Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas & Traditions

For most people, I think, Christmas is not really Christmas unless the right traditions are observed year after year with a dedication rivalling Santa Clauses’ devotion to cookies and mall appearances. Of course by “right traditions” I don’t mean “right for everyone.” Each person and family have their own traditions, twists on popular traditions, and traditions that make the rest of us wonder how much rum was in the egg nog.

Traditions get funny around the holidays. It is one thing to have your morning coffee tradition (or is it addiction?) and an entirely different thing to have a giant tree slowly dying inside your home. One friend of mine decorates their family tree with sour soother candies. Given the choice, I’d decorate it with bottles of maple syrup, but that’s just me.

Perhaps one of my favourite Christmas traditions, providing many opportunities over the years, has been the mistletoe. It stands to reason that anything that stays green during winter and produces fruit, should be celebrated with a kiss! And though I can’t prove it or find it anywhere in history, this might be the reason men started bringing trees inside the house. The reasoning? The bigger the green plant, the bigger the kiss.

While the Christmas tree first shows up in 16th century literature, most believe its origins date back to 8th century Germany when a missionary with a chainsaw cut down a sacred oak on Christmas Eve. The outraged locals, understandably ticked, were eventually calmed by the planting of a young fir tree and disaster was averted. Eventually, German settlers brought the Christmas tree to Pennsylvania where it sprang to life as a good ol’AmeriCanadiana tradition.

Even earlier, in 4th century Britain, evergreens were given as gifts to each other during the week of Winter Solstice. Interestingly, during this gift giving time, slaves and masters would exchange positions making speech free and, theoretically, unhindered. I imagine this to be like a modern day office Christmas party where cubicle dwellers tip a few back with the boss but can’t and shouldn’t say what they really think.  

The great thing about traditions is that, while you and I may have the exact same tradition, each of us gets to inject our own meaning into the tradition. We are free to adopt and borrow traditions from other ages and cultures and make them uniquely our own. Traditions act as symbols and guideposts that generally point people and communities to something larger.

Christians have been doing this for centuries, and it’s not wrong. Traditions change, they morph, they pick up new meanings and discard old ones, and people carry on. If a Christian wants to decorate an evergreen tree to be reminded of Jesus, fine. Others in history have held that evergreen trees increase sexual potency. Obviously, symbols and traditions mean different things to different people.

As Christians, our hope is that people would come to know the reason behind some of our kooky traditions. Christmas is a celebration of the life of Jesus and we’ve adopted certain cultural things to be reminded of this. What will our Christmas traditions of the future look like? Who knows, but for Christians, it will always include Jesus.