Christmas is a time of many traditions, whether the seasonal tree, the crib [Nativity scene], or the festive dinner. In the Salvation Army there are even more traditions, including Christmas kettles, food hampers, carol singing and feeding lonely folks in the church hall on Christmas day. Other faiths have their traditions, which were often based on physical and spiritual health.
A tradition is a belief or behaviour passed down within a family, a group or a society, with symbolic meaning or significance that has its origin in the past. In every family there will be some tradition regarding how we celebrate the birth of Christ. In my own family, we participated in the annual traditions of sharing a Christmas cake, a birthday cake for Christ, which was cut and served when we returned from worshipping at the midnight church service. These customs signified Christmas for me. The next day could be called Yuletide because that was when we opened our gifts from Santa, along with any other presents we received. However, my father would not have turkey on Christmas day; which makes sense, because Christmas day only became a public holiday in 1958 in Scotland. Even then, he did not change his Christmas meal habits due to a long-standing, old-fashioned Presbyterian view that feasting on Christmas Day was considered indulgent. (Conversely, we had turkey twice a year at Easter and on New Year's Day, which he considered to be special days.) Fortunately, my father’s tradition regarding not eating turkey for Christmas has not been passed on to his children.
I like the differentiation of Christmas and Yuletide, because it keeps me sane during the festive period. Yule describes an historical Germanic pagan festival to celebrate the Winter solstice but by tradition it has become synonymous with Christmas. It is necessary for me to worship and adore the Christ who came into the world at Christmas, in my own uncluttered, spiritual space. Then I can be free to enjoy the joy and merriment of the Yuletide. Two of our meaningful Christmas traditions are reflected in our use of an Advent calendar, which contains small numbered ‘windows’ (one is opened each day throughout the period of preparation for Christmas) and sits on our dining table. On a side table, the Bible is opened to the book of Luke and is resting in front of the Nativity scene.
There were traditions during Biblical times as well. For example, a young woman becoming pregnant outside of wedlock was unthinkable. If it should occur, there were traditions and laws to deal with the situation. Then, as is still the case in some countries today, the girl would be killed in an 'honour killing' to preserve the family’s reputation. We consider Mary's predicament with hindsight, knowing that she was saved from that fate. She was betrothed to Joseph; the bride's price had been paid and was legally sealed. Mary and Joseph had both been visited by angels, but her family had not. I pause to consider what they must have thought of Mary being pregnant.
We learn that Mary took a four day trip to the home of her cousin Elizabeth. Maybe Mary feared for her life in spite of the angel's message and believed that she would be protected in Elizabeth’s home. It must have been reassuring for both women when Mary arrived at her cousin’s home. Upon greeting Mary, Elizabeth experienced the strong movement of her baby inside her, which caused her to recognise something special about the baby that Mary was carrying. In that moment the Holy Spirit united these two women, filling them with joy and causing then both to praise God.
Traditions often influence or even control the ways in which people live their lives. But, as in the case of Mary (and Elizabeth), God can break through our traditions. There is no tradition where the Holy Spirit is concerned. The Spirit blows where it will, it awakens us in unexpected ways, and it can make all things new. During this Advent time we can look at some of our traditions and beliefs to consider whether they are spiritually uplifting.
Mrs. Irene Ogilvie-Wilson
Former SA Missionary Officer (Pakistan)
Disciples of Jesus
Trained in Canada
Fr. Glascow, United Kingdom