Spirit of Tradition
My sister, her husband, her kids and her grandkids, don’t
just buy Christmas trees. They make an annual devotional
“Pilgrimage of the Tree” to the holy tree- farm shrine in
This year my daughter Linnea, who usually goes with them,
insisted that I make the pilgrimage, too. I didn’t really
see the need for spending so much time getting a tree, but
when your 16-year-old daughter still wants to do things with
you, you do them.
So early last Saturday Linnea and I joined the caravan of
family cars making their way out Route 7. As with any pilgrimage,
it’s necessary to be fortified for the journey. At the corner
of routes 7 and 22, we make the ritual stop at the Stewart’s
for coffee, hot chocolate and a bathroom visit.
Once at the tree farm, it is traditional to look at every
tree. Which means that we wander for quite awhile among the
thousand-or-so trees, assessing their heft, height and girth.
Discussion follows. Noses run. Feet freeze. My nephew, brandishing
his chain saw, is the most discriminating shopper-chopper.
He will not prostrate himself in the snow at the base of a
tree until perfection has been achieved.
Eventually, perfection is achieved and strapped to our ski
racks, and we begin the return trip. But tradition mandates
that, at the corner of routes 7 and 22, we stop again at the
Stewart’s. This time we stop for lunch, actually sitting at
one of those Formica tables where nobody ever sits because
who goes out to lunch at Stewart’s, anyway?
Well, during the Pilgrimage of the Tree my sister’s family
does. And Linnea and I do, too.
There are more menu options than you might think: foil-wrapped
things in buns revolving in a heated glass carousel, shrink-wrapped
ham-cheese-turkey-tuna-roast beef sandwiches and, in big aluminum
vats on the counter, chili and macaroni-and-cheese.
Linnea and I dip deeply into the two vats, mixing their contents
together since each item alone looks a little skimpy. Maca-chili-and-cheese
has an unusual taste. But the sentimentality of abiding
by ritual made it taste good.
For one reason or another, I have heard a lot about peoples’
holiday rituals this year. It’s made me more certain than
ever that there is no such thing as empty ritual. Just
by virtue of the desire to repeat what has been done before,
these acts are laced with meaning.
One of my colleagues, for example, said that, when he was
growing up, each year on Christmas Eve his family would go
to a midnight church service and then, on the way home, stop
at Papa Gino’s just before it closed. “The ovens would be
shut off already. So we would just tell them we’d take whatever
pizza was left. Didn’t matter what was on it. We were going
to eat it.”
This was the same colleague who, while at boarding school,
was included in the strange Advent ritual of one of the monks.
No matter that it was winter in New Hampshire, Brother Cecil
had the boys pitch tents near the monastery graveyard. There
they indulged in Brother Cecil’s annual camp-out and wiener
roast. Turns out, it made a lasting impression on my colleague.
He doesn’t go so far as to camp out, but he did say that wieners
remain, for him, traditional Advent cuisine.
Then there was the economy-minded boyhood ritual of a friend.
As a child he’d save his allowance and, when Christmas came,
spend some of it on a nativity set, buying the figures piece
by piece. But he would only buy two of the Three Kings. He
reasoned that, since Jesus was supposed to be a king, he could
save himself some allowance money by pressing the baby Jesus
figurine into double duty as the third king. He still has
all his nativity sets, each with only two kings.
The daughter of another colleague, away at college for her
first year, made her family a detailed list of each of the
25 things they had to do in december, one for each day of
Advent. He said she calls from time to time to make sure that
he and his wife are staying on track. (Actually this sounds
exactly like something my older daughter, Madeleine, would
In my congregation, one member ritually hides two blue light
bulbs among the white ones on the two Christmas trees in the
church. Another goes out into the cold quiet of Christmas
morning for her traditional run—the presents have been opened,
the kids are distracted and the streets are empty and peaceful.
Another member, one who has a keen sense of the sustaining
importance of homespun rituals—and who happens to be my daughter,
Linnea—says that the singing of “Silent Night” by candlelight
in the darkened church on Christmas Eve is the moment that,
for her, crowns the season that began with the annual Pilgrimage
of the Tree.