I’m presently sitting in the red chair, which is not where it has been for nearly the entirety of our life in Olympia; it has been relocated to accommodate our Christmas tree.
Rearranging furniture is a pastime developed in my childhood, one that has been somewhat stifled in my marriage, except for the office/second bedroom, where my other half permits me to do pretty much anything I want with the furniture. It’s a nice compromise. But with the acquisition of our second (third?) annual Christmas tree, I was given free rein in the living room.
The red chair sits next to the Christmas tree, facing the fireplace. I’m thinking back to last night and the multisensory satisfaction experienced. I sat reading James Wm. McClendon’s Ethics, roaring fire warming my bare feet, rum and coke to my left and Christmas tree to my right, from which I’d occasionally pick needles and stick them partially in my nostrils, breathing in the evergreen-y goodness. Comprehensively satisfied.
The advent of the Christmas season and the obtaining of our tree has left me thinking again about the meaning of traditions, as I’m sure it does for many. I shared nearly a year ago some of my favorite traditions over the years: “Top Ten Favorite Christmas Traditions." But I’ve also been thinking about the significance of those new traditions being formed.
Theologically speaking, “tradition” is a concept whose depths and importance I did not really understand as a younger Christian. Tradition mostly had negative connotations for me, probably associated with the stubbornness of some who held too tightly to rituals that became idols in themselves, not means of leading one to something deeper...be that connectedness to God, more excellent moral character, fuller enjoyment of life, or deeper unity with others.
But despite what I judge as its misuse, I know how much tradition and/or ritual can be centering, life-giving, life-shaping. The Christian tradition is that—a tradition. At its best, it is a history of individuals and communities attempting to carry on the tradition of Jesus. It’s like a story we retell, but not simply with words but with what we prioritize and value, how we spend our time, the things we do.
And despite the value of spontaneity, creativity, fresh expression, individuality, and attempts at cultural relevancy, there’s a significance to simply doing what’s been done before: looking to “saints” who’ve best embodied what our tradition values, singing songs we know, practicing ancient disciplines, etc.
Perhaps some traditions need to be abandoned over time, either because they’ve lost their usefulness (e.g., a particular way that tithes/offerings are taken on Sunday) or because our understanding has evolved (e.g., women’s capacity for Christian leadership). But other traditions continue to endure, perhaps for their ability to comfort, center, connect, unite, or connect us with the mystery and sublimity of life, with God. They are profound, and also, maybe more simply, are just plain fun.
For Joann and I, depending on your reckoning, this is either our tenth, fourth, third, or second Christmas. She was my “backup date” (I humbly accept your "boo's" here) to a dorm event at George Fox our freshman year, joining me at Zoolights in Portland after my original date bailed (neither of us can still remember who that was…if you’re out there, confess). That event, ten years ago, was in a way our first Christmas together.
Fast forward eight years to 2009 when my then-girlfriend Joann flew to China to spend 2 ½ weeks with me during the Christmas season. Some things were different then—we didn’t share a bed, for one. And I sense some discontinuity between Christmas in a foreign country with my girlfriend and Christmas in the US with my wife. But we did have a small albeit fake tree; we did exchange gifts, and we did watch Charlie Brown and LOTR.
Creating new traditions with Joann has been fun, and I think this year, our second married Christmas together, I’ve begun to sense how tradition is slowly replacing (though not wholly eradicating) novelty—a change I enthusiastically welcome.
I once again, mid-November, permitting the unrestrained playing of Christmas music in the house...a monumental event, mind you. We again went to a Christmas tree farm and thoughtfully chose our Christmas tree, Joann being much more strategic and thoughtful than I (me: "How's this one, it's fine right, good, let's go.") We’ve been surprising each other with holiday Starbucks drinks. Joann again did most of the tree decorating while I only marginally helped, because everybody wins that way.
Like last year, we’ll be spending a couple days around Christmas at the Oregon coast, sandwiched by stays with our respective families. We again found “Candy Cane” tea, a seasonal drink we’ve missed all year, and purchased an ample amount. We again visited the tree lighting ceremony last Friday in Portland, which was fortunately not interrupted this year by a terrorist plot (read “The Few Who Give the Many a Bad Name”). We’ve even added our newest, yearly ornament (obtained in Disneyland this past September) to our tree, adopting the tradition of both our families.
It is a wonderful and unique place I’m at as a still-relatively-newlywed, where I still value and relive my family- and self-created traditions but am also in the process of forming new ones with Joann.
But I do hope that I keep these and any traditions in perspective; I’m not sure I view traditions as ends as much as means. There is comfort in rehearsing again a cherished tradition, like the comfort of crashing onto your favorite chair or couch spot after an exhausting day at work, or the comfort of indulging in a dinner in which cheese is the prominently featured source of nutrition.
Some traditions unite us and focus us, reminding us of our connection to narratives greater than our individual lives: the narrative of our family, our community, our religious tradition, or of the history of humankind. But some traditions inevitably die or must necessarily die, either because they’re no longer helpful or because in the interest of loving our partners or communities, we must sacrifice what we’ve held dear for the sake of something new that will bring life and joy and direction to others. Traditions are not the goal, but they can lead us there, I’d say.
Must return now to the fragrant bliss of needle-picking; maybe I’ll count this as my workout for the day.