The View From Outside

Of times and traditions

Well, here we are at last: the last week of classes of the semester. Finals start next week, of course, and after that the campus will slowly drain of life as most of the students head away for the Christmas vacation. It’s difficult, empirical evidence to the contrary, to credit and accept the fact that I’ve been here in the U.S., at RPI, since August, and that I’ve survived (if barely) my first semester, with all the highs and lows, triumphs and disasters, that entails. Even if the freezing cold weather I was first warned about long before I set foot in Troy has singularly failed to materialise to date, and my internal chronometer notwithstanding, it is December: Where has the time gone?

It’s at times like this, when we are far from home and disoriented by the new and unfamiliar, that we fall most strongly back on the comfort and support of routine, of the familiar cycles. Perhaps we grew up with them, or perhaps they came into our lives through choice or by accretion; maybe, even, we don’t know where they came from, or when they became a tradition, but there they are nonetheless. While I was away for Thanksgiving, celebrating a new tradition, the routine reasserted itself with the memory that the Sunday before was the last Sunday before Advent, or “Stir Up Sunday” as it’s commonly known back home. Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people, begins the reading for the week in the old English Book of Common Prayer, and, given how the Christmas treats are at their best when they’ve been given chance to sit and mature for a while, it was an apt reminder to get on with stirring the pudding together. Even now, two weeks later, I have a mild sense of self-reproachment that I’m behind in my preparations. Only three weeks until Christmas, and not a pudding made nor a mince pie baked: for shame …

What makes a tradition? What elevates the cyclical, the repetitive, the routine, to the point where it becomes a “tradition”? All the “traditional” carols that I’ve sung down the years, they weren’t always “traditional”: Once they, like everything else, was brand shining new. “Tradition” comes but slowly, little by little, down the years, until it seems unthinkable for a particular event to occur without this thing, which once was new and unimagined, being part of it. Roast turkey for Christmas dinner is as considered the “traditional” thing to eat back home, but it’s interesting to consider that this tradition didn’t get started until the early 20th century: Until then, roast goose was the standard. Even the academic year is a tradition, beginning in late summer and progressing through the year to the end of spring, with its familiar events (matriculation, examination, graduation) and the ebb and flow of students to campus arriving and departing for the first or last time and all the times in between.

But this won’t get any mince pies baked, and it certainly won’t get my assignments written or any studying done for my three finals. So I shall yield to tradition, buckle down, and get on with what I have to do, and let you do the same. Happy Christmas, and see you next year.