It’s that time of year again, when the word “tradition” is heard more often than at a “Fiddler on the Roof” audition. Whether it’s in the music we are subjected to in the mall or choose to listen to on our radio, or the food and treats we make, or the decorations in and around our homes, traditions reign supreme. It’s like a global pot-luck of goodwill, laughter, and memories.
I look at the lights, hear the carols, and eat the food. I recognize the meaning and appreciate the beauty. But somehow, I feel like I’ve arrived with my hat in my hands— a not unwelcome beggar, but a beggar nonetheless.
I have no Christmas traditions to bring to the table. None that can’t be gleaned from the mall or radio this time of year, anyway. I had an Irish grandmother who passed away when I was around 7; I don’t know what any particular Irish traditions are around Christmastime. I had a Scottish grandfather, but again, nothing. He didn’t speak with a burr, he didn’t wear a tartan or play the pipes. My German grandmother didn’t know how to cook when she married, so her mother’s spaetzle and sausage recipes are lost — assuming they even existed in the first place. And what exactly do Germans do for Christmas?
Sure, we grew up with a tree and ornaments and all that. I have vague memories of putting the tree up as a family. “Now we need the big blue branches,” one parent would say, and we three kids would look for the paint or electrical tape on the wire tips. Somewhere along the way, though, it dropped off the radar. My more recent memory is of just my mother and I doing it on our own.
My mother didn’t bake, so Christmas cookies were store-bought, pre-decorated, and forgettable. They also shifted according to where she happened to be shopping when the impulse struck. One year we got fruitcake from the bank. I don’t remember a single Christmas Eve dinner item. Did we have leftovers? Chinese? Pizza? I don’t remember any particular year. About the only thing we did every year was go out to look at the lights that night; my parents started that one when we were little in an effort to get us kids to sleep. We would go to the early Vigil Mass first, then for our tour. As we kids got older we would go for the tour and later attend Midnight Mass.
That’s about all I have to hold on to in this tradition-rich time of year: Mass. Every year I saw the trees changing from undecorated to almost iridescent with lights, heard the familiar carols, the readings. The somber, preparation season of Advent was over; now came the blazing lights of Christmas. The seasons of the universal Church. I knew that every year, the green would go away and be replaced by violet. The songs and hymns would be more familiar, chosen from a much shorter repertoire, than those of the previous months of the Church’s calendar. Four weeks of that and Christmas would come in all its grandeur. The Nativity set would appear surrounded by poinsettias; violet would be replaced by white. I could predict these events, rely on them as consistently as the sun rising in the east. After Epiphany, the Nativity would vanish along with the trees and twinkle lights. The green of Ordinary Time would return; some of the poinsettias might linger an extra week until Father offered them to anyone who wished to take them home. Lent would bring violet; the Easter Triduum, white followed by green again until we came back around to the violet of Advent.
Ah, familiar Advent.
Somewhere along the way, I realized what “Catholic” means. The Mass is the same sacrifice in Eastpointe, Michigan as in Paris, France. It’s the same in Nagasaki, Japan as Cuzco, Peru or Rome, Italy. While I brought no particular traditions from my own heritage, I’ve given my children the heritage of the worldwide Church. That is my touchstone, my anchor, my compass.
So through this season of penitence and preparation where we look both forward and back, it’s a little wistful for me. As I’ve grown older the “unmoored” feeling has waxed and waned. My beloved husband brought some traditions we’ve made our own—“monster cookies,” oyster stew on Christmas Eve, not opening stockings until after sunset Christmas Day. My children have something I never had, and I’m grateful.
In recent years the older three have gone with their father to Midnight Mass while I stay home and the little ones sleep. I go with my mother on Christmas Day. As I’m there with the Nativity, the carols, the twinkling trees, that quiet voice whispers, “This. This is what you’ve given your children. The Faith of Jesus Christ, His Church, His Tradition. It’s greater than any recipe.”
And I’m at peace.
Originally Published on Dec 17, 2014.