Traditions are a funny thing. Some have been around for far longer than anyone alive can remember, and new ones are born every day, but once they take root, they can be hard to shake. But even the most deeply-rooted traditions are worth digging up and examining once in a while, to see if they’re truly as important as they seem.
For many people, holidays are the most important traditions of all — times to gather family, perform rituals, and eat special delicacies. For my family, that was always Christmas, or rather the three day stretch of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. None of my close family on either parents’ side are at all religious, but if you go back a few generations, those religious influences are certainly there, and there’s no denying our culture at large pushes Christmas as the “default” winter holiday.
A few years ago, however, my family stopped to examine the way we handled Christmas. It didn’t start off as a plan to reinvent anything, just an idea to make those three days easier to schedule. With grandparents, aunts, and uncles on both sides, combined with the fact that my parents realized my brother and I might soon have significant others and their families to visit, the scheduling of that short span of time was always crowded, and made it difficult to also have a relaxing Christmas day at home, like we all enjoyed.
So, we decided to upend our tradition, and build a new one.
We kept the parts we like — the tree, the baking, the presents — and got rid of parts that were a lot of work, and less beloved — the turkey dinner was replaced with appetizers to snack on while watching a movie. But the biggest change was the date. My immediate family picks a date that everyone can get off of work, usually the weekend before Christmas, to celebrate “solstice” (because it fell on the winter solstice the first year). We spend the night before playing games, we get up in the morning and unwrap presents, we eat too much chocolate, and it’s all over with before December 20.
We’ve been doing that for a few years now, and it’s taken some getting used to. Once our solstice is over, it feels like Christmas should be over, even if we do still visit family closer to the actual date. There were a couple years where we didn’t account for the fact that we needed to finish our shopping a week earlier, and sometimes schedules conflict a little. (This year, I have an exam that runs until 5:00 p.m. on solstice eve.) But when we review the new tradition afterwards every year, my family has always been completely satisfied with it. It’s more peaceful, gives us the flexibility to relax, and spend time together, when in the past, the rush to see everybody during Christmas was just stressful. And now, I’m in a relationship with someone who lives a few hundred kilometres away, and the ability to just spend Christmas with her family without needing to make negotiations, or alternate whose family we see each year, has avoided a massive amount of potential tension and planning.
It’s not for everyone — maybe your traditions are particularly tied to the day itself, and that’s fine. But these things that it seems have always been the same were created by someone, for some reason, and they are not set in stone. As you gear up for whatever sort of festivities you may have planned for the coming month, I encourage you to take a minute and consider which parts are truly valuable to you, and which are vestigial remnants of a past generation. Traditions are mutable, and quicker than you think, they become the new tradition, and all the more personal and important because they’re your traditions.