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What Tradition Teaches

Three weeks of another year’s Advent are past; the one that’s left is just a few days long—Christmas Day itself peeks ‘round the corner. The three weeks behind me have already been framed and filled and formed by a dozen dear traditions, from sacred to silly; the few days ahead hold the most cherished, even holy, traditions of all.

Tradition has been on my mind this Advent season, one I have anticipated a long while—my first Advent as a wife, homeowner, and mother to a little boy just old enough to point ecstatically at the Christmas tree when he first sees it each morning. His wonder compounds my own, and has stirred in me a zeal and a gusto for filling our home with as many as I can of traditions inherited from my mother and grandmothers, borrowed from friends, stolen from books. We’ve plucked bits and branches from neighborhood hedgerows to green our home; strung popcorn and cranberries to festoon the tree; lit candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday; read Advent prayers each morning and an Advent devotional each night; mailed Christmas cards; kept our CD player, record player, and instruments in a continual rotation of Christmas carols; stocked fridge and pantry for special snacking with fancy local coffee, Harney & Sons holiday tea, eggnog, cheese, and salami; bought more butter this month than I have in the past twelve to cream into dozens of Christmas cookies, wrapped and hand-delivered to friends and neighbors.

The traditions are familiar from near three decades of keeping them; yet, this year, I’ve met them in a new way. As a child, I felt with childlike faith that Christmas traditions happened like the sun rising and the tide rolling; one had only to come, to open eyes, to stretch out arms to receive their bounty and joy. Now, as a wife and mother and homemaker, each tradition speaks to me, not only of abundant gift to be received, but also of lavish labor to ready the gift. To see the sudden light of delight shine one instant in my son’s blue eyes at his first glimpse of a Christmas tree, his first taste of spritz cookies, means hours of work for me. To make a special meal or a special evening means foregoing the rest that weary hands might crave. To keep a tradition means to be not only present, but prepared; not only attentive, but active; and, often, not only joyful, but also a little tired, a little spent.

For note the language: traditions are kept. Though traditions may be set, unchanging, constant, and inherited—adjectives that describe their form—yet they must be observed, enacted, followed, obeyed, kept—verbs, active verbs thinly disguised in passive voice, that describe their vivification.

And this Advent, amidst twigs and leaves strewn across rugs, candle wax ground into tablecloths, and dishes piled high in the sink, I have been learning to rejoice in this active side of tradition as a great part of its beauty. Far from demythologizing the magic of Christmas, it re-enchants the myriad recurrences of each day: sun rising, eyes opening, green sprouting, heart beating, tides rolling, seasons turning. Though I call them “laws of nature” and take them as givens, I forget that they truly are given by a gracious God. They are traditions He resolves and acts to keep each day, much as, this Advent and Christmastide, I resolve and act to keep the traditions of my home—and in so doing, learn in mind and spirit and senses the truth tradition teaches: no abstraction of immutability, but the faithfulness of one who loves.

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