Despite all this variation from year to year, my family and I have still managed to slowly craft some meaningful traditions that mix constancy with evolution and adaptation.
Some of these traditions for me:
- Walking my town in Colombia, where we dutifully report almost every year for Christmas. My town is packed with people at Christmas, doing last-minute shopping, going to novenas at their families' houses, and above all watching a major parade and wild nightly concerts in the main plaza. Many of these days I'm alone with my boys, going to the library or the playground, as my wife runs errands and visits family out of town. Increasingly, my boys are altogether alone, playing with neighborhood kids in the park in front of our house, while I putter around inside the house with my myriad projects. This freedom for the boys is so special to us; in a lot of places in the world, including the modern US, it's no longer so common for kids to just be outside and entertain themselves.
- Christmas cassettes. I have a few cassette tapes of Christmas music that I used to listen to with my parents and cousins in Chicago as we decorated the treat or ate Christmas dinner. These include a rendering of "What if Mozart wrote 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas'", and a wonderful tape of traditional English carols by the Alfred Deller Consort, which tape came to be known in our household as the Castrati Christmas. Part of the modern tradition is that I always intend to take these to Colombia for our Christmas trip, since we have a cassette player there but not at our permanent residence, and I always forget to pack them!
- For a few Christmases after we'd stopped living permanently in Colombia, it seemed like part of the yearly Christmas routine was frantic running around on my part, trying to take care of things like updating my ID card, or fixing up our house as it had fallen into disrepair every year. But as we've become more economically secure, more logistically organized, and set up working systems to take care of these other maintenance needs, it seems like I'm not so harried anymore during our trips.
- A lot of what we do for Christmas consists in just hanging around the house, getting groceries, cooking, and being with family. We get a full house, with cousins, in-laws, older kids and their partners, all staying with us on different schedules, coming and going. I like the warmth of being around so much family, though we also relish the few moments in between visits when we have the house just for our nuclear family. One of my fond memories is an evening of just my wife and my two kids and me, watching a movie and going to Mass. Just before we left one of my prodigal older kids came to visit, and so while we were at Mass he was in the house shucking and grinding corn from my brother-in-law's farm. By the time we got back, he was gone, but everything was ready for us to make home-made arepa corn pancakes!
- Our typical Christmas meal is Midwestern-style roast beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, tomatoes with pesto, and sometimes spinach-stuffed mushrooms. But contrary to the tradition growing up in Chicago, my Colombia family celebrates on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.
- We go to Mass either on the night of the 24th, as we're waiting for the food to cook, or on the 25th itself. We used to do Christmas Mass in cold, half-filled Bogota parishes, but more recently it's been in the 16th-century hermitage of our neighborhood. This latter church is literally on the same plaza as our house, so we drift in a bit early or a bit late, often standing just outside the packed church to hear Mass. There are even pit stops when one of the boys has to go pee; we take them back to the house and then back to the grand porch of the church, without missing a beat.
- I usually spend a few days after Christmas at my father-in-law's farm, working to clear and plant trees in an abandoned lot that we've taken over, with the eventual intent to set up a small shade-grown coffee plantation. It's a chance for me to sweat and do the hard physical farm work I so enjoy, even if for only a few days every year. Here are some photos of the pseudo-terraces I've installed.
- Another tradition was that, for a few years, I would come back home to wherever we were living, and my wife and kids would stay in Colombia for a few weeks or even months thereafter. This was obviously a pretty lonely time for me, but it was also special, because it was a time of reflection and reading and writing and thought. I got to listen to Garrison Keillor, clean up our house so it was in nice shape for my family when they got back, and even take up new projects like getting my bike in shape to ride to work in Washington. As useful as those alone times were for me, I am thankful that in recent years my wife's work has obliged her and the kids to come back from Colombia at the same time as I do.
I even got to talk to my college-age cousins in Chicago this year, as my mother hosted my Wisconsin family for the first Christmas in a long time. Between all my wife's family gathered in Bogota, and my family gathered in Chicago (many of whom are recently-coined adults), I felt above all a sense of generations pervading each other, pervading everything. We spent this Christmas in a rented apartment, but despite this apparent rootlessness, I felt more than in other years connected to a whole web of history and customs and relations. Yes, I'm still worried about climate collapse and apocalypse and all sorts of other bad things going on in the world right now, but for a brief shining moment I could just bask in the holiday warmth, enjoy the old stories, watch my kids play with their cousins.
Perhaps one of our most enduring traditions has been to read A Christmas Carol as a family. When my first son was newborn, and the rhythm of our life was a fair amount slower and calmer than it is today, we spent hours all arrayed on our bed one night, my wife, my baby, my mother, and I, and I read the entirety of the Dickens book in one or two sittings. Since then I have read it almost every year around Christmas time to my two boys. One year we listened to a classic radio play of A Christmas Carol. Many years I'll read ETA Hoffman's Nutcracker to my kids over the course of December, and we've also at some point read Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, and Dylan Thomas's Child's Christmas in Wales.
A Christmas Carol has a maudlin tone that I like. I grew up with it, and in a way almost everyone in the US did, since so much of the popular sentiment and customs surrounding Christmas have been molded by Dickens's story. The image of a snowy London Christmas, of fog and bitter chill offset by cheer and good will, the moral idea of Christmas (beyond its purely Christ-centered roots) as a time of giving and solidarity and love and family, just the general feel of Christmas today was shaped in large part by Dickens's depiction. This may not seem so evident or odd in the US context, where we already practice a lot of British cultural traditions, but it really strikes home when you see countries with no snow and even without much native Christianity, but that still get decked out a la Dickensian London (by way of a century and a half of US additions like Frosty and Rudolph) every December.
Every year I get bent out of shape as social obligations pile up in December, and work deadlines are created at year's end precisely when less and less work can get done. It seems as if all the modern hubbub around Christmas is almost perfectly designed to turn you into a Scrooge. By the time we've been on vacation long enough for me to relax, and we've finished our year's reading of A Christmas Carol, I'm inspired like Scrooge was to be a warmer, kinder person, and to keep Christmas throughout the year. I go through his same epiphany, getting out of the Christmas spirit during December, and then being inspired by the visits of the ghosts to get back into it. Though this epiphany invariably comes well after Christmas is over! I always resolve that next year I'll avoid getting in a bad mood to begin with, but it rarely works out that way. I feel like those heretical sects in the Middle Ages that had riotous orgies and committed all manner of sins, in order to repent and more fully embrace the saving grace of God!
I also like A Christmas Carol's vision of social justice, with Hunger and Want so deftly rendered as the wretched children of a heartless modern civilization. Dickens's account is not revolutionary, but rather a modest call for modernity and capitalist growth to be tempered by charity and a concern for the common well being. In this sense I feel that Dickens's vision actually hews quite closely to how the modern welfare state has evolved, for better or for worse.
I am always amazed at how prescient and relevant are Dickens's descriptions and interpretations of life in 1840s London. Many of the things he describes--wonder at heretofore-unknown wealth and modernity, industrial wretchedness on a heretofore-unseen scale, the glory and the pathos of life in a capital city of a fast-industrializing country--are still relevant today. I have been in a few Third World capitals, and many of the dynamics of Dickens's London are at play right now in places like Port au Prince or Kinshasa or Tegucigalpa. One day my sons and I had passed through Bogota's Skid Row, where there are a lot of people living on the streets and abusing drugs. That night, as we read about Bob Cratchitt's family and their poverty, my kid asked me if they were drug addicts too, or just poor for some other reason!
I very much like Dickens's view of Christianity (explored further in a book he wrote for his kids called The Life of our Lord) as being largely about acknowledging that each of us is responsible for taking care of everyone else. In many ways this seems like a pretty anodyne conception of Christianity, indeed a pretty anodyne assertion in general: be nice to others, take care of others. But I've written in the past about how much hostility I've encountered when I try to assert to strangers that we're all in the same boat together, so maybe Dickens's vision isn't that simple or self-evident after all. In any case, A Christmas Carol reminds me every year or so of certain of my most deeply-held beliefs.
I've long thought of God more as a faceless force than a personal, Western-style god, but at the same time I mentally talk with and pray to the personalized, human God of Catholicism. I feel that Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, in its stress on love and social justice, makes God relevant in a way that speaks to me, a way no other religion does that I have encountered. I almost feel more devout to the collective of humanity, more loyal to this Dickensian concept of God and religion, than I do to the details of the faith, which are for the most part not factually verifiable (and frankly, which often don't have a huge relevance on day-to-day life). But I cling to the faith, and want my children to, because I value the idea of God as love, and God present in every person, and I especially believe in humankind's role to bring about a more godly world by fighting sin as injustice and oppression. These are Catholic ideas, and while I can respect a more Eastern conception of God as all-encompassing, and thus somewhat indifferent to human affairs, I cannot accept "mere" earthly injustices and suffering as simply a neutral part of an indifferent whole.
Perhaps my favorite recent Christmas memory is from our last day in Bogota a few years ago. I took my boys to the Gold Museum. We saw all my favorite exhibits, with me doing my guide thing, and then we were treated to a special interactive kids' movie about shamans. From there we watched skateboarders in a downtown Bogota park. We cheered for them; in these young men and women I saw my own kids, instead of the listless thugs that I used to label them as. After this we bet money on a guinea pig race in the street (this is a very Colombian thing, where a guy releases a guinea pig in front of a number of little houses, and whoever has bet on the house it finally runs into get a 5:1 payout). We gave some bread we had left over to a pair of homeless guys, which prompted a long series of questions and proposals from my older son about poverty and homelessness. We picked Andean cherries from a tree on the street, and got home on the wonderful Transmilenio bus system of Bogota.
Just before reaching my stepdaughter's house, we ran across more homeless people on the street. My sons and I discussed how society might take care of the poorest among us, which prompted my son to reflect that helping a homeless person is like helping Christ who dwells in every person.