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A Habit Does Not A Tradition Make

I am a creature of habit. I delight in things being the same; I find comfort in knowing what’s coming up next, in wrapping familiarity around myself in a new situation. I know this is not unique to me, but it is somewhat unique for someone who spent most of her pre-kids life living the life of a gypsy, moving from town to town and show to show.

And I loved moving on as much as I loved my traditions: moving on always afforded me a fresh start, both literally – if you move every six weeks, you never need to deep-clean your apartment – and figuratively – get in a fight with your neighbor? Wait a few weeks, then put them in your rear-view mirror and don’t look back!

But one thing that moving around a lot forced me to do was take a long hard look at my “traditions” – the supposed deal-breakers I needed for any major holiday or celebration. I remember well the first Easter I was away from my family: I was nineteen, and when I walked into the theatre the Friday before and a well-meaning Jewish friend called out cheerily, “Happy Good Friday!” I burst into tears.

My first Christmas away from home I was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, working on a cruise ship, and let me tell you, there are few things more disorienting than seeing a Santa in a pink Royal Caribbean shirt and white shorts. But I still managed to squeeze in a few traditions, cajoling fellow cast members to sing a few favorite Christmas carols with me and hanging my stocking on my porthole.

When I complained to my dad at one point about not having some trivial, really unnecessary aspect of my all-important Christmas ritual on hand one particular year – I think it was LA – he said reflectively, “Why is that important to you?”

“Well, it’s tradition!” I spluttered. “I mean, we always do it! We always did it growing up!”

I could hear him nod long-distance. “Yes, kiddo, but traditions are different from habits. Choose yours wisely. Do things because they’re meaningful to you, not just because you’ve always done them.”

I’ve remembered this as we’ve had kids and established our own traditions, and I think about it every holiday season. As I start to flip through Christmas crafting or baking magazines and feverishly tear out pages that look like fun, I have to check myself: will finding time for this gingerbread village out of orange juice cartons/three kings out of clothespins/holiday lights out of balloons enrich our Christmas experience, or exhaust us? Will it in any way make the season more meaningful, draw us closer to God in some way? As much as I like tree-lighting ceremonies and Christmas parades, will they draw us closer as a family than simply staying home in front of a fire and playing a few good rounds of Uno would?

We have a few hard-and-fasts that we as a family have grown to love, and these things immediately go on the calendar or planning sheet. Our scripture Advent calendar, our Matthew 25:40 Good Deeds Jars, making family recipes: these things are non-negotiable. The past couple of years, we’ve gone caroling through the neighborhood with several families and we now look forward to that every year; we’ve even got battery candles and song sheets and everything! Other activities or recipes we might try once and enjoy, but decide not to add to our yearly list. And some favorite traditions we’ve had to store away until our girls are older.

New Year’s eve, for example. Brian and I took several different stabs at New Year’s eve as a couple, until we finally found what suited us: inviting about ten friends over, and enjoying nibbles and board games all night until the ball drops. Small, no fuss, and fantastic company. We won’t make it anywhere near midnight for a few more years, but right now we’re happy to either hang with dear friends or stay home and cuddle. We’re just not the Big Party kind of family.

And we’ve realized that’s ok.

So this year, take a minute to look at your calendar and see how much you really enjoy all the stuff you’ve got penciled in, and how much you’re doing out of habit or obligation. Perhaps you can find a few spots where you can put that eraser to some good use. Choose your activities deliberately, and you’ll enjoy them more.

A habit does not a tradition make.


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