Traditions are held up as the gold standard of society. People described as traditional often evoke images of stoic, genuine, pure people. Immune to corruption. Immune to the progression of society. Or at least, the unsavory parts of it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything wrong with any of this. I come from a long line of traditionalists. Family on all branches of my tree have shaped and molded me through traditions that I’d never trade for anything else in the world.
But there’s something seductive and freeing about the thought of having no roots, isn’t there? Something that says, “You can do whatever you want and no one will care.” It plucks free the guilt like a popcorn kernel stuck in your teeth. If you want to go on a cruise for Christmas, you can do that. If you want to bake cookies and go caroling through your neighborhood, you can do that. No one expects any certain behavior from you if you have no roots.
So I’d be lying if I said I never thought about what it would be like to not have such tethered roots, especially during the holidays. The bustle and busyness of it all, the way we’re expected to do too much with too little, the unrealistic bar to which we’re all held by others or maybe only by ourselves, can get exhausting year after year. Sometimes we need a break. Sometimes we need to say, “Yes, Tradition. We see you. But we’re going to sit this one out so we don’t hurt ourselves irreparably for what’s to come later.”
For some of us, the exhaustion builds over time. We know it’s coming. We know that it’s been years since the last breakdown and we’re due for another. We know that the memories of those who are no longer with us are too heavy this year and are bound to break our thread-bare sanity when they’re dropped, one-by-one, throughout the holiday season.
Other times the exhaustion comes out of nowhere, blindsiding us with its strength, the way it so effortlessly and viciously knocks us off-balance. We have to stop. Catch our breaths. Remember that traditions are important, but they’re not everything. Sometimes, we have to be okay with the knowledge that others are carrying the traditions on in our stead, holding the torch until we can catch up again.
And that’s okay.
Last year, for me, was a no-roots type of holiday season. Everything was wrong. I wished we could go for a cruise and never come back. I wished no one expected anything of me at all. Even this past Thanksgiving, I still felt it. That hole where tradition should be. A hole that wouldn’t be there at all if no one had started the traditions in the first place.
Then yesterday was another Christmas. And some parts of the day were missing major players. Some sections of my day would’ve been made infinitely better by a brother or cousin or nephew. Some parts of my day could’ve been cheerier or lighter. I could’ve been cheerier or lighter. I could’ve gotten more done, baked more cookies, addressed Christmas cards, made more homemade gifts, been more thoughtful and present.
But I didn’t.
Not gonna lie, I wasn’t feeling much like hitting our last stop of the Christmas Day. I was tired. I was missing people. I felt like I hadn’t done enough, hadn’t settled into tradition enough this year. I had decided that maybe this was just going to be my new normal, and that decision covered me in a sadness I thought unshakeable.
And then I got to “the hall.”
The hall for those who aren’t aware, is a VFW Hall where my mom’s side of the family meets for Christmas. It’s tradition, since I was little. I have fond memories of running around the VFW with my cousins, singing Christmas songs and opening presents. Watching my uncle balance chairs and canes and books and anything we could find on his chin. Being able to skate or bike inside. The hall was a Christmas haven for us kids. We could do anything, it seemd.
Eighty of us were there this year. I know, because my aunt makes us count off before we can eat. Tradition. There were so many of my cousins present, cousins I see only once a year. We sang the Hallelujah Chorus, something we’ve done in the past, but had neglected to do last year. At the end of the night we went through old treasures of our grandma’s, on a table marked “Grab-Bag.” Another tradition that had died out, but recently came roaring back. This year we had an entire jar of old buttons and pins on the table. My grandmother’s. We went through them all, my cousins and me–the cousins who used to skate and bike and build with me but who now have kids of their own to do these things in their stead–laughing and remarking about the significance of each of the buttons. Demanding someone take a pin that suited them even if we wanted it too. Running our fingers over the sayings that were our roots. These ideas and sayings that belonged to the head Root-Planter who helped start it all.
I read each one. And I thought, “You know what? Maybe having roots isn’t such a bad thing, after all.”