It’s cold out on this roof. My fingers poke out of tattered gloves, and I wiggle the fiddle curiously. How does one hold it? I think of performers I’ve seen, of hoe-down scenarios, and I snug the gleaming wood instrument under my chin. I drag the bow across the strings; awful, discordant sounds screech out.
I put down fiddle and bow, and I stare out at the silent night, at the velvet, star-studded sky. The street: so quiet. The neighbors’ spotted white cat darts behind the white pillared house across the street. Muted lights glow behind drawn shades and drapes pulled tightly shut. Way down on Linden Avenue, car tires thrum. A buried, throbbing, bass pulses from the college bar a half a mile away, way over in the industrial district. To the south, the Christmas lights on the courthouse flare up: first red, which dulls to rose, then pales to white, then flickers away. Then a blast of green shoots up, fading, fading…It’s replaced by a triumphant golden glow.
Cold, clear, peaceful, I think. And I eye the fiddle again.
Then, “What are you doing out here?” asks Mark. He leans halfway out the open window of the spare room, hands flat on the black-clad roof. He pauses, he ponders, and then he crawls out to join me. The roof here is flat and broad and rimmed with a little railing: no danger of sliding and falling. I sit with my back against the wall, legs straight in front of me, silent fiddle in my lap. Mark slides over to join me. He slips his hand over mine and we weave fingers. We sit, quietly together, looking out over our little world.
And then, again: “Why are you on the roof?” asks Jim, his head out the window. There’s a little pause, and, “Wait,” Jim says. His head disappears.
He reappears a minute later with two warm, silky duvets, which he throws out the window ahead of him. He butt-slides over next to his dad, and we pull the coverlets over us, glad of the warmth, contemplative in the quiet night.
I handle the fiddle to Mark, who shakes his head. He says, “Oh, no. Not me.”
“I’ll try,” says Jim; he positions the fiddle backwards on his extended legs. He presses a finger on the frets, and he draws the bow across the strings. There is a long, sweet, lingering note. It splits the night and fades away. We listen to it disappear, and then we are silent.
Finally, I say it. “Without tradition,” I intone solemnly, “our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof!”
We’ve got the fiddle. We’re on the roof.
But we are, all three of us, feeling pretty firm.
My December Country Living magazine comes in the mail. It is my guilty pleasure, a full half hour of guaranteed enjoyment: a celebration of home and hearth and hearty foods. This month, there’s a white house on the cover, the kind of house built, maybe, in the 1880’s—sprawling, two-storied, pleasingly gabled. The red front door sports an evergreen wreath with a crimson bow. Evergreen garlands wrap around the wrap-around porch, and two regal collies step off that porch to greet the viewer.
A vintage turquoise pick-up truck, Christmas tree resting on a plaid blanket on its roof, waits in the drive. There is a story here, of family and festivity, of grand preparations and gleeful anticipation of a great day.
I page through the magazine, and the story continues. I visit homes decorated for the holidays—vintage homes with deer heads on walls and hand-hewn tables; homes where a happy young mother plates cookies in the kitchen. A table is set with warm plaid blankets as tablecloth; there are tartan plates nestled on white chargers and tangerines snugged into a pine-bough runner. The old white chandelier shines above an evergreen garland that drapes a broad hutch, and I feel that hushed moment when the house is cleaned and decked and shining—the moment before the guests arrive, crowding in with faces rosy from the cold, shedding coats one-sidedly, juggling their dishes to pass as their host tries helpfully to grab the shrugged-off outerwear.
I look at the vignette and picture the peaceful preparedness shattering into the warmth and bustle of welcome.
The guests will soon arrive, the wassail begin.
I flip through the rest of the glossy magazine, contemplate the recipes, and I think this publication takes our cultural expectations and puts them onto paper precisely. The family homestead. The groaning board. The shining faces gathered joyfully around the table.
That’s the holiday.
That’s the tradition.
“I looked up tradition,” Mina says, “and it is supposed to be something that is handed down or done over generations. But my mother calls and says, ‘You HAVE to be here. It’s tradition.’” Mina exhales and looks at her dear confidantes, Corey and Blake. They are all 34; they are old school friends, moms of children five years old or younger. Mina is an assistant principal. Corey is a nurse practitioner. Blake is a CPA. They are smart, savvy young professionals.
“My parents,” Mina continues, “have only been having Christmas at their house since Grandma and Grandpa bought the condo when I was 14. Twenty years! I told my mother that’s hardly long enough to be considered tradition.”
“So, what are you going to do?” asks Blake.
