmas Eve banquet with mounds of delicious seafood, cauldrons of sauce and pasta, buttery loaves of bread, and sweet, red wine. After feasting for hours, full of food and drink, they stagger to church for midnight mass, celebrating the birth of Jesus.
My family has a feast each Christmas Eve as well. As we have done for 20 years now, we file into the nearest Waffle House for grits, coffee, and scrambled eggs. Weird, I know, but it’s not Christmas Eve for the McBrayers without the smell of hash-browns in the air, Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” on the jukebox, and the wackiest of conversations with the restaurant staff.
I’m not one to protect rite and ritual. New wine needs new wineskins, to paraphrase Jesus, and sometimes the healthiest thing one can do is cast off the habits that have lost their meaning. Yet, sometimes, recognizable and expected practices keep us grounded in an otherwise unsure world. Christmas is one of those times.
So, go home for Christmas, wherever home might be, and soak in the healing familiarity. If attending church on Christmas Eve is your annual custom, then go again this year. If you have always had Advent candles, then unpack and relight them. If feeding the hungry at a local mission is what you have “always done,” there is no reason to stop now.
These usual, normal rituals have a purpose. As Thomas Keating said, they “help move us beyond being separated to union with God and with others.” The traditions that really matter are those traditions that keep us connected and keep us sane; and if they do that, they are definitely worth keeping.