I’m determined to not lose the game. I’ve been on high alert since Thanksgiving evening and have carefully curated my choice of streaming music. Some years I’ve lost early in December which, although disappointing, brought a certain amount of freedom. Other years I’ve been frustratingly close.
The game likely began simply enough – I imagine a few friends were comparing notes regarding their least favorite Christmas songs and decided they’d create a game to avoid listening to one of them. Over the years it morphed and developed various rules. Parodies were considered exempt due to the “blurred lines rule”, and ambushing others went from being part of the game to being discouraged to eventually being ruled out of order. There are regional differences to the rules as well as the times allotted for the game.
Isn’t this how traditions begin? A simple thing, which is fun and often a bit ridiculous becomes central to our experience. Years from now, my descendants may wonder why “The Little Drummer Boy” isn’t in the family song book, and someone will remember the game. Undoubtedly you have your own traditions – the way certain decorations are hung and what food lands on your family table during this season. These small things are the ways in which we create our own microcultures; a place filled with symbols that help us to remember who we are. Rituals including grandmother’s turkey platter and dad’s light display; church pageants and even avoiding hearing the Little Drummer Boy until it’s actually Christmas help us to mark the holiday and make it our own.
Usually, the biggest challenge to our holiday traditions comes with the transitions that are also part of our lives: newlyweds may argue over ham or goose for Christmas dinner and with the death of the patriarch there is some confusion at the table trying to figure out who will carve the beast. We manage these challenges with tears and debate, just as surely as we welcome the other changes that come with marriages and births and new friends welcomed to the table.
This year will be different.
In these pandemic times we’re adapting our traditions as best as we are able to accommodate smaller tables and fewer options. We’re already grieving not gathering in candlelight to hear the story and to sing words that have become sacred. We wonder if it will feel like Christmas.
Years ago, a young pastor was faced with a similar challenge. The organ had been damaged and would not be available for Christmas Eve, so he asked someone to write a piece for two voices and guitar. This decision wasn’t just non-traditional. At that time, guitar had not been approved for worship, so being the crafty church leaders that they were, they elected to offer this new hymn at the very end of the service. This beloved hymn was created because two people of faith realized that they could not celebrate Christmas in a way that had been the tradition of their community…. and they found a way to still bring meaning and joy to that night. The result, Silent Night, has been a gift to all of us for over 200 years.
Like Gruber and Mohr who wrote Silent Night, we will adapt to this difficult new reality out of necessity. We figure out how to tell the Christmas story on Zoom or Facebook, and we will sing beloved carols in our pajamas. We will do this because even though the world has changed, our Savior has not.
Nothing can stop us from singing at the manger (although… not the Little Drummer Boy until Christmas Day… that’s the rule).