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by Hannah Rau

Every Christmas season when I was growing up, my family got out a special set of ‘Tartan’ cups and dessert plates. These white dishes rimmed with green and red plaid sat dormant in the cupboard until December, when we would use them at Christmas meals and snacks. Each had one of four images on the front: a deer, a goose, a horn instrument, or a violin. I always chose the deer. This tradition of using these special dishes announced the coming of Christmas time and reminded me of pleasant family memories. To this day, drinking coffee or eggnog out of the Tartan deer cup at my parents’ house is one of my favorite Christmas traditions.

This time of year abounds with traditions. These can include activities, foods, decorations, songs and stories, or special items (like dishes). Traditions offer a way to connect with our culture, remind us of things worth remembering, and signal the coming of a certain time of year. We don’t all follow the same traditions, of course. Different countries, regions, and even families observe different traditions.

To be honest, my family has always had a complicated relationship with traditions, especially at Christmas. At their best, traditions remind us of important values and give us a sense of nostalgia. At their worst, traditions become a burden and lose their meaning in rote repetition. At some point, with the exhaustion of gift giving and tree decorating, typical Christmas activities became burdensome to my family. So they took a break from many traditions. Since then, my family has picked many of them back up again, but the process has forced me to closely consider traditions and customs in many areas of my life, including Christmas. Here are some of my thoughts on this:

Traditions shouldn’t be burdensome

We never want traditions to become rote actions performed without meaning. As well as being beautiful, the Christmas season is often known as one of the most stressful times of the year due to the pressures of gift shopping, decorating, and cooking. One of the most prominent traditions this time of year involves giving. This can be a great opportunity for selflessness and kindness, but it can also become hectic and demanding. If you need to, let go and refresh your own spirit first.

I encourage you to evaluate what your traditions mean to you. If they have lost their meaning or have become burdensome, don’t be afraid to lay some of them down or make new traditions. Don’t be pressured by what others are doing.

Choose meaningful traditions

In the 1971 film adaptation of the musical The Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevye, talks to the audience about his culture’s traditions: “You may ask: ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you. I don’t know.”

One of the purposes of traditions is to remind ourselves and each other of truths and values. While we may not know all the details about the origin of certain holiday traditions, knowing why we choose to follow them can help traditions give meaning to the holiday mania.

Another tradition that my family always retained through the years was setting out a Nativity scene. In my family, we celebrate Christmas to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ—a savior to a world that desperately needed one. Some Christmas traditions, like the Nativity, help remind us of that truth. Others merely make us joyful in a time when the year is turning colder and we are settling in for a long winter.

Joy is a good reason

Sometimes, it’s enough that a tradition brings joy. The sole reason I always insist on bringing out the Tartan dishes at Christmas time is to do something fun and special to mark the holiday.

The plaid cups remind me that even now, when we’ve watched the last of the flowers wither and the leaves fall and the grass turn brown, there is beauty in this season too. If we let them, the lights and bright colors of Christmas can remind us to rejoice in the midst of the hardest and darkest part of the year.

It’s a perfect time to revisit our holiday customs at a time when many of us can’t do what we normally do this time of year. Choose the traditions that are meaningful to you and your family and feel free to set aside the ones that make your end-of-year hectic and unpleasant. We celebrate and give back not because we have to, but because we want to. May this month’s celebrations help make us ready to face the new year with hope.

Some final takeaways I hope encourage you: It’s okay if Christmas looks a little different this year. When making choices about traditions, make the ones you keep packed with meaning or resonant with joy.

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