Thursday, November 8, 2007

106. Traditions should mean something

When I was a child, I anxiously greeted each holiday season by looking forward to my much loved television specials. Probably even unbeknownst to my Mom, I would wait for the television guide so that I could note the schedule of my favorites, such as "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer." I had seen each of these shows several times, but in the spirit of the holiday tradition, I could not be more excited to see them again.

Families around the holidays usually have several traditions, whether it is where they visit (Grandma's house), when they visit (Christmas Eve or Christmas Day) what they eat (turkey, pie), or what they do (play games, sing songs by the piano or engage in a fun game of co-ed football). Family traditions usually originate subtly through a couple of innocent repetitive occurrences, after which they become something that is looked forward to.

I think time with the family is one of the best ways to spend the holidays, where you have a chance to be yourself with the people that know you the best. You can fool a lot of people at work, or in other social circles, but rarely can you fool your family. In seeing you at your best and your worst, your family knows the "real" you. Their love is most sincere, and perhaps, most importantly, your family will usually forgive you for your mistakes when others will not. They have seen you all of their lives, and ultimately, you are one of them.

Your family will also know when you do not want to be there; when you are simply going through the motions- only because it is holiday tradition. Holiday traditions, regardless of what they are, should be fun- not a chore. They should not remain a tradition just because they are tradition. In other words, just because you have done something the same way every year does not mean that it needs to be done the same way every year.

For example, for several years my family has played one of the gift exchange games. However, a couple of years ago, there grew an uncomfortable feeling when, at the traditional moment, everyone just stopped and waited for the game. Furthermore, the game became repetitive...the same small gifts were being purchased; people were saying the same thing at the same time in the game. To keep the tradition alive, we attempted to "bar" some of the more popular gifts that were being purchased each year- to inspire some creativity. Finally last year and again this year, we have significantly altered the game and completely rewritten the rules.

Traditions are largely a "script" of how the thing is to be played out. Often families, after years of doing the same thing every year, simply follow the script. Just following the script, can not only become boring, it can become void of emotion. Ironically, not following the script can lead to considerable unrest, when one family member dares his or her own rewrite.

So go holiday traditions, an ideology that I consider and reconsider each year (perhaps that is now my tradition). I think traditions are wonderful to the extent that they still provide the excitement and joy of what each activity originally meant when it became a tradition. However, too many traditions can lead to problems when families expand and the now "traditional responsibilities" become overwhelming in the attempt to satisfy all of them. Tradition is also rich in repetitiveness- that is, doing the same thing over and over. And sometimes, the activities become about living the traditions, not about enjoying the moment.

In worst case scenarios, the holidays become a self-imposed guilt trip, in which some families scurry around the state attempting to make each traditional family gathering and do those things they are supposed to do- as not to offend anyone and become the subject of a year of not-so-friendly gossip and criticism. This seems to be a burden, and one that destroys the meaning of the holidays.

Perhaps families might find new traditions exciting and fresh. For example, if the meaning of the holidays is spending time with family, does it really matter that it happens on December 24 or December 25? Is there room for new traditions, and similarly, do some traditions need to be retired? And, how about incorporating some surprises or improvisation into your "holiday plans"? We only have so many years to our lives, and I have no interest in living the same year over and over. There is too much in this world to be enjoyed and experienced, and the only traditions I think worth keeping are the ones you truly look forward to.

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