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JOSEPH N. BELL

Hardened Traditions Aren't Worth Keeping

December 23, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I have just returned from my annual pre-Christmas week with my grandchildren in Boulder, Colo. We have followed a regular routine during this week for many years. The day after I arrive, we shop for a Christmas tree which I am allowed to buy. Then, the following night, we decorate the tree together. I'm in charge of the lights, then I sit back with a libation or two and act as social and art critic on the rest of the decorating. Over the years, this has grown from ritual to tradition--one I think my two grandsons look forward to as much as I do.

But this year, the tradition was upended. My grandchildren had spent the weekend previous to my arrival with their other grandparents in Wyoming, and the centerpiece of that visit was an afternoon of traipsing nearby woods--with permission, of course--to find a live Christmas tree. One was duly found, cut down and hauled back to Boulder. And by the time I arrived, it had been set up and decorated.

While I was outwardly effusive, I was inwardly critical of the tree. It was too thin on top and too fat in its lower extremities. There were clearly some sparse areas. The lights were unevenly distributed.

Then I realized what I was doing. Tradition had been violated, and my role had been preempted. My evergreen nose had been cut off.

This foolishness didn't last very long, but it lasted long enough for me to relearn a lesson that surely applies year-round but is especially appropriate at Christmas: that tradition and change aren't mutually exclusive. There is enormous merit in both, and it is quite possible for them to live together in harmony. But sometimes tradition can be a mote in the eye of change; and that, it seems to me, is when tradition becomes counterproductive.

It's a fine line, indeed. Every family and every country has its own set of traditions. They are the stable reference points which prevent our lives from being in a constant state of tilt, and they are tampered with only at some risk. But when tradition hardens into rigidity--into a kind of mental rigor mortis--the joy is squeezed out of it. And, by then, it may be too late to change--or too painful. This happens most often to religious institutions, where many of the precepts on which the church was founded are violated to defend the institution against change. It happens in families, too.

There's no comfortable way of knowing when that time comes, beyond our own instincts--and generally they can and should be trusted. Each generation looks at its own traditions and decides which ones to carry forward and pass along to their children, and that's the way it should be. But one of the oddities of this process is that the group most likely to resist change are the children themselves. To children, the familiar--even when it isn't altogether satisfying--is infinitely preferable to the unknown.

When my children were growing up, there was a tradition of going to church on Christmas Eve and opening gifts on Christmas morning. When the children were small, the tree wasn't brought in and decorated until Christmas Eve. As each child grew older, he or she was allowed to participate in the activity until the Santa Claus myth ran its course. Celebrating Christmas now with their own families, they have carried on some of these traditions and discarded others. And their children will, in turn, do the same.

There's a risk that as we grow older, we will revert to the child in us that suffers change badly and builds high defenses around tradition. That's what I did for a few minutes in Colorado last week--but only for a few minutes. My daughter and son-in-law sensed this--not because any of us would have wanted to see my grandchildren denied the experience of cutting their own tree but because they, too, respect tradition.

I think the one thing that those who fear change need to understand most is that change need not be--and usually isn't--disrespectful of tradition. For half a dozen years when my children were in school, we drove away from the traditional Midwestern white Christmas to Florida, where we spent the holidays. But we took all our other Christmas traditions with us.

I suppose traditions die hardest at Christmastime because the holiday is built around the most hallowed tradition of all: the birth of a man who changed the whole course of human history. But perhaps the operative word here is change. In his brief ministry, Jesus attacked many of the traditions of the system into which he was born. While his spiritual precepts were inviolate, he had no hesitation about changing the human environment--and its traditions--in which he put the spiritual precepts to work. And he had no problem knowing which was which--a difficulty the rest of us deal with constantly.

If these seem like heavy thoughts to grow out of the cutting of a Christmas tree, they were neither heavy nor new. They've been gestating for a lot of years and are surfaced periodically by small events. I suppose that's why just before I left Boulder to come home, I checked out my grandchildren's Christmas tree one last time. It's a beautiful tree.

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