Picture me aged 3. I’m making a snowman from cotton wool and toilet roll. I proudly present snowman to Mum and Dad when I get home from playgroup, and then again the following Christmas when he emerges from a dusty box of decorations. And just like that, a tradition is born. Snowman is a running family joke every Christmas, with his green fez and droopy eyes. Every year, he reminds us how much we’ve grown, what’s changed and what will never change. He represents the purest kind of innocence and he is protected and preserved the way we wish we could preserve time. He is a fond memory, and yet he is still there for us to touch, display and laugh at every year.
Well, he was there. This year, 23 years later, something quite terrible happened. This year, my dog ATE SNOWMAN. And I cried. And so did my mum. My mum and I cried over a small pile of cotton wool and toilet roll.
Admittedly, a part of me felt like Christmas would never be the same again. That silly tradition of unveiling snowman every year was gone. Which is ridiculous because the sentiment lives on regardless – I’d still have the memory without the physical reminder. Perhaps what we’re really afraid of is forgetting the small things; the forgettable things that are actually quite lovely to keep safe. After all, the moment an object jogs a memory (that might otherwise have been lost forever) is far too wonderful not to protect.
But still, why the hell do we want Christmas to be the same every single year? What is our relentless obsession with reliving the past?
After a couple of hours grieving over poor old snowman, I started to think about the impact personal traditions can have on our ability to cope with change and embrace the unknown. The truth is, there have been some big changes in my life this year, and seeing snowman in little pieces was like a visual reminder that my life, like most people’s, is subject to uncontrollable change and unplanned disruption. Shit happens, basically.
My mum and I were faced with two choices: a) to feel extremely sorry for ourselves, or b) make a bigger, better snowman, rebuilding him and adding to the story he represents. Our story. Which is of course guided by the way we respond to the unplanned. Sometimes all we can do is laugh and carry on.
We become so dependant on our traditions for things to feel ‘right’ that we often forget the bigger picture or fear life without them. Wrongly or rightly, we assign a great deal of profound emotion to the most useless physical objects or rituals. Cut yourself loose and you’ll be surprised how well you cope on the other side.
Christmas also has a tendency to make us EVEN MORE dependant on material things. We feel like we’re being sentimental, when in reality most of the sentiment is just another dose of consumerism in disguise. I mean, what is the point in crackers? Sure it’s ‘tradition’ but isn’t it also a royal waist of money? I love Christmas as much as the next person, but it does a bloody good job of distorting our perception of things. We run the risk of doing the same things over and over and over again, without pausing to stop and think about why. Christmas is a prime example of our susceptibility to finding security in nostalgia – which is no way to live in the long term.
The lesson? Take Christmas and all your traditions with the biggest pinch of salt you can afford, take the pressure off yourself and remember what’s important. Shared traditions are a big part of celebrating a certain culture, but having the ability to break free from them when necessary is essential for culture (and your own sanity), too.