Rituals and Traditions 

Growing up, I thought everyone, everywhere tucked into turkey and Christmas Pudding on December 25th. At the time, that’s what everyone I knew did.  By the time I was about twelve, I realized that some of my Jewish friends didn’t follow this tradition – but surely they were rare exceptions. Coming to the States years later, I realized with shock, in fact horror is not too strong a word, that the Thanksgiving Dinner is much like my cherished Christmas meal – minus the Christmas Pudding that’s substituted with a strange pumpkin sludge pie. Eating this repast just weeks before Christmas can only undermine my beloved tradition. Worse still, Americans actually ask what you are having for Christmas – as if there were a choice! What a revelation. My neighbor tells me she eats lasagna – and that on Christmas Eve!  Another friend has lobster ravioli, and another ham and pickles.

This Covid year found me craving the comfort of the rituals and traditions of my childhood, so on Christmas Eve, I prepared the infamous Christmas Pudding to the companionable strains of an iconic broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings’ College Chapel, Cambridge, England.  For those or you not familiar with this annual event, it is hauntingly magical. In the northern hemisphere we think of light piercing the darkness at this time of year and have all kinds of rituals to celebrate it.  In the Lessons and Carols, it is a boy soprano’s voice that pierces the darkness with his clear ringing tones, singing the first verse of, “Once In Royal David’s City”.  After his solo, the choir joins in and the carol comes to an almighty crescendo, complete with descants and magnificent organ accompaniment. The service proceeds with exquisite carols interspersed with formal readings of the nativity story. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the medieval chapel, but if you haven’t, I’d guess you would hear even on a streaming broadcast, the timeless quality that comes from the sound reverberating from the ancient stones, and the vault of the roof.

As I listened, I combined the ingredients for the pudding. This is “pudding” in the sense of dessert as opposed to the narrower US understanding of a manufactured milk-based slurry in a plastic pot.  A Christmas Pudding combines flour, sugar, breadcrumbs and heapings of dried fruit, with egg and yes, suet, (a type o animal fat). The mixture is poured into a bowl and steamed for many hours over a couple of days.  As I prepare this dubious dessert, I am always wistful, remembering my grandmother. We used to make this together, and the tables turned from her showing me when I was little, to me guiding her in her later years when she struggled with dementia.  If I remember, I stir the mixture anti-clockwise and make a wish.  This apparently reflects the “wise men’s” journey from the East to visit the newborn Christ.  It occurs to me that it would be satisfying to speculate that the gifts they bore were perhaps not only gold, frankincense and myrrh as tradition holds, but possibly a steamed pudding of exotic fruit and spice and its brandy butter sauce!

As if the mysterious mound of dark steamed fruit that is Christmas Pudding, couldn’t become more perplexing, to serve it you set it on fire!  It is doused in a little spirit and set aflame – sometimes singeing the sprig of holly that traditionally adorns its dome

Rituals and traditions pudding

By now you may be wondering why I have rambled on about turkey and treats indiscriminately scattering the words “ritual” and “tradition” as I went. Don’t worry, I am coming to a point.  Especially at this time of the year, in the north but also to a lesser extent in the rest of the world, we emphasize rituals and traditions.  All the ceremonies about light and hope breaking through darkness and fear from religions and secular practices help us get through darker days. It seems that ritual is patterned or sequenced behavior that has emotional significance. Tradition is similar, yet it also implies a connection with the past.

As my Christmas rituals brought me reassurance, I wondered what rituals we have developed that comfort and bring hope to us in these dark, Covid days. It turns out Chris and I have established a few; I’ll focus on a couple.

Weather permitting, there are farmers’ markets in both of our locations, and we make a habit of attending them, particularly as they are outdoor events and therefore relatively “safe” as the infection spreads more in enclosed spaces. The “habit” has taken on meaning for us. We relish the produce  and plant stalls – evidence that health can flourish, the music and the craft stalls, evidence that the creative spirt still soars, and the “foreign” food, French cheeses and African appetizers – reminders that other people have their traditions too. We enjoy being regulars at the market, being a part of it.  It’s a ritual we are loathe to miss.

Another “new” ritual is to cook a special meal on what we call “Festive Fridays”.  We alternate the responsibility for choosing and preparing the meal. Our dishes have been sourced from across the world with Chris focusing often on meat and Jean on fish.  We take care to set a pleasant table, light a candle, and slow down. It’s just a good meal yet it connects us with people we have never met and underscores our gratitude that we have abundant food. Festive Friday has broadened our minds and, unfortunately, our waistlines, yet it is a ritual that one day may evolve into a tradition. 

Hoping you’ve enjoyed some fun rituals and traditions to penetrate the darkness of 2020 and bring some hope to 2021.

Rituals and traditions pudding

End Notes

Reading

The Yellow House – Sarah Broom

Listening

Requiem – Icelandic composer Jon Liefs

Listen to one of these  haunting tracks by  Vevaki – Will Hunter, who is a member of Chris’ extended family and takes inspiration from the myths and sagas of Iceland

Singing

Chris recorded several pieces recently; he only has the rights to share “Silent Night” which is in public domain. The arrangement is by Chris Porth.

Poetry

In Memory of My Mother – Patrick Kavanagh

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