Holiday traditions fill my heart with relish and anticipation, with promise and potential, like a handmade mug overflowing with mulled wine.
Well, some of the time anyway. The rest of the time they fill me with dread, and a sense of foreboding failure, like a handmade mug overflowing with . . . well, something unpleasant.
I want my children to grow up with a strong sense of place and tradition, like Wendell Berry. I want them to hail progress while clinging to the heritage of their homeland, like Willa Cather. I want them to know where they belong, like Sam Gamgee. I want them to go out into the world but still have a home they long to return to, like Odysseus.
But how? We have no grandfather to tell us tales of the old country. The Gaffer is not puttering around our garden. We don’t even have a dog to grow half-dead with age while waiting for us to return from our travels around the world. Ours is a culture of Middle America, of strip malls and soybean fields. The best our culture can do for us is Black Friday stampedes, inflatable lawn ornaments, and music that makes my brain want to bleed out of my ears. Woe is me, oh, woe is me.
A couple years ago after puzzling over my dilemma, I began to get my act together. I made plum pudding (yes, plum pudding!). I baked it mid-November, then doused it in brandy every week or so until Christmastime. We dimmed the lights and flambéed it on Christmas Eve. We also hosted a neighborhood Christmas open house. We decorated, baked cookies, turned on some Nat King Cole, and opened our home for an evening of Christmas treats and neighborly good cheer. We took our boys for late-night cookies at a friend’s house, and we made sure to hang stockings early in December. Oh boy, now I was finally getting a handle on this Christmas thing.
But last year was different. I got pregnant in March, and there was no way around it. Baby Knox was due to arrive January 2, so we would be unable to go to Michigan to visit with family. Leave it to a baby to get born at Christmastime and throw a wrench in everyone’s travel plans. (Ha. Get it? I made a joke.) I also knew from experience that at eight-and-a-half-months pregnant I would not be up for all the activity that had filled last Christmas. December would be spent getting ready for the baby’s imminent arrival. I wouldn’t even be able to host our Annual Neighborhood Open House (if you do something once, that makes it annual, right?). Would I even get around to making plum pudding?
After one year, our “culture of home” was rapidly disintegrating, our traditions cast by the wayside. I clucked my tongue and thought, what would Edith Schaeffer say? How could the holidays be special for our boys without the traditions they cherished? How could they love Christmas if all they got out of it was a new baby? I am proving to be seriously inadequate, I thought.
The next night I was visited by the ghosts of Willa Cather, Wendell Berry, and Edith Schaeffer, and they told me to chuck the plum pudding.
No, what really happened was I went to church.
This might be a better Christmas tale if it ended with me running through the snow, yelling “Merry Christmas!” to some wonderful old building and loan. But, as with many Christians in many types of crisis, my story only resolved itself when I went into the house of the Lord.
Our church does the usual sorts of things for the Christmas season. The foyer and the sanctuary are decorated with wreaths and banners and a tree. We sing a carol or two with every worship service. And each week, a different family reads some scriptures and lights the Advent candles. This all leads up to the special Christmas Eve service, where we dim the lights, and everybody in the congregation gets to hold a lit candle as we sing “Silent Night.”
And, as I sat (or stood) through all of this, it hit me. I can totally pass the buck.
I mean, what if our culture and traditions are determined mostly by the body of believers surrounding us?
After all, if the Church is our mother, shouldn’t she really be the one that gives my children their sense of place? Shouldn’t she be the one they long most to come home to? I’m not saying I can totally pass the buck, but what if the only things we do every Christmas are attend the Christmas Eve service, recite the Luke 2 passage, and open presents together on Christmas morning? Isn’t that better than annual flambéed plum pudding? Can I still be a good mother even if a third of the Advent calendar is unopened come New Year’s? What if I never even got it out of the attic this year?
Turns out, it will be okay.
Although I fully intend to attempt plum pudding again this year, our family has no annual Christmas ornament. I’m a major underachiever when it comes to birthday parties. My kids have never had their own Easter baskets, and they’ve never worn a christening gown. And the traditions I have tried to start have been so very hard to maintain. But you know what? If I fail to make plum pudding, Jesus Christ was still born in Bethlehem. If we never learn much about our cultural heritage or countries of origin, our citizenship is still in Zion. And we have a Church that makes each holiday special, pointing us to Christ’s incarnation as a reason to seriously celebrate.