Volume 14, Issue 50 ~ December 14 - December 20, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Tracking Tradition

Our familiar paths are often laid on shaky ground

How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you … I don’t know, but it’s a tradition.

Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof

Christmas is the time of tradition; tradition, which according to the new Oxford American Dictionary, is “a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on.”

The traditions of Christmastime are many and varied.

Foremost is the celebration of a momentous birth, and over the 2006 years since that memorable night in a Bethlehem stable have come a multitude of holiday practices that have become tradition. Others once of long standing have faded away.

Breaking Tradition

Why they come and go? That’s a good question; another mystery is how long must a customary happening be repeated to join the ranks of a tradition. The other day I posed the question to my brother John of Salt Lake City, who has an interest in such matters. He had no definitive answer, but came up with the story of both beginning and end of a tradition:

Because it was a family tradition, a young wife always served a roast of beef on Christmas Day, and before it was put in the oven, she cut a liberal slice off one end.

When asked why, she replied it was a family tradition. Her mother always did it for the Christmas meal.

The curious questioner sought out the mother to ask how and why this Christmastime routine came about. There came the same answer; her mother always did so on Christmas Day, so it was a tradition.

Next, the curious person went to the wife’s mother’s mother to repeat the question. “Because,” she replied, “the Christmas roast was too big to fit in the pot.”

End of the history of a tradition; also end of the tradition.

A tradition within brother John’s household came to an end also. While living in Maryland for several years when his wife at the time was a professor at the University in College Park, it was customary that somewhat late on Christmas Eve, father, mother and the two kids would hop in the car and head for a donut shop to stuff themselves.

John and his wife did this because they knew on Christmas morning the youngsters in the excitement of the big day wouldn’t touch breakfast, and they wanted to have something in their stomachs. Thus the birth of a Christmas Eve tradition.

It lasted only until John became a professor at the University of Salt Lake City, where the appreciable Mormon population didn’t go much for donuts, which go with coffee. Coffee consumption is against Joseph Smith’s Words of Wisdom that ban among other things liquor, coffee and tea for the devout.

So there they were with the small hand of the clock edging higher and higher on its left face as they drove the length and width of the biggest city in Utah searching for the means to keep their family tradition alive. Santa filled stockings and left toys under the tree, but there were no donuts. End of another tradition.

Making Tradition

Many Christmas traditions of more recent history remain. What is Christmas without Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer? About 70 years ago as a boy, I witnessed the birth of the tradition that Rudolph with his glowing proboscis would lead Santa’s eight other reindeer of Clement Moore fame on their midnight housetop rounds on the stroke of midnight.

Christmas was taken more seriously back then, but times were tough in the Great Depression when someone came up with a catchy tune titled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And it stuck. The eight reindeer of the skies became nine, contrary to Moore’s description of the team in A Visit from St. Nicholas, penned in 1823. Tradition now has Rudolph by the light of his red nose guiding the sleigh through the foggy night with the big bag of gifts to every household in the land.

I have kept alive one Burton tradition, presumably originated by my grandfather Joel William Burton, who as a farmer saw to it that on Christmas morning all livestock and other farm creatures, in addition to wild critters, had a bounty of special food for the big day.

Before the presents under the tree were opened, Grandpa would make the rounds on the New England farm. In addition to extra rations of regular food there would be special favorites: apples, carrots and other goodies including orange slices and sunflower seeds for the birds.

Tradition had it in the days of yore that at the stroke of midnight ushering in Christmas, all animals would be given the gift of speech for a few moments. Many were the times when as a young boy I fought sleep with the cat Bobby Shafto snuggled against me, eager to talk with him at the magic moment — even though mother warned that Santa wouldn’t leave any gifts if any of the children were awake upon his arrival.

When finally I learned that talking animals was a fable, it was as shattering and confusing as when Mother confessed there was no Santa Claus. “But don’t you dare tell your brother and sisters.” I never did.

From Tree to Tree

Modern times did away with other traditions within the family; the arrival of electricity on the farm in the ’30s put an end to the ritual of lighting the real candles on the Christmas tree as we gathered to open the presents. Gone also is the tradition of setting forth to cut our own tree on my December 15 birthday.

The new tradition among many families is live Christmas trees, their base a bag of roots, to be planted outdoors after the holidays. I like that idea, but there’s no more room in the yard up here in Riviera Beach in North County, where for the birds and the welfare of the Chesapeake I’ve filled all available space with maples, catalpas, oaks, black walnuts and such.

Hereabouts, the only tradition involving Christmas trees these days is everyone’s running for cover on my birthday to escape the ranting and raving as I try to recreate the six-and-a-half-foot artificial tree, with its permanent built-in bulbs that don’t want to light up. No Christmas spirit.

Stockings are still hung on the eve of Christmas, but no longer are they the freshly washed real stockings of the ones who expect them to be filled by Santa. No, they’re fancy and big, never-worn phony footwear that are worn on the mantle once a year. If Santa happened to tune in, my stocking would be filled with coal. Enough said.

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