The festive season is one full of traditions – some religious, some cultural, some national, some personal. Families develop their own rules and rituals.
As a child, our family had a rule that we were allowed to open our Christmas stockings as soon as we woke up, but no-one was allowed to open the big main presents until everyone was up and had eaten breakfast. This was fine when I was very young as the mere fact of having a Christmas stocking filled with little toys and chocolate coins was enough to assuage my excitement while I waited for the rest of the house to rise from their slumber. But the rule would come to frustrate me. I am the youngest child, and there is quite a significant age gap between me and my other two siblings. This meant that when I was eight or nine years old and desperate to open my presents, my brother and sister would be fast asleep upstairs, having stumbled in drunk late the night before. My parents then had to balance the excitement of a sweet, innocent, bright-eyed child filled with hope and Christmas magic with the desire not to have Christmas ruined by two miserable, hungover teenagers. I think at that point, a degree of flexibility was introduced to how strictly the rule was enforced.
Later in the day, my aunts, uncles and cousins would come over for Christmas dinner and then there would be more presents. These would also be associated with arcane rules about the order in which they were opened and how they were handed out. We never watched the Queen’s Speech, but silence was observed during the Christmas episodes of Eastenders and Coronation Street. A game of Trivial Pursuit acted as the day’s closing ceremony.
I am always interested in how traditions and rituals develop. Not just on the micro-scale of a family, but on a wider national or international scale – the German tradition of watching Dinner For One every New Year’s Eve is a particularly baffling one. When trying to understand how traditions like this develop, it’s tempting to try to find the first instance of when that ritual was performed. But traditions don’t start the first time you do something. Perhaps not even the second. It’s the third and fourth and fifth time you do it that the tradition is formed.
I think a similar thing happens with hobbies and interests. You don’t start collecting miniature porcelain pig figurines the moment you buy your first miniature porcelain pig figurine. At that point, you are just a normal person who happens to own a miniature porcelain pig figurine. You may then buy another one just so that you have a pair. The third is purchased because you think that odd numbers make more aesthetically pleasing visual arrangements. It’s at this point that you are on the verge of becoming a collector, although you are not yet aware of it. At no point did you think to yourself “You know what, I’m going to collect miniature porcelain pig figurines” but perhaps you start noticing them more than you used to. Soon the house is filled with miniature porcelain pig figurines. Every Christmas and birthday, friends and family members buy you more and more miniature porcelain pig figurines. You start visiting miniature porcelain pig figurine internet forums. You have “miniature porcelain pig figurine” as a saved search on eBay. You wear a T-shirt you bought at a miniature porcelain pig figurine convention. But when someone asks you when you first started collecting miniature porcelain pig figurines, you can’t answer them. You don’t know when your collection of miniature porcelain pig figurines started because it started before it started. At this point, you wonder if perhaps, on some level you were always destined to collect miniature porcelain pig figurines. You begin to contemplate the nature of free will and self-determination. It all gets too much and so you go online and buy another miniature porcelain pig figurine to make yourself feel better, but it doesn’t work. You begin to resent miniature porcelain pig figurines, but you know it’s too late. This is your life now and rather than fight against it, you accept your fate and live out the rest of your days surrounded by an ever-growing collection of miniature porcelain pig figurines.