Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Thoughts On Tradition At Christmas

I think I was about eight years old when I first saw the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Aside from being a classic production, it is my very first memory of a live theater experience. My dad, a big fan of the arts, had taken me on a special outing to Detroit's Fisher Theater, where I was awestruck before the show even began. Mesmerized by the the intricate tiled ceiling, the colorful murals, and the shimmering gold-plated walls, it was clear this was a place that held great things within its walls.

While no doubt the storyline resonated with my immigrant father, I was probably too young at the time to grasp the underlying issues: a father struggling to maintain his religious and cultural heritage as outside influences encroach upon the family's Orthodox life. But the show was still every bit as magical as I had anticipated. I held my breath with wonder as the dancers twirled by with their swirling peasant skirts. laughed as Tevye belted out "If I Were a Rich Man," teared up during "Sunrise, Sunset." I never wanted it to end.

But when it finally did and we walked out of that colorful, melodic world, one word repeated throughout the show, the one that is even the title of the opening song, echoed in my head: "Tradition!" I don't know that I could accurately define it at that age, but I could, and certainly did hum it, sing it, and reenact it on my canopy bed stage for months afterwards.

Tradition. It's a word I alternately embraced and shunned in the years to come, particularly during the holiday season. My parents, who left their home country a few years before I was born, walked the difficult path of assimilating into this new land while holding on to what they could from their past. That meant that like so many first generation children of immigrants, I grew up straddling two very different worlds. Never was this more apparent than at Christmas.

Let me be clear- it's not like my parents were unfamiliar with Christmas. Devout Orthodox Christians, each year they eagerly awaited the celebration of the Savior's birth in much the same solemn way their ancestors have done since about the middle of the first century.

But Christmas in America isn't just about Jesus' birthday; it also comes with a hefty hankering for hot cocoa and Bing Crosby, tales of flying wildlife, a spiral sliced Honeybaked ham, and a jolly albeit obese man who breaks into your home bearing gifts. That part, they struggled with. And so did I.

While my American friends were feasting on chocolates, gleefully singing carols, and making out their Christmas lists, we were observing the 40 day Nativity Fast, sacrificing all animal products in an attempt to temper bodily desires as well as worldly ones. Not only did we celebrate Christmas on the wrong day (January 7th according to the ancient Julian calendar), it felt like we celebrated it in the wrong way.

Don't get me wrong- when it came to gifts, we wanted for nothing at Christmas or any other time of the year. My parents were, and continue to be, beyond generous, with presents piled higher than the tree. But the things I wanted most at the time, they simply weren't able to provide.

I craved holiday songs from yesteryear, not hymns from centuries past.

I longed for heirloom ornaments passed down from generations.

I hungered for Santa-shaped cookie cutters and sugar cookie dough, not flaky phyllo pastry and pistachios.

I thirsted for mugs of eggnog, even though I hated the taste.

In short, I wanted traditions we didn't have, and rejected the ones we did.

Mostly, I just wanted Christmas to be over so I wouldn't feel quite so different.

It's taken me decades, and the experience of raising my own family, one additional generation removed from the Motherland, to reconcile these feelings and weave them into what's become the  patchwork quilt of traditions and culture I now pull close around my heart. Because now I see things differently.

I see a stream of refugees fleeing their homeland, making that painful, arduous march toward a new life, and realize how incredibly brave it is to leave all you have and all you know behind.

I see hatred and fear rising all around us, and I recognize that we are called to be simultaneously stronger and gentler than the voices of intolerance and ignorance, both with ourselves and with others.

I see that what makes us different is what makes us...us.

And I see that our most powerful tradition arrived in a form many rejected: a humble infant, offering love and hope to all.

So now I sit back and watch as my boys decorate their Egyptian parents' Christmas tree, gently lifting out the ornaments that have become heirlooms. I place my hands over my daughters' as we roll out cookies each year, both in late December and again in early January. I watch my husband in the candlelit glow of a golden sanctuary filled with icons, singing hymns of praise in a language he does not speak.

I look at my family and see bits of the past and hope for the future, and I know that tradition isn't about recipes or objects or any one particular time of year.

It's about keeping the light alive.

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