When I was younger, our family attended a Christmas Eve service on the outskirts of Nakuru. The chapel was full when we got there. People packed together. But as they say in Kenya, “There is always room for one more.” We squeezed into a row near the back.
The stained glass windows
Split the incoming sunlight
Into a rainbow
I’d never been there before, but the church had a familiar look to it. Wooden benches provided seating, marked here and there by the artwork of a restless child. The last rays of daylight passed through the stained glass windows, not quite enough to brighten the sanctuary. Candles made up the difference, filling the room with a warm, flickering light.
Sing familiar songs
Join with brothers and sisters
Connect with the past
We sang songs, our voices joining in the air. Old and storied hymns wove through the service. Joy, hope and love took the form of a thousand notes of music.
Act out the story
Of a Christmas long ago
The pastor may well have given a message, but I don’t remember it. But I do recall the play. Members of the community acted out the Christmas story.
Light a small candle
Many little lights joining
A symbol of hope
Toward the end of the service came my favorite part, the lighting of candles. They passed out small, white candles to everyone. And starting from the front, one person to another, we lit them.
And when everyone’s candle was ablaze, we joined together in one final song. One hundred candles flickered, filling the room with rays of hope.
Traditions that carry throughout the years
The variety of pattern and form
Some bringing laughter and abundant cheers
So full of feelings lighthearted and warm
Some causing us to pause in silent prayer
Meditations for the soul and the mind
Some tightening the bonds that are there
Between you and your fellow human-kind
Though traditions seem old and outdated
They all are an important memory
Of the coming of one long awaited
Where peace and hope weave throughout the story
To you I wish in this Christmas season
Memory of the holiday’s reason
Traditions often seem old and outdated. Do we need them anymore? Do they have a use? Isn’t what we have now better? I wonder sometimes.
But going through the Christmas season forces me to rethink that view. As I participate in traditions, some of which have roots going back hundreds of years, I come to see them in a different light. Instead of seeing them through the sharp, white light of reason and logic, I gaze on them in the warm and changing light of the human story.
I see the power of traditions to stir emotion. Singing elevates my spirits. Feasting draws me into a mood of celebration and joy. Reinforced by repetition in my life and throughout history, tradition pulls at the emotional part of the brain. That’s the space where love, compassion and joy reside.
I observe how traditions connect me to other people. Gift-giving reminds me of the love I have for others, and their love for me. In joining my voice with those near me, we create harmony. In sharing a meal with family, bonds of life deepen.
I watch how traditions build community. They give a shared language, a context of understanding. They give shared experience. I do them with other people, strengthening the bonds between us.
I notice how traditions are central to my story. They weave through my values. They weave through my choices. They weave through my actions.
But more importantly, they are part of a story beyond myself. They tie me to my wider community, telling the story of its origins and values. They bond me to those who have gone before, my elders and ancestors. They connect me to the human story.
Candles blown out, we all left the chapel and walked out into the night. A host of countless stars danced brightly in the sky above. It was as though the entire galaxy joined in our evening of tradition.
What about you? What are some of your traditions – for Christmas or otherwise? How they connect you to the story beyond yourself?
PHOTO: Tree of tradition. Wheaton, IL.