tradition: the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs from one generation to another (from tradere, to hand over).
My baby sister Anne got married this week. It was a beautiful ceremony. The whole thing was outside in the snow and we were freezing our collective buns off, but it was beautiful and I’d do it again in a second for Anne and Scotty. We were up in the mountains and everything was white and muted. The sun was out, and although it wasn’t warm enough to break through the skin, it was enough to make the air sparkle. I felt a new affinity to the Celts and their Winter Solstice rituals.
The best part of the ceremony (even better than when Anne’s dog brought out the rings around its neck) was when my father walked out holding Anne’s arm. My sister is well into her 20s. She’s an attorney now, living in another state, and by most measures a full-grown adult. (She does still jump off 3,000 foot cliffs on a regular basis, a vestige of immaturity I must say, but other than that, she is far removed from the little Annie Bananie we grew up with.) She hasn’t lived in my parents’ house for several years. But it was still fitting to see my father “give her away” to her new husband. It’s a tradition that carries a lot of symbolic messages, and—as traditions do—it passes these messages on to the next generation along with the transition of child to bride.
It is now the morning of December 24th and we are in the thick of the most tradition-laden time of the year. Since Ken and I have been married, we have collected Christmas traditions—some from our families, others of our own. We use them to mark the season and make it special. Our kids know what to expect and they look forward to certain patterns and customs. The traditions decorate our lives—the tree, the train, the nativity sets, the stockings—but they are more than décor. They are a very real transfer of beliefs and values.
Last night we started what I hope will be a new tradition: we ate dinner by candlelight. Gabie has proclaimed himself Electricity Tzar and has gone from one obsession with power cords to another with making sure we aren’t wasting electricity. He patrols the house, turning off the lights in every room whether it’s occupied or not. (I’ll spare you the holy fit he threw on Saturday when everyone kept ignoring his total ban on light usage and I told him he could not tape all the switches into the off position) Last night he wanted us to conserve by using candles at the table so we went along with his decree. It was lovely. I don’t know if it was the soft lighting or the scents or just the fact that we are all looking forward to Christmas, but it was the best family meal we’ve had in a long time. Ethan called it “utterly relaxing.”
I’ve decided that we need to do this more often. And it’s too good of a tradition to save for just Christmas. Why not do it every week? I told the kids that my mom used to get out her china on Sundays and we would treat the meal as a special occasion. It may be my tendency to romanticize my childhood, but I envision her cooking a pot roast and homemade rolls every single week. (Mom, am I imagining things?) I do remember the Spanish lace tablecloth and the china and the fact that the food was all transferred to serving dishes (something I never bother to do; I just plunk the pots and pans right on the table to limit my cleanup later). I’m seeing now that these meals helped me—more than a sermon ever could—to treat the Sabbath as a day set apart from the rest of the week. Mom was willing to sacrifice a few pieces of china over the years to pass this message on to us.
Much of the art depicting the childhood of Christ centers on religious traditions and rites of passage. We see the presentation at the temple, the circumcision, the training of young Jesus in the workshop of his earthly father, his learning to read from his mother, and another visit to the temple at the age of 12. With each episode, there’s a transfer of beliefs or information from one generation to another.
In this painting of the Presentation at the Temple by Mantegna, Mary enacts a literal rite of passage as she hands her son’s life over to God by presenting him to the High Priest. The hand off is only temporary, but it shows the principle of sacrifice and Mary’s understanding that her son’s life is dedicated for a higher purpose. There are allusions in the painting to the fact that Mary will eventually see the full, painful extent of this dedication. The swaddling bands, which I’ve written about before, are one hint. Another is the way Mary hugs her child to her chest, almost as if she’s not quite sure she wants to go through with it.
The Catholic feast celebrating Christ’s Presentation at the Temple is called Candlemas and is traditionally celebrated 40 days after the birth of Christ. Because Christmas is now set on December 25, this means Candlemas falls on February 2nd. What a happy coincidence that this religious holiday (at least in the United States) has evolved into Groundhog Day. We have strong beliefs about Groundhog Day in our home and treat it with great respect. Ken and I have made our pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Groundhogs (Punxsutawney PA) and every year, we mark the day with our own kind of liturgy, the ceremonial watching of the sacred film.
In December, we mark midwinter and celebrate the birth of light into the world. In February, we look forward to the arrival of spring. These are traditions that give deeper meaning to the passage of time and the flow of seasons. In the process of celebrating them, we bring together in a satisfying union two of the great realities of life: some things are always changing and some things will always stay the same.