Why Can’t Tradition Stay Where I Put It?

Unitarian Church of Edmonton  December 15, 2013

With a title like Why Can’t Tradition Stay Where I Put it?, you might have come expecting a middle-aged rant, or at least a lament about the good old days and how sad it all is that those wonderful family values of yesterday have eroded.  Naturally such a premise would be followed by a prediction that society will come to a crashing end three weeks from next Tuesday because we have lost touch with the old ways.

Sorry to disappoint.

That’s not where I am going.

Like a lot of people I feel the tug of tradition from time to time, especially at this time of year.  For those with fond memories of times past – and that is far from everyone – tradition can carry a nostalgia for the people and places we remember and that’s nice.

But I can’t agree with becoming subservient to tradition for its own sake.  “We’ve always done it this way!” can link us to ancestors and rekindle treasured memories, but only if the traditions still work for us, if they remain alive and breathing.  ‘Traditional’ does not guarantee ‘meaningful’.

So let me see if I can flesh that out a bit.

Each week the popular Tom Selleck cop show Blue Bloods features the Sunday dinner scene.  The drama is about the Reagans, a New York Irish Catholic police family.  Each Sunday four generations gather including the retired Commissioner, (grandpa) the current Commissioner (Selleck), his children which include a detective, a beat cop and a prosecutor (the daughter) and then their children.  Four generations (nine people in all) in place around the family table without fail. The without fail part, of course, immediately identifies it as fiction. 

There is wit, warmth, and sometimes precocious children asking difficult questions.  Sometimes there is tension between siblings, or about high profile cases, but it is unmistakably a loving and close knit family. I always enjoy those scenes.  They are well-written and function as a kind of Greek Chorus where some of the deeper values underlying the weekly plot get named.

It is also heart-warming for me, for I grew up in the age of the family Sunday dinner.  The writers capture the warmth, the frustrations, the spoken and unspoken conversations, the sometimes carefully chosen words, the sibling rivalry and the laughter that went along with those occasions.  It’s nice.  It is familiar.  It brings up pleasant childhood memories.  Of course I was blessed with a happy family – no addictions, no mental illness around the table, no undercurrents of abuse.  I have come to appreciate how fortunate I was.

And there are times when I really miss that event.  It is not part of our family now.  Truth is it’s been over 40 years since I participated in such regular family meals anytime outside of major holidays or special gatherings.  I want to feel sad about that, but I can’t.  I realize that my children and I, and Teilya as well, have found other ways to create and nurture those special connections.  All the things I described as part of the family dinner we still have.  Except for us they are often conversations in the car or walking to school or during bed time reading.  Or they are like yesterday’s event: deciding on the spur of the moment to go buy our first live Christmas tree in years. Those are the traditions that shape my children’s lives, more memories than traditions, more ways of being together in the moment than prescriptions for holiday assemblies. As for formal Sunday dinners?  Well, they aren’t used to it so they find the whole idea quite boring.

The Sunday dinner was easy back then min my childhood, even necessary.  Sunday evenings were near sacred family time all over the land.  And besides, there were very few choices. Most alternative food sources and entertainment options were closed.  We had Mom’s food and Ed Sullivan on TV.  That was it.  But the world changed. We got options and we got choices.  In fact we demanded choices, because the world was changing and the old traditions were growing stale and no longer serving everyone.

Birth control and the rise of women’s independence meant smaller families, fewer moms at home, less time for home cooking.  The erosion of Christianity as dominant religion meant Sunday became more a day off than a day for church.  Leisure activities started being scheduled for Sundays, stores began to open, the NHL began playing regularly on Sunday nights and so on.  We got choices.

Where once our culture was devoted to the stability of the collective family unit, we moved for better or worse, to a society where individualism and freedom of personal choice is celebrated.  I recall various protesting voices raised against Sunday shopping and Sunday sports, but the fact is they happened because enough people wanted those changes to happen.

If the glorious old traditions had been enough, had satisfied enough people, they would have continued to dominate.  But they weren’t and so they didn’t.

Tradition did not change because some big bad corporate entity deemed it should.  It changed because people were willing to demand new options and choices.

In our Unitarian Universalist Statement of Principles and Sources, the Sources section starts with the words “The Living Tradition we share…”

The Living Tradition.

That’s important.  When tradition becomes fixed and unchangeable, it begins to die.  Like everything else in this universe, it must be adaptable.  It must fit us.  We do not have to fit it.  I think that’s why the first Source we name is our own direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder.  Meaning may be influenced by things and events and the people of the past, but meaning itself arises from our own experience.  Tradition is ours to inherit and shape.  What has been done before can guide us.  The rest of our Sources suggest this when we are encouraged to consider deeply the words and deeds of prophetic women and men, to consider the wisdom of the world’s religions and philosophies, and the wisdom of earth-centered traditions.

