Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why I Am a Traditionalist (V)

I said in a previous instalment of this series that I was going to devote a whole post to Christmas. This is it.

When it comes to Christmas and tradition, I have powerfully conflicting feelings.

On the one hand, I love Christmas as much as anybody else loves it-- indeed, I love it more. I don't think anybody is more of a Christmas freak than I am. Christmas stands for everything I love the most-- tradition, cosiness, innocence, celebration, sentimentality, nostalgia, merriment, reverence, domesticity, and a thousand other lovely things. Christmas is my favourite time of year without a doubt. (It helps that winter is my favourite season.)

I think Chesterton, as usual, put it best: "There is nothing really wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas."

And yet-- I don't like how Christmas seems to account for ninety per cent of the traditions in our lives. Christmas is like a great black hole of tradition. It sucks all tradition to itself.

William Cobbett, the great Tory radical-- and the subject of a biography of Chesterton-- famously denounced London as "the Great Wen" (a wen is a dialect term for a boil or cyst). I feel the same way about London, which overwhelmed me every time I visited it. I also feel the same way about Christmas. Christmas is like the Great Wen of the calendar. It doesn't overwhelm me-- I can't really get enough Christmas-- but it bothers me that it hogs every tradition to itself.

Christmas has all the traditions. Office parties are at Christmas. Special episodes of TV shows are at Christmas. Family get-togethers are at Christmas. Fairs and sales of work and performances of the Messiah and big movie releases and DVD releases and album releases are at Christmas. The Queen's speech is at Christmas. Midnight Mass is at Christmas. Even ghost stories, which you'd think would rightfully belong to Halloween, are very often stolen by Christmas. (M.R. James, the master of the English ghost story, originally read them to his friends at Christmas, and A Ghost Story for Christmas was a series of TV films made out of stories by M.R. James and others-- they have been revived recently. Apparently, Christmas spooky stories are an English tradition themselves-- which doesn't make me any more favourable to them.)

In fact, writing this series-- and writing about tradition in general, which I have often done-- it's very difficult to keep from veering into talking about Christmas all the time. I deliberately have to avoid it. It bothers me that tradition is Christmas, to a great extent. We think of tradition and we think of Christmas.

I don't really want to take anything anything away from Christmas. (Except the ghost stories.) I just want more traditions for the rest of the year.

I attended a pre-marriage course with Michelle called Engaged Encounter. It was really good, but one thing that bothered me was that the question "What will you do for Christmas?" was almost the only tradition considered. Nobody seems to worry about Easter, or St. Patrick's Day, or Thanksgiving.

And speaking of Thanksgiving....the Thanksgiving Day I spent with Michelle in America, and which I have often mentioned on this blog, has become one of my dearest memories-- and becomes dearer all the time. To an Irishman, it was a revelation to watch Macy's parade on TV, followed by the national dog show. (I still think it's hilarious and wonderful that the entire nation watches a dog show on a major holiday.) But one thing that bothered me was the amount of Christmas floats in Macy's parade. I thought...couldn't Thanksgiving be Thanksgiving, and Christmas be Christmas?

The same thing in Ireland happens with Halloween. The standard lament used to be that the Christmas decorations went up in the shops as soon as Halloween was over. Now they go up before Halloween has started.

As well as sucking the life from other traditions, all of this sucks the life from Christmas itself. As has often been observed, everybody is sick and tired of Christmas by St. Stephens's Day-- instead of revelling till Epiphany, as they should.

And yet...I love Christmas with my whole heart. I don't want it to be ninety per cent of tradition. But I don't mind it being the tradition par excellence, which it is.

It is so immersive. It engages the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth and the fingers. It's everywhere. That is the very best thing about Christmas-- it's everywhere. It's in the background. You don't have to artifically put yourself in the mood, because the whole world is conspiring to put you in the mood. Everything is saturated with it. When you remember a conversation or an incident which happened to take place one Christmas, the pine-scented air of Christmas always comes along with it. When film-makers or novelists or songwriters want a picturesque background, they always go for Christmas.

I want the rest of the year-- indeed, the rest of life-- to be more like Christmas in that way. I don't mean more Christmassy-- not at all.  I mean more itself, whatever that might be, to the glorious extent that Christmas is itself.


  1. It seems to me that a lot of the blurring and coalescing of traditions around Christmas can be attributed to the loss of connection to the liturgical calendar... or, heck, even a pagan understanding of feasts and fasts that's more connected to agriculture.

    I think modern man cannot sublimate his need for traditions... but the urge today manifests in this phenomenon you point out - it all blends together and spills out in unnatural ways. And it's not just a micro- or personal phenomenon for man. It's also commercially driven, and atomized man has no context or way to interpret these commercial suggestions... so he laps it up.

    For children - lucky ones, anyway - one of the greatest counter-balances to the Christmas overload of tradition is CAMP. I've seen it in lots of different camp settings - rustic, cabin/overnight, canoeing and fishing-type camps, religious camps, sports camps... the best ones have traditions built in. Sure, there's an element of arbitrariness to summer camp traditions, but there's something magical about it for kids that sticks with them their entire lives.

  2. I do think the loss of the liturgical calendar is a lot to do with it. In Britain I think it's been happening since the Reformation. In America, probably from the very beginning, with the Puritan origin of America (and I say that as someone who thinks the Puritans get a bit of a raw deal in terms of evaluation). In Ireland it's much more recent, since secularisation.

    I've never been to camp myself. We only have the scouts here, recently. Or maybe we have more and I'm not aware of it. I can see how that would be a good summer counterbalance, though.