Xmas Traditions

As an american, especially one descended from european catholics, there is no annual event as steeped in tradition and ritual as Christmas. It seems at times that failing to maintain our traditions would be an affront to our ancestry, and a crime to our descendents.

Tradition is a funny thing. It’s a social fiction. It’s something that we as humans decide we’re going to do. On the one hand, traditions can give comfort and stability in the midst of a shifting world. On the other hand, “because we’ve always done it this way” is hardly an optimal heuristic for social behavior (or even good evidence for having in fact always done it that way).

Back when our software was being written, when our world changed less quickly, and tribal unity was a life or death issue, it probably made a lot of sense to value stability over most other aspects of life. However, in the modern world, the absurdity of this pattern seems so painfully clear sometimes.

Christmas just a few generations ago would have been unrecognizable to us today. The “Santa Claus” character as we know him today, with the reindeer and flying and chimneys and north pole, was invented less than 200 years ago, and only became an overweight bearded red-clad man in the 1920s. Our “classic” christmas songs were almost all written in the 1940s and 1950s.

A lot of our “time-honored” christmas traditions were invented while my parents were kids.

The christmas traditions that I remember were waking up early, opening presents, and then spending the day in pyjamas playing with new toys. No travelling, no extended family, no huge dinner. We didn’t have any xmas eve celebration (probably because my parents did a lot of their shopping and preparation the night before.) The “christmas dinner” was usually delivery chinese. Normal Rockwell would’ve been scandalized.

The extravagance of our christmas presents varied quite a lot. My dad ran his own business, and along with that came a lot of ups and downs. When we didn’t have a lot of money, my parents put a lot of creativity into it.

One year, our gifts consisted mainly of coupons to be redeemed for outings or favors at some later date. We were young enough to be excited about that. Those coupons were made at home, printed to look official and then decorated with magic marker (our printer at the time was a black and white dot-matrix.)

The most awesome part of our xmas tradition came out of a creative solution to a last-minute problem. It was a good year, and my parents had bought me and my sister new bicycles. But, they didn’t see any way to bring them into the living room and wrap them in such a way that we wouldn’t know right away what they were.

They had the innovative idea to put the bikes outside in the shed, but rather than just tell us to go out and get them, my mom designed a treasure hunt that my sister and I would have to work together to solve. The first clue was on a card buried in the middle of the tree. That led to another clue, which led to another, and so on. Each one was a little puzzle that had to be solved, and it was all allegedly from “Santa”. So, when we asked my mom for help, she just threw up her hands, and said, “Hey, I didn’t help him make this thing. Call up the north pole if you can’t figure it out.” (We were old enough at the time to know she was putting us on, but she can be very stubborn. Her sense of humor is so dry, you never really know if she’s joking, or has had some break with reality and believes what she’s saying.)

Every year, whatever big present we got, it was at the end of a similar treasure hunt. It kept us out of our parents hair, that’s for sure. A chemistry set in the trunk of the car. A Nintendo and a few games (that year, my parents were eager for us to finish so that they could “help” play with it.) A “treasure box” filled with about $25 in quarters and dollar bills and some plastic pirate toys (not one of the fat years, but still fun.) One year in highschool we had to drive across town to pick up one of the clues. Once one of them was hidden in a file on a computer. (And, just to throw us off, another clue that year was in a piece of paper literally inside a different computer, so we had the thing mostly taken apart to individual pieces before reading the clue more carefully.)

Looking back, I attribute a lot of my relationship with my sister to the fact that my mother put so much time and thought into getting us to work together and experience joy and frustration together.

It wasn’t until recently that I learned that all this was a huge departure from the traditions in the Schlueter family, which previously had involved trekking back to my dad’s home town (in South Dakota of all bloody places!) Christmas eve gift exchange, followed by midnight mass, sleep, followed by another church service Christmas morning, and then a huge elaborate dinner. More Jesus than Santa.

We did that one year. I remember it sucking, and wishing that we could just do a “normal” christmas instead of all this work and church stuff, and driving across the country. The food was ok, but I didn’t see why I had to put on dress pants and uncomfortable shoes to eat with my cousins.

When I heard about other kids doing other things, visiting family and such, I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of weird, I’m glad I don’t have to do that.” I didn’t feel uncomfortably different for our “easy” traditions; they were great. Low-stress, low-expectation, high-fun.

I remember sensing at the time that my mom didn’t have as much fun with it as I did, and figured it was because she had to do a bunch of work. I didn’t realize at the time, it wasn’t just the work, it was the sense of obligation she felt that made the work seem so awful sometimes. She’d grown up disliking christmas, and felt a tremendous pressure to make it magical for her kids. She succeeded–impressively–but probably went well beyond the realm of diminishing returns. She could have done a bit less, been just as successful in making a great experience for her kids, and enjoyed the process more.

I’m not a father today, but I am an adult. And I find myself with a family that’s quite a lot bigger and more spread out than just the 4 of us. It’s easier to appreciate what my parents were giving up by staying home, and how hard that decision probably was. I feel that pressure, to do this and that, to be here and go there, and get this for these, and that for those, to drive around from town to town visiting everyone and being at every party.

It’s fun, sometimes. There are people that I love, and don’t see often enough, and this is a great excuse to make that happen. There’s also a lot of stress and headaches involved, and that can make everyone grumpy and annoyed. We feel an obligation to this thing called “Tradition” that feels so real and solid, and sometimes end up spending our time doing things no one likes for reasons no one understands, often for the alleged benefit of “passing on” traditions to children who will accept it for whatever it is, no matter what we end up doing.

The moral of the story is this: you don’t owe the past shit. If you want your kids to enjoy christmas, and have happy memories, then do what makes you happy, and focus on having fun with them today, in the here and now. The universe will forgive you if you give people presents in January or November, or if your bonding event is movies and chinese takeout in pj’s rather than church and ham in slacks.

Tradition is a story you can rewrite at any time, so write one you can enjoy.