Traditions help define holidays, and the traditions we choose to participate in define our lives.
I ended 2015 by watching “Joyeux Noël” on Dec. 23, and doing the bulk of my holiday shopping by walking from the Cotton Exchange to Chandler’s Wharf on Christmas Eve, before going to St. James’ Christmas Eve service. These practices weren’t traditions until I did them at least twice—sort of like eating collards and black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. I didn’t even think of participating in that tradition until moving here 20 years ago.
“Joyeux Noël” is a 2005 film based on a Christmas truce during the First World War. It’s doubtful a beautiful soprano stayed the night in the trenches with her baritone beau and sang “O Holy Night” to German, French and Scottish troops from the middle of No Man’s Land. I’m not quite sure a pious priest said Midnight Mass for all the combatants; however, the truce itself is well-documented.
Two memorable Christmas services exist in the film. In the first, the pious Scottish priest said Christmas Mass and provided temporary refuge to all the shell-shocked combatants from the middle of No Man’s Land. Offering refuge to those most in need (no questions asked) is among the best Christian traditions—although it does appear to be more of a human tradition, independent of religious affiliation.
After the priest was censured for his act, his replacement exhorted a new batch of recruits to kill as many Germans as possible—because Germans clearly were not children of God. The patriotic priest was preaching in the tradition of the Christian Abbot Arnaud Amalric. During one Middle Ages crusade, the Abbot reportedly advised one of his reluctant military captains, “Kill them all; God will know his own.” Providing refuge and promoting slaughter are contradictory traditions of our human family and our family’s many religions, including Islam and Christianity.
St. James’ typically beautiful Christmas Eve service boasts outstanding renditions of traditional chorale works. 2015’s Christmas Eve sermon was particularly memorable for a kid who grew up listening to Sinatra. Father Ron told the story of a woman in New York giving Sinatra temporary refuge from throngs of adoring fans in his early years. It was during this period Sinatra made his Academy Award-winning film, “The House I Live In.” This short was made back when a melting-pot view of America was popular, shortly after American mongrels pulled together to defeat the pure-bred “master race” of Germany in World War II. It was a time when segregating Japanese (or other suspicious folks) into internment camps was seen as a black mark on democracy. The film is well worth its 10 minutes.
Father Ron wasn’t making a political statement on Christmas Eve. He spoke from experience about Sinatra. His grandmother was the woman who saved Sinatra. When Father Ron said, “In a sense, we are all refugees,” he spoke from his heart and from a gentle Christian tradition that takes the value of providing sanctuary quite literally.
One of the cool things about being human is we have the ability to choose and to change our traditions. Fifty years ago, our traditional crowning of Maximus Gladiator Concussivus didn’t exist. Although a few generations of Americans may think God created the Super Bowl on the seventh day, it actually started only 50 years ago as an afterthought—a concession to an upstart professional football league. After a few years, Broadway’s Joe Namath turned it into a football game and Roman numerals turned it into a seemingly ageless tradition.
I’m not a big fan of the Super Bowl, but I am a big fan of hope and change. As 2016 unfolds I hope we change some of our traditions. For instance, instead of participating in the election-year tradition of cheering as our presidential candidates beat the drums of war—or listening to the warlords of Islam, Christianity or any religion—we might choose to tune our ears to the peacemakers among us.
Maybe even listening to more Sinatra.
These are human traditions we might choose to define ourselves.