“I caved.” Mina sighs. “My sister called and whined about how it just wouldn’t be the same, and my dad came over to let me know he had the train set up and he reminded me how much Little Barry loved the trains and the tree lights last year…and I just said, Fine. We’ll be there.”
“Well,” says Corey. “we’re not. Laura is old enough to want to wake up in her own bed this year, and run downstairs to open her gifts. We’re having Christmas in our own home, and I’m cooking a roast, and anyone who wants to come can join us.”
“You rebel,” says Mina. “How many people are coming so far?”
“I don’t know,” says Corey. “No one’s talking to me. Although my brother did call to thank me for ruining Christmas before he informed me we weren’t on speaking terms and hung up. Jeff’s parents will be there, though.” Corey crumbles her roll onto its little plate and turns to Blake. “What about you guys? What are you doing?”
Blake looks a little abashed. “Well, I’m incredibly lucky, I guess,” she says. “This summer, the whole family was at the beach, and my mother got us all together and suggested we figure out a way to celebrate together that didn’t make everyone crazy. So we decided we’d have the Burke family Christmas on Epiphany this year. The 6th is on a weekend, and it will ease up on that after-holiday letdown for the kids.” She looks at her friends almost apologetically. “We’ll go to Matt’s parents on Christmas Eve and then be at home on Christmas Day. My sister and her kids will probably come over that night.”
There is a little silence, and Mina and Corey look at her with a little unbelief and a little jealousy.
Finally, “That’s so cool,” says Mina. “I wish my mother could see that the tradition is about the being together and not so much about a command appearance on a certain day.”
Curious, I look up ‘tradition.’ Mina is right: the definition tells me it is a custom or belief handed down through generations. So it has to be pretty darned old, generations old, that custom, to properly wear the mantle of tradition.
So the claim that ‘You HAVE to be home! It’s our tradition!” is, really, a false one.
Because once those grandparents were young parents too, dragging their cranky children to one set of in-laws or the other, eating Edna’s dried out turkey when they’d rather be home with a tasty pan of lasagna and the promise of a family board game after dinner. But they did it—they sucked it up until the grandparents couldn’t host any more—until they moved into assisted living, or moved, tragically, into the green fields of a memorial park.
And then, “Our turn,” those parents sighed contentedly, and gloried in the kids around their own table, the food their own family favorites; they welcomed the grandparents well enough to join them, the kids’ friends with no special place to be. They welcomed the significant others as the kids grew into young adults.
They grew solid in their expectation that Christmas wasn’t Christmas unless every kid was home. Twenty years passed, and it began to seem like they’d celebrated this way forever. Like this celebration was tradition.
But it isn’t really—it’s just the way they’ve done things for a couple of decades, and a year dawns when a different kind of celebration is in order.
Expectation: not tradition.
And unrealistic expectations can overload and sink a holiday.
Jim is typing furiously. When he pauses to take a breath, fingers suspended above his keyboard, I ask him what he’s working on.
“A reading list,” he says. “Want to see? First, I want to finish It.” Stephen King’s thick tome sits next to Jim’s computer; the bookmark reveals he has only about an eighth of the book to go. Jim wants to read it through before seeing the movie, which people have told him is not bad, although, of necessity, it leaves out some parts of the dense and intricate book.
Then he wants to read The Wheel of Time series in its entirety; he has read the first four books, but now he wants to start, again, at the beginning, and follow Robert Jordan’s long saga until the very end of the very last book. Then, on to Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and more.
It’s an ambitious list, and it does my aging English instructor’s heart good. It validates what we plan to do for the holiday this year, too, adopting an Icelandic custom on Christmas Eve. We’re going to grill steaks, and then snuggle into new flannels and light the fire in the fireplace, and we are going to crack open our new books. We’ll read, cozy in the fireplace glow, the tree lights twinkling, too, and we’ll dip into chocolates,—chocolates from our favorite local chocolatier.
My inner bossy teacher surfaced this November, and I gave each of the boyos a ‘Christmas Wish List’ form to fill out. It asked what books they wanted, and what kind of chocolates. It asked if they wanted any special gift cards, and then there was a category for ‘other.’ The boyos took the lists to separate corners, and thoughtfully filled them out. Their book lists were fairly long; on the ‘other’ list, both Mark and Jim listed only one simple, inexpensive thing.
Isn’t that funny? I thought to myself, and I wondered if we finally have circled around and settled on the kind of Christmas the three of us truly enjoy—with home and family and the permission to slip down into a chocolate-fueled reading binge part of a bona fide tradition from another culture. And with the creaky, crabby old dog safe in her own home, gnawing placidly on her rawhide candy cane, and not anxiously pacing a roomy kennel cage while her people are away.
