It’s fair to say that we have quite a lot of traditions in my family when it comes to Christmas. Everything from breakfast (half a grapefruit with a glacé cherry on followed by ham and eggs, if you’re asking) to decorating the tree has become imbued with meaning and reverence over the years.
My partner reminds me of my strict adherence to some of them on occasion. Our three-year-old picked up the star while we were decorating the tree.
‘Star!’ she said, full of excitement.
‘Yes but if you don’t put it on last Mummy will pull your arms off,’ he said in an (I’m sure) affectionately mocking way.
While we worked on the tree, he rushed around the house and chucked some tinsel up. And it was done. I’d wanted to go into every room with her, make each room festive and let her get involved. It all felt rushed, slapdash, and unimportant. I felt really stupid for wanting to cry. Of course I made up for it a few days later by buying a set of reduced Christmas lights and putting them around her window.
The gentle teasing is all very well, but of course he has a full set of his own traditions that are incomprehensible to me. When each family gathers they have a set of foods, images, songs and decorations specific to their way of celebrating, whatever holiday it is. Whether it’s Ramadan, Diwali or Yom Kippur, festivals always have a touch of the personal to go with the general ways the rest of the world celebrates them.
I started wondering why I get so upset if there isn’t trifle around for Christmas, or if I’m not eating my dinner while wearing a silly paper hat. The thing is, although these actions in themselves aren’t significant, the repetition of them over the years creates memories and connections that give us that bubbly warm feeling (along with the sherry).
So how, in a year like this, will we be able to find comfort when so many people won’t be with those they love for Christmas?
The simplest reason traditions are reassuring is that you don’t have to make any decisions. If it’s always the same dinner, the same dessert, the same order of opening presents (stockings before breakfast, those under the tree untouched until after church – yes I was a Sunday school child) then you aren’t burdened with the stress of pleasing everyone. Repetitive actions are a great anxiety buffer and stress-reliever. Let’s face it, that’s something we could all do with this year.
And food has always been a ritualistic element of life for our species. From eating only with the right hand in parts of the Middle East and India to always making eye contact with the person you are toasting your glass with (I think I’ve just got used to this in France now), people all over the world engage in special actions related to food. Gathering the members of your tribe or family around you to share food is special. For some it can be the only time they see each other.
Of course the giving part can still be achieved. I’m able to show my long-distance love for those I care about by parcelling up a gift in our home-made paper (potato prints, glitter paint, a toddler and a whole lot of mess) and sending them around the country. They can Zoom me to tell me how much they like it, and if the connection isn’t great I won’t be able to tell if they’re being honest or not. But although the power of technology has been a lifeline for so many, as we all know, it just isn’t the same.
For that, I think I’m going to be leaning on tradition a little heavier this year. Maybe that’s why I got cross about the decorations, why I was sad we got the wrong week for stir-up Sunday. If I can’t have the physical presence of people I love (a freezing two-hour outdoor pub lunch didn’t quite cut it with my friends) then the other rituals will be even more important.
I’m reminded of a time when I was absent for a night out while doing my PGCE and my friends carried an A3 picture of my face around the club with them. It had my name on, just in case anyone wasn’t sure. Although that might seem (and was) incredibly silly, perhaps laying out extra glasses on the table and speaking about those who aren’t there might be a good thing. By invoking them in the traditions around us, we’ll be reminded by their presence.
It might seem depressing to dwell on absence, but I think that by acknowledging those who continue to be an important part of our lives it will be a reminder that we are all very much connected, just further away.
So bring on the two types of trifle (one without bits of fruit in, for the kids). Trot out the homemade sausage rolls and the fairy that Mum glued back together when the cat knocked it off the tree back in the mid-90s. One sister has inherited the decades-old decorations to put on her Christmas cake (small plastic reindeer and pine trees) and my other sister will be serving a glass of super-sweet snowball with a maraschino cherry in.
Because tradition binds us and holds us together. It brings back memories of those gone and integrates the new members into a sense of family, whether we’re related or not. Let’s cherish our traditions and hold them close, until we’re able to hold each other again.
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