Christmas Traditions

Traditions are a big part of many people’s lives. But during Christmas and the holidays this particular quirk of human nature is especially important.

Growing up back in England a particular Christmas day tradition was for my sister Angie, and I, was to go with our psychiatrist father to do “rounds” at St Ebba’s Hospital– which was one of the local mental hospitals where our dad was on staff.

Not quite how it was but one image of Christmas in hospital

It was a little unnerving. Most of the patients were long term resident suffering from some serious psychiatric illness. Even though they had pretty much burned out, they still tended to be a little weird and a little scary. Some sitting stock still in bizarre postures in a catatonic state. Some with tics that made them writhe around and pull weird faces. Some having heated arguments an adversary that no one else could see. 

Angie and I would try not to gawk too obviously and stick close to our dad - though any that did get a bit boisterous would be gently taken in hand and soothed by one of the kindly, large, usually West Indian female nursing assistants.

“C’mon now” they would gently coax. “Da Queen goin’ to be giving her speech soon and you don’t want to miss dat now” and escort them to one of the chairs in the day room facing the TV.

Unnerving as it was, it was our family tradition.

Back home, our mother’s tradition, often with the help of some friend who was staying, would be to cook the Christmas lunch – by the time we got back our mother and friend  would both be a little tipsy and giggling from tippling sherry in the kitchen. 

Turkey, stuffing, bread sauce, roast potatoes and Brussel sprouts were served as traditional eats. Then of course Christmas pudding with sixpenny pieces, a ring, and a thimble hidden in the pudding, and a sprig of holly on top, with brandy to set it alight.

Distressing Traditions

One of the most distressing traditions, attributed to our dad being half German, was that it was only in the late afternoon, after tea (of traditional Christmas fruit cake with marzipan and white icing) that we, in a state of impatience and agitation, could open our presents.

Had our dad explained there were studies that show kids tormented in this way with deferred gratification are “deliberative, attentive, and able to concentrate” unlike their instantly gratified counterparts who are be "irritable, restless and fidgety, aggressive, and generally not self-controlled” we might have thanked him rather than complained.

It was not just our family that follows traditions of course. One particular tradition of the medical press which amuses me is the normally somber BMJ saves up the rather more lighthearted studies that have been submitted throughout the year and publish them in the December issue. 

Like the study to determine if a martini “shaken not stirred” (which was of course always 007’s pedantic requirement) was really any different.

Or the report about the anesthesiologist who chided his orthopedic colleague (who was repairing the operating table with a mallet) with the claim of the stereotype of orthopods being “strong as an ox but half as bright.” 

I imagine the anesthesiologist was a little embarrassed when a follow up study showed “male orthopedic surgeons have greater intelligence and grip strength than their anesthetic colleagues”  

Benefit of Traditions

Though we lived with these traditions, and so many more, we did not understand how they bring us the “Four B’s,” – Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence. 

So, maybe rather than complaining, I should applaud my wife Paula for her tradition of making me watch movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, and Miracle on 34th Street over and over - even though they make me cringe – because, it is claimed, such traditions are “bringing a semblance of order and predictability . . . . . even some serenity” according to Psychology Today.

What traditions do you follow? Does your celebration of the holidays follow an invariable, predictable but traditional format? Special food and drink? Gatherings with family or special friends? Involve your church or other spirituals community?

Making it happen can be a bit stressful. It always seems like this mad crescendo as we rocket through December and have to hustle to get the cards sent out (watching You Tube to learn how to print address labels). Buying presents (and fretting about will they spend more on me than I do on them?) Decorating, planning the menu, and a million other traditional chores – which can make it a bit of a relief when it’s over. 

But hold on to the thought that traditions make us feel “safe in a confusing world.” Help us not finish up like the poor souls my sister and I would go and visit with our dad on Christmas morning.

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