Away From The Manger: The Importance of Traditions

One thing I enjoy most about Christmas is my mother’s myriad traditions. Growing up, Mom had a lot of traditions herself, and she realized that with four children of her own, having stability, things to look forward to, and consistency was key to harnessing the true power of family.

Throughout the year my family has many traditions, but major holidays include decorating the house. For Christmas there are loads and loads of decorations. My mom even removes pictures from walls and pillows from couches to replace them with thematic versions of the same. The house becomes something like Santa’s workshop. We set the tree up early in my parents’ living room so that we can enjoy it for the entire month, and we leave it up through January.

While many of the decorations and traditions are focused on family and the colorful, Santa, gift-giving, warming aspects of Christmas, a few are more religious, and even though I am not religious at all, one of my favorite things- and one of Mom’s newer ideas, is the manger scene.

At one point, maybe closing on 10 years ago, my mom got a manger about the size of a toaster. Ceramic figurines include Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Three Wise Men (Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper), a donkey, and other animals.

Early in the season Mom sets up the manger, minus the wisemen and the young family-to-be. Where are Mary, Joseph, and the donkey? They are somewhere else in the house, making their journey to Bethlehem. You might find them at the base of the stairs. A week later, they have traveled many miles to the end table near the living room couch. The three figurines make their way around the house until Christmas Eve, when they arrive at the manger, and then Mom adds the swaddled Jesus baby for Christmas Day.

Afterwards, Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper begin their pilgrimage, and these figurines also travel about the dining room, living spaces, and eventually the kitchen, arriving on Epiphany (January 6th). My family also celebrates Kings Day. We eat a big meal, have friends over, and open some present that were reserved from Christmas Day; we really enjoy keeping the festivities going as long as possible. While some parts have pomp, this little detail of the traveling figurines is one of my favorites.

I’m not that into Christ, other than the spiritual part of me that holds him alongside other prophets of history such as Buddha and Marley: hippie people who relinquish worldly possessions in quest for higher consciousness. To ignore some of the beautiful lessons Jesus teaches throughout the Bible is missing out on the principles of being a good human being. These same principles are also found in every other major religion and include: Humble yourself before the Higher beings, be one with nature, be kind to your brethren, cultivate peace, and give more than you take. I worry about the hundreds of years of misinterpretations of The Bible, but I love that Christmas is a time to reflect on these core values- and hey, if Jesus represents them, so be it.

The best thing, however, is Mom’s traditions. Religion is fading from the contemporary family. People get wrapped up in the business of modern life. Work, electronics, and going out to make the most of free time have escalated our stress levels. Family has become this strange burden because frankly, having a family is very expensive and a lot of work. For eons, religion dictated traditions and now that religion is evolving, so must our traditions.

From a psychological perspective, children love authority and schedules. They may fight regulations and argue responsibility- that’s their job, to test the limits, but without them they develop a loose sense of Self because they exist in a world where the rules don’t apply. You may often hear, “Kids these days have no respect!” They do have respect, but they may respect different things, different qualities in people, than in the past. In order to help foster Self in children- as well as to ensure purpose within ourselves, we need to hold onto traditions.

Alfred Adler, the famous psychologist, postulated that people operate because they want a purpose in life, and that without sense of purpose they develop issues and problems- the sorts that lead people to seek therapy. If you’ve ever been unemployed, lonely, or otherwise down on your luck, you know what I’m talking about. People just want to be needed and have a purpose.

Mom is very good at holding onto purpose and helping her children, to this day, celebrate tradition. Tradition doesn’t have to be religious, fixed, or forever. Tradition doesn’t have to take all day or make people sacrifice too much energy. Tradition is about Giving, about how we contribute to something. A potluck dinner, a special walk in the park, etc. These are great ways of helping people look forward to something and to give them responsibility. Kids who spend the Christmas season opening the Advent calendar, setting up the train around the Christmas tree, baking grandma’s cookies, etc. will undoubtedly emerge as adults with a strong sense of morality. No actual religion required.

Families can earn so much by holding onto traditions- but they need to be fun and not stressful. If you’re finding that it’s just too much this year to do such-and-such, take a break from it or adjust it. Tradition should be anything but stressful. It ought to, however, have meaning of some kind. This meaning will filter through all involved and create community.

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