Our son didn’t approve of the Christmas tree. It wasn’t the kind we’d always had.
It was our family tradition to get fat Christmas trees with full branches. The kind of Evergreen with long needles that fell and buried themselves into the carpet for you to find months later.
For our son, to do something two years in a row meant it was a tradition. We’d gone to the same tree lot, picking out our fresh cut tree together. Year after year.
But this year, we went rogue and our 18-year-old son wasn’t pleased.
Traditions are important. They make us feel safe. They can help us carry on beliefs and practices of people who have impacted our lives. Family traditions help us remember those who’ve gone before.
So important is a family tradition that we have two kinds of dressing at our Thanksgiving table. We open our presents Christmas day and we attend a New Year’s eve ‘watchnight’ service.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that our church started observing Advent. A wreath with four candles was placed in front of the church. The candles were the traditional colors of three purple and one pink. A theme was assigned to each of the four Advent Sundays.
I liked the emphasis it seemed to give to this holy season. It added to the traditional carols sung. When we became pastors I followed this traditional expression of celebration.
Every year the purple and pink candles were placed among greenery on a small table. Congregation members were assigned readings to accompany the lighting of the candles as we prepared for the coming of Emmanuel.
A few years ago I changed a few things. We went with white candles because the men we were now serving in a residential rehabilitation facility got anxious about lighting the “right” candle. I tossed out the prescribed order of themes. I place a proper long-handled lighter on the table but I’ve quit sighing in exasperation when a man flicks his Bic.
Twentieth-century scholar, Jaroslav Pelikan, describes the difference between tradition and traditionalism:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Traditionalism, he says, goes through the motions.
We want every practice we include in our worship gatherings to be that of living faith. We want to carry the traditions of Jesus as we practice inclusiveness and celebrate communion. We don’t want to be bound simply by the colors, or words or obligations. We don’t want to just go through the motions.
We reached a comprise with our son the year we broke tradition. We got two trees. The one that wasn’t traditional for our family was adorned with ornaments he’d seen all of his childhood. The tree wasn’t the same variety of evergreen, but it was filled with family memories.