But all of those are the library from which we can draw ideas and insight and inspiration.  These Sources of Wisdom are not fixed laws by which we must live.  We have to make our own decisions about what is relevant and what is not.  It’s the same with tradition.

And now Christmas is around the corner, the biggest day for tradition’s heartstring pull in this country… well for those of us who celebrate Christmas.  I could spend the next 10 minutes boring you in excruciating detail with the way the Kiely Christmas unfolded:  the fresh tree on December 23, decorated to the sound of Bing Crosby’s crooning; the church services, the presents followed by family visits and so on.  And I loved it and yes, I miss it.

But I miss it because there was a lot of love and I still miss my long-deceased parents.  It’s nostalgia for something remembered that may or may not ever have been as rosy as I recall it.

And while those memories are powerful, I have had many more Christmasses since than I had in those first seven or eight years of my life.  These holidays have in no way resembled those sepia-toned, spruce-scented days of childhood.

And I bet that will be true for you as well.  I also bet that some of those non-traditional Christmasses were grand and some just weren’t.

The world has changed and so has tradition.  Tradition is a little like a game of telephone, you know the one where one person whispers a message in the ear of the person next to them and then it gets passed around the circle until the message, with all of its revisions is finally spoken aloud by the last person.  What comes out is often unrecognizable.  We each interpret the tradition we inherit in our own way, inevitably keeping the parts that work for us and dropping the parts that don’t.  When I was a kid, Christmas night was a time for winding down, going with Dad to drive my great aunts home, playing with new toys one last time.

Sometime back, about 12 years ago, I was part of a Kiely family Christmas dinner in Montreal.  My brother had bought my childhood home, so we gathered in that same dining room that had seem so many turkeys carved. But instead of winding down, as soon as dessert had been cleared away, all of his teenaged children and their friends were out the door and off to the movies.  It was their new tradition.

I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure movie theatres closed on Christmas Eve when I was a kid, and they stayed shut till the 26th.  Somewhere around 1980 they started opening for evening shows only.  These days, Christmas Day is the single biggest box office day in all of North America.  The theatres are absolutely jammed.  In fact, for a lot of families going to the movies has become a Christmas tradition, the thing they do together.

Each generation reshapes the tradition to suit their needs.

That’s an important thing to remember.  We heard Vanessa Rush Southern describing the Christmas tree ritual, and the creche with the red dough snowman standing in for a wise man.  “Families are telling stories only they can appreciate.  Families are being families in all their delightful idiosyncrasies.”   But the stories in my family won’t be the same as the ones in my sister’s family, even though we come from the same tradition, and the food will be slightly different and so on.

The important question as we approach the holidays is not which stuffing recipe will be used, but what gifts of ourselves we will bring to the day.  Will we be miserly and Scrooge-like with our affections, hoarding them behind a hailstorm of, “Bah! Humbugs!”?  Sometimes when someone has been hurt often enough, that response is the only way to save themselves from further pain.  It’s understandable and maybe even necessary.  I can’t fault anyone who doesn’t want to risk themselves again.  That’s why we do our Blue Christmas service every December 23.  There we honour and respect the pain and loss that some feel in hopes that by naming our grief, we can put it away for awhile.  It can be a hard time.

But the self-protection does keep us from the possibility of finding something special in the people we meet.  I don’t judge the choice, however.  We must each find and make our own meaning.

Who we choose to be with at family gatherings, indeed who we choose to call ‘family’ on those days – or on holidays makes all the difference in the world.  It’s a corny old saw, but Christmas really is about the giving, not the receiving.  In this case I mean the giving of ourselves.

And so my friends, let us remember that tradition does not determine the strength of family ties, nor does blood.  Family is not defined by orientation or even by legal relationship. It’s defined by the feelings you have for the people you gather about you, whether it be one, none or a hundred, people who also care about you.

Holiday joy and meaning does not come from the heirloom ornament or Grandma’s recipe for stuffing that has been passed down through the generations. Nor does it come from having the exact right tree.  It comes from embracing our choices.  It comes from choosing how we will spend the day, who we will be with and how we will make meaning.

Meaning and meaningful experiences come from the choices we make and not from the traditions we receive.  Those traditions can enhance, but they can also restrict.  Choose the ones that enhance.  Choose the Living Tradition.