There is a tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window on the eve of Christmas, to symbolize the offer of shelter to Mary and Joseph. However humble the house, a candle burning through the darkness of night said: come here and rest, let the Christ Child bless this place with his birth.
From the Latin, traditio means to give over, to deliver something. It could be a document or a deed, but with time, tradition has come to mean giving over a custom.
We had a lot of traditions when I was growing up. Mom always put
this spun glass "angel hair" on the tree. The lights would glow through it and it would be very ghostly looking, to me.
Another tradition started when I was old enough to help decorate the tree. I learned to make a giant star each year for the top out of cardboard and aluminum foil.
We had the same family recipes, the same sage- and- onion smell about the house, the same terrible pumpkin pie we pretended to admire, brought by an aged but beloved great-aunt.
The presents never varied for the adults.
The men got a carton of cigarettes. The women a box of hosiery...with seams.
Children got candy canes in their stockings. That was tradition.
When I married, Himself and I fiddled a little with both our family traditions, adjusting them as the children came along. I put aside the spooky angel hair for other tree trimmings. I learned to make a really great pumpkin pie from someone else's recipe, not great-aunt's. The sage-and-onion dressing stayed, but the stockings began to get more elaborate, not to mention the presents.
One year we sang Christmas carols as we all decorated the tree. A new tradition was started. The first day of December, the homemade Advent calendar was hung. Inside the 24 pockets, one for each night right up to Christmas Eve, were the people, animals and symbols of the Christmas story.
The kids worried who would pull "Wicked King Harry" out--no one wanted to get the villain! They didn't know any Herods but lots of Harrys, so even the misnaming stuck and became a tradition.
And finally, on Christmas Eve, when we had hung each stocking and everyone was ready for bed, I would read from the Book of Luke, Chapter Two: "And it came to pass in those days that a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be taxed; and all were going, each to his own town, to register....."
And lastly, "The Night Before Christmas" was read. With "Happy Christmas to all and to all a good-night!" they trudged off to bed to dream their own sugarplum dreams.
Oh, we were knee-deep in traditions. We folded each little act into our celebration of the family and holiday as gently as folding a pie crust over the top of a pie. It was our comfort food, our sense of order and security.
But it changed. It started when the kids grew up and left home. They would rush in from somewhere else too busy to do all the old things. I retired the Advent calendar, now frayed from use. Even "Wicked King Harry" seemed benevolent, now that his ball-point pen frown had worn off.
So Christmas began to be rearranged. Spouses had their own ideas about traditions: what to eat, what to do, where to go. This comfort food of the soul, this pie of traditions I had crusted so carefully, had become a humble pie I had to eat.
One year I discovered they agreed among themselves that singing, with all the little family jokes we had loved tucked in, was dumb. I insisted we carry on the tradition, but got only half-hearted singers at best. I cried that night when everyone had left.
I thought I had brought Christmas to them, by creating traditions they could treasure, remember and pass on. But it was THEY who had brought Christmas to me, by changing my focus from the youthful "what will I get" to the maturing "What will I give?"
Now comes the hardest "giving over" of all: I must learn to give over
Christmas to another generation. Let them take from what they have been given, discard what they find useless, and forge their own Christmas with their families. The greatest tradition I can pass on to them is one of stepping back.
So instead of the traditional candle, I drop 2 AA batteries into a white tube, screw on the candle-flame bulb, and set the brass holder into our front window. Who knows--there might yet be a blessing arriving from afar this night, guided by this little light.
"Grandma, what is the candle in the window for?" asks the littlest grandson. I take a deep breath. So soon an answer! Thank you, Holy Family. I smile my wisest smile and begin: "Once upon a time in a faraway land...."