Which is not to say that we don’t value the gathering with family and friends—gatherings we will try to do at different times and in other venues, preceding the holiday, stretching the holiday, maybe meeting at a restaurant with a broad hearth and blazing fire, and where no tired mama has to put together a meal and then, exhausted, clean up after it, too.
It seems to me that tradition guides the belief and the value: and we believe that the holidays give us a chance to connect with those we cherish. We would not honor the tradition if we didn’t make the connections, but we don’t have to do it the same way each and every year.
Instead we need to search inside and discern: what are our values? What do we want?
And we need to deal too, with the reality each of us brings to the table—that the autistic personality, for instance, does not do well with intense anticipation, or uncertain travel plans (“Where did you say we are staying???”) or the bustle of gatherings that flow and build with jokes and undercurrents and the puzzle and the mystery of family dynamics. Or that the dog is 14 years old, at least—her birth year uncertain—and that we might well be leaving the white-muzzled beast in a cold, lonely kennel for her very last holiday. Dogs do not care about Christmas, we remind ourselves, but there are dissenting voices arguing in both our heads.
And we love to read, to indulge ourselves with really good chocolate, and to enjoy the comfort and the glow of a warm, clean, cozy home. This Christmas plan, this year, and this place—well, it all seems very right.
But it’s not a tradition—it’s a practice: it showcases how much we value reading, and how much we value home and hearth. (And—all right—how much we value chocolate.) Next year, we may do something completely different—the Yule Book Flood just a practice that fit this year’s needs and circumstances like a warm and cozy hand-knit mitten.
(Whatever next year brings, though, I’m pretty sure there will be books and chocolate involved.)
So maybe—maybe—tradition is about the transmission, from generation to generation, of deeply held values, important beliefs? And maybe each of us has to measure that against our awareness of who we are and how we operate within our unique worlds.
So, say, giving is a tradition—a value passed down—caring for others who are in need. Maybe, for many years in our family of birth, people got together and assembled shoe boxes full of goodies to send overseas to children who, compared to our kids, had ridiculously little. And maybe, for whatever reason, we’ve decided that’s not the most effective way to give.
We could change the practice. We could knit warm hats for preemies, or order books for children who have none. We could ring a bell outside a supermarket or serve up a hot, sustaining meal at a soup kitchen. We could write a check to support a cause that touches our hearts. We could visit a lonely elder in assisted living whose family and friends are long, long gone.
There are many ways of giving, and some will bring us joy while others lard our bellies with dread. But if everyone found their own special way, wouldn’t the season be bright?
It’s not the practice that’s tradition—it’s the belief that undergirds it. And Christmas, I’ve been taught, is a time to give. I need to take that concept, and I need to make it mine.
My feet, I realize: I can’t feel my feet. They are poking out of the silky duvet. Encased in silly canvas ballet slippers, they are numbed by the frigid air.
“What time IS it?” I ask the boyos, and at that moment, away in the distance, the light show stops and the no-longer-illuminated spire of the courthouse disappears into black night. We sigh and shift and scrunch up the puffy blankets. We lift up the spare room window, the window we’ve left open just a crack—so the house stays warm, and so we can climb back into it. We shove the blankets through and crawl in after them. Mark draws the window down and latches it securely.
The dog is dancing nervously at the foot of the stairs, her “Where were you?” and “I have to pee!” combination dance. We hurry down to tend to her concerns.
And Jim takes the old fiddle and tucks it away into the worn black leather case. He shoves it back onto the top shelf of the hall closet, and we bustle about to ready the house for the end of the day—coffee set up, dishes away, the table cleared and ready for morning.
There is much to do tomorrow—cleaning and shopping and packages to mail, a birthday surprise for a December sweetheart, trips to libraries, deadlines to meet, and the prep for a long-overdue repainting of the dining room. Tomorrow brings plastering and road trips, the roaring hum of the vacuum, meal-making decisions, and intense computer time.
But all of that is lit by the little spark of joy—a holiday approaches, a special time of celebration. We will meet it with tradition, with the beliefs we have examined to agree: these are things we value.
And we’ll shape our practice to those beliefs, and we’ll gather in the people we love so well.
Someone may coax sweet notes from a fiddle; someone may even make it sing, and toes may tap and arms reach out and the dancing may commence. Feet may pound and music thrum, but the floor, on its strong foundation, will hold firm. Not shaky. Not shaky at all.
We move into the holiday season, illuminated by our authentic knowledge; we move ahead, to celebrate tradition.
Here, by the way, is one post about Iceland’s bookish holiday tradition: http://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/jolabokaflod-meet-favorite-new-holiday-tradition/