Thursday, December 29, 2005

Tradition!: It doesn't matter why we do it, as long as we do it

This year my boys are finally starting to be old enough to get excited about Christmas and to participate in getting ready for it. Little Nico even made a Christmas-tree-shaped calendar like the one at school to count down the days until Christmas. We've had fun so far.

Last year their participation was mostly limited to screaming their heads off when prevented from ingesting fragile glass ornaments. I know, I know, I probably could have saved myself some of the screaming at least if I'd trained them to be a little more obedient. But, you know, 20/20 hindsight...

Fortunately, even with a relatively botched upbringing, kids eventually reach a level of maturity where they can usually be trusted not to injure themselves with ordinary household objects. That's what we're shooting for. We're not quite at the point yet of having a proper Christmas tree or any festive, decorative choking hazards within reach of tiny hands, but we'll get there.

A lot of people ask me why I celebrate Christmas at all, considering that I'm an atheist. The answer is obvious: "Because it's a tradition!" That, and I'm a ridiculously sentimental nostalgia maniac.

The above question is particularly absurd coming from Christians. If you don't see a winter festival of lights as being interesting for its own sake and have to see it in terms of its religious origins, you might notice that Christmas is essentially a pagan holiday with a light coating of Christianity painted on. Now, I'm no more pagan than I am Christian, but if the Christians can take a perfectly good pagan festival and attach their own stories to it, then so can I.

The Christian establishment hasn't always been so gung-ho to embrace its best-loved holiday. Notably, the Puritan pilgrims outlawed the celebration of Christmas. They invented the holiday "Thanksgiving" as a replacement to put a stop to all the partying, fun-having, and other pagan customs traditionally associated with the yuletide season. So if you were wondering why Thanksgiving is such a lame holiday, that's why.

Of course the Catholic church has often taken an attitude of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" with respect to any indigenous customs it fails to suppress in its converts. And now it seems that even Protestants have followed suit and given in to the lure of Christmas, even going so far as to permit the use of mistletoe now that everyone has forgotten that it once had non-Christian religious significance.

That's fine with me. To me, a tradition is a connection with the past and with the future, and it doesn't necessarily need to have any more explanation than that.

One time back when I was a programmer in New Jersey, some of my colleagues -- recent arrivals from India -- were intrigued by the Halloween custom of carving a jack-o'-lantern. I may have answered wrong here, but when they asked me for the symbolism behind it, I told them that I didn't think it had any.

They didn't like that response, so they went to the Internet and found themselves a just-so story about a guy named Jack.

That satisfied them, but personally I couldn't help but feel like such an explanation isn't really necessary. Sure, today it seems pretty odd to carve a face into a pumpkin, of all things. But today any object humanly imaginable -- of any size, shape, color, shininess, sparklitude, and luminosity -- can be manufactured for pennies in China. So you'd have to be pretty crazy to just spontaneously decide to waste your time carving vegetables.

But think back to what it was like for people at the time when the jack-o'-lantern tradition arose. Just because they were peasants with no access to the magic of cheap Chinese manufactured goods didn't mean that they didn't want festive decorations for their holidays.

And think what they had to work with: dirt, vegetables, maybe some rusty tools if they were lucky, and candles. Under the circumstances, carving vegetables into lanterns seems like a perfectly obvious thing to do, hardly requiring any kind of excuse or explanation.

And now it's a tradition.

And so help me, I'm going to follow it.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor December 15, 2005.

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