Sunday, December 25, 2011

holiday traditions--constructive and constrictive

More and more, I’ve been puzzling about the limitations of hospitality.  Most recently, I’ve been worrying about the limits of holiday hospitality as it relates to the concept of tradition.  I’m wondering if some traditions are clearly designed to be exclusionary and thus, intend inhospitality.

Before I begin my bombast, I grant that under the banner of “tradition,” many people celebrate and communicate together, privileging the gathered more than the gathering.  I remember a holiday meal when, after 4 of the 20 guests were served their plates, the cook (from the kitchen) announced that the rest of the meat was too undercooked, which meant another 15-20 minutes seated without food.  Hell, what did we care?  We opened another bottle, passed it around, and continued our conversations around the long table.  That’s what I mean by privileging the gathered.  And, by the way, it was the absolutely best lamb chop I’ve ever tasted.

But back to my concern:  under that same banner of “tradition,” some people license themselves to bar others from their celebrations.  Think about how many times you’ve heard people insist that they couldn’t get together with you or include you in their gathering.  “We always spend Easter at my mother’s.  Sorry.” “She gets a lot of pressure from her husband to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Sorry.” “My parents would be so disappointed if we didn’t accompany them to Las Vegas.  It’s our Christmas thing. Sorry.”  Every time I hear those pronouns—we, my, our—I hear implied exclusions. But I say nothing because I know, like you do, that there’s a dangerously defensive subtext of tradition:  when you challenge my family’s traditions, you insult my family…and me.
It’d be simple to blame the older generation for inflexibly perpetuating traditions. But for the most part, I hear people scapegoating onto others their own preferences.  If you listen closely, you’ll eventually discover that there’s a selfish reason for always visiting their mother’s house at Easter—she does everything, so they don’t have to lift a finger.  I do this, I confess.  But it's time that I acknowledge that no one’s forcing me to go anywhere.  I’m an adult.  You’re an adult. We all say “no” to our relatives plenty of times.  Let’s face it--we’re going where we want to go, with whom, and when because that’s how we want it. I know that we’d all prefer to rationalize that we have some more noble purpose, but, according to Nietzsche, we always do what we want to do. (Ooops, did I just pretty much negate my whole hospitality premise? Anyway…) If I don’t join someone’s celebration, it’s because I don’t want to. And if people don’t come to my house, it’s because they don’t want to.  I get that.  All I’m suggesting is that we simply need to admit our preferences rather than concocting bogus excuses masquerading as traditions. 

But my main point concerns a broader and more destructive issue.  The inclusiveness vs. exclusionary intention to perpetuate a tradition poses an important ethical distinction, yet one that isn't considered thoughtfully enough.  Instead, too often, “tradition” automatically outweighs hospitality—with total impunity.  We don’t dare question it.  Or if we do, we’re mighty reluctant to openly challenge someone else's traditions. 

Is there hope?  Yes. First, we need to stop abusing traditions as excuses for following our own desires. Second, we should consider the potential inhospitality when we next hear, “But (insert those included) always do (insert tradition) on (insert day, time, and location) together. Sorry.” Finally, as vanguards of hospitality, we should eschew or alter traditions that are constrictive and participate in only ones that are constructive.     

 PS For a truer-than-you-might-think look at traditions, take a few minutes to read this:

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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf