This time of year is usually filled with traditions: both family traditions and liturgical traditions, which shape our experience of Christmas. Traditions serve a great purpose in our lives. We are creatures of habit, and circling back to favorite traditions year after year helps us focus on those things that are most important, and it also infuses them with a sense of warm familiarity. Though we are usually not conscious of how they shape us, our traditions help habituate us in structuring our lives toward what is good: sharing time with family, living out a healthy rhythm of work and rest, and being reminded of the glory of God.
Within the Church, we find both tradition and Tradition, both the local rituals that help remind us of the truths of our faith as well as the Sacraments themselves—passed down from the Church fathers—which connect us to God in a real, tangible way. Living out the liturgical year gives us an opportunity to feel a connection with the saints in Heaven, by orienting our lives in a way that constantly reminds us of what we are striving toward. It’s all too easy to become distracted as we move through our lives, but the structure of the Church gives us the gentle reminders we need to stay on course, to celebrate lives well lived and delight in the God who created us.
I attended a school steeped in tradition. Founded in the Catholic faith, we carried the idea of tradition further into nearly every aspect of our lives—football Saturdays, dorm activities, dining hall meals, snowball fights. We took traditions pretty seriously. One of my professors was fond of telling us, “Remember, there’s a difference between traditions and dumb things we do every year. Just because you did it last year, it doesn’t need to become a tradition.” There’s a good amount of wisdom there. Traditions can be powerful, and they should reflect the priorities we want our lives to be centered around. There isn’t much sense in keeping up a tradition for tradition’s sake alone—it ought to reflect a deeper purpose. This doesn’t mean that every tradition must be serious—in fact, some of my favorite family traditions are the silly ones that always make me laugh, but that, in and of itself, is a great purpose. Laughing with my family and being reminded not to take myself too seriously makes for a great tradition. No, the traditions that we should consider doing away with are the ones that use our time and energy for things that just don’t matter, or the ones we do out of a sense of obligation and nothing more, which bring us stress and worry without contributing to our growth. We can discern which traditions are good for us, which add to our lives and which detract, and move on from the ones that hold us back.
The desire to turn something into a tradition ultimately stems from the sentiment, “Let’s do that again!” When we are savoring the moments of our lives and experience something truly wonderful, we want to repeat it in the future. We want to re-experience those things that have shaped us for the better. When we do this with intention, it forms a beautiful rhythm within our lives.
Traditions are comforting and familiar to us. This is a good thing, but we should make sure that it’s not the only reason we’re clinging to them. Sometimes we experience shifts that require us to change or give up certain customs. If the future requires a break from tradition, we needn’t be afraid to navigate the breach. What matters is not so much the ritual itself but what it points toward, not the specific activity but rather its fruit in our lives. As we grow older, new traditions will likely replace old ones, and we can welcome these changes by keeping our eyes on what matters most, on the God who understands our need for the comfort, familiarity, and structure that traditions bring. He has responded to that need with a wealth of tradition, formed over millennia, held within the treasures of the Church.