In this week, when few are in school, and many are on break for a number of reasons, it seemed worthwhile to consider traditions. Now, Eric Hobsbawm talked about the invention of traditions in his book of the same name, but he was thinking about something slightly different: he was considering how, in the act of nation building (and not in the Kennedy-esque US way), that people create stories and customs about the past that are more nostalgia, and that have limited relationship to the past. On the other hand, I am talking about where traditions come from.
In Obendorf bei Salzburg, Austria, a song is commemorated—perhaps the song for many. Stille Nacht, which will be having its bicentennial in 2018, is performed annually on Christmas Eve, and while it is easy to see this as a ploy to lure tourists, is also a joyful event in the region. The song has been translated into numerous languages, which is why it played a significant role in the Christmas 1914 Truce on the Western Front. This event in the First World War still intrigues and touches so many as it goes so far against the concept of total war, and is a story that captures the imagination, perhaps because it embodies the optimistic view that people are essentially good, even in the worst of circumstances.
In the US, at this time of year, the traditions are centered around Christmas. In New Mexico, where I live, there is an interesting amalgam of Christian and Native American Pueblo traditions that go back to the Spanish conquest and the merging of two types of rites and rituals. This led me, on 24 December (Christmas Eve), to the Taos Pueblo where, at dusk, the Taos Pueblo was open to visitors for a Feast Day. There is an annual procession of the Virgin Mary, whose presence is announced by the discharge of firearms while far more than 12 drummers drum, announcing her presence. The pueblo is filled with bonfires, some of which are more than 10 meters tall, and even on a winter evening, the heat is nearly unbearable as you walk through them—if you are brave enough to walk through them. All of this takes place in the confines of a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been continuously inhabited since at least 1450 and perhaps even from 1000.
This is one of many traditions that take place in a state that is barely the size of Germany; Catholic, Protestant and Jewish traditions abound, sometimes overlapping, other times integrating the different cultural traditions of those who call this region their home. Posadas, or processions of Mary and Joseph from one inn to the next are enacted in the hill towns. Farolitos adorn adobe buildings and line the streets and buildings in Albuquerque. Christmas pageants and light parades celebrate the season.
And, in many households, a more recent, universal tradition is upheld: the Christmas episode of Dr. Who. A 50 year-old BBC television program is awaited by many throughout the world who wish to find out what happens next. This year, the first and the twelfth doctors meet in a frozen wasteland, their future uncertain. I won’t spoil it if you didn’t watch it, but think about the universality of this; and, bringing it all back to Silent Night, Christmas 1914 is part of the tale.
What do all of these events have in common? Tradition—but Anatevka is a tale for another day…