Since moving from downtown Toronto over a year ago, to serve as a United Church of Canada minister in Lucky Lake, SK (pop 295), I’ve found that life on the prairies is not all that different from in the city. For instance, it is possible to have road rage out here. You just have to wait forty-five minutes for another car to come along. And, when it comes to the holidays, all anyone really, really wants for Christmas is for everything to stay exactly the same.
This was brought home to me recently when our usually harmonious little town suddenly erupted in controversy. The teachers in our local school announced that, rather than presenting a traditional concert this Christmas season, they are going to host a kind of free-flowing “Holiday Village” event. So, instead of assembling en masse in the echoing gymnasium to applaud group after group of children for showing off their skill at waving at their families and forgetting the words to songs, this year parents and students will roam the school together, participating in a variety of fun interactive activities.
Reaction to the news was immediate. Scrums of neighbours collected in the post office, murmuring anxiously. Heated debate broke out in the grocery store check-out line. Someone telephoned, demanding to know what I, as town minister, was going to do to ensure the concert took place as usual. It’s amazing what theology school didn’t prepare me for.
A town meeting was called. Pro-Concert and pro-Holiday Village factions crammed into our school library. Someone began the proceedings with, “I’d like to point out that we’ve been doing this concert exactly the same way for fifty years.” Both sides took this as a point in their favour.
I understood. Human beings have a profound primal need for change, challenge and adventure in life. And, we have an equally deep-seated need for everything to stay the same. This is exactly the kind of thing, of course, that gives the concept of Intelligent Design a bad name.
When it came to our town conundrum, however, I found myself sitting pretty solidly on the Pro-Tradition side. I like the annual Christmas concert. It reminds me of similar events from my own childhood. And, at least during the holidays, I like to be assured that some things that don’t change.
In fact, the whole concert/no concert issue reminded me of the first year my partner, Liz, and I were together. Christmas morning proved that as a couple we suffered from a serious case of what I now term IHE. Incompatible Holiday Expectations. Liz comes from a “Christmas stockings should contain useful items, not wrapped, because why bother?”" background. My own upbringing was solidly “Are you crazy? I want totally frivolous pretty things and they darn well better be wrapped, just ’cause.” I ended up sobbing with disappointment most of Christmas morning because I found toothpaste in my stocking instead of gaily decorated hair accessories. I didn’t care that it wasn’t rational. I just wanted it to be the same.
I’m not alone in this. My friend Marjorie reports that, even though her daughter won’t be home for the Hanukkah season, she telephoned asking to be reassured that her mother would still be making her traditional latkas. “What will you do?” I asked Marjorie. “Rub some flour on my face, get her on Skype and say they were delicious.”
Our town meeting over, a kind of peace is restored. The teachers agreed they will do the village this year and the concert again next year. I walked home through the snowy, silent streets grateful we’d achieved detente before folks started sporting Team Concert and Team Village shirts around town. But also, musing that in a world where our special holidays often centre around tradition and things staying the same, what do you do when staying the same isn’t an option?
Perhaps, in the end, how we celebrate isn’t as important as remembering why we celebrate. Maybe focusing on the trappings and traditions of the holidays is like putting our attention on the wrapping rather than the gift. If what our village is coming together to celebrate is… well, being together, then perhaps what we do isn’t nearly so important as that we make a point, each year, to do it.
So this year, there’s one alteration I’m happy to entertain. Whatever turns up in my stocking, I’ll focus on how fortunate I am that it was put there by loving hands. And really, when you think about it, nothing makes a holiday more special than that. It’s the one thing that doesn’t change.