Christmas gets hectic early — as is the way with most holiday events. My dad and brother, Chris, left an hour early for choir rehearsal. My mom and I finish cleaning up from dinner and then follow after them, praying there is still parking left at the church by the time we get there. We arrive just in time to squeeze into the last convenient spot, edging out the priest who was heading for the same one. The church has already begun to fill up as we duck inside. Mom cuts up to the back of the church to check that everything is going smoothly, while I make sure the front altar is set for Mass. I catch Chris smirking as I walk — he is sitting with the choir, listening to the director lecture its members yet again about keeping her tempo — and I try not to laugh since I know Chris will be perfectly on tempo the whole night. He turns to consult with Dad while I return to my checks.
With everything in place, I walk past the rapidly filling pews to the sacristy. The pleasant hum of conversation mingles with carols from the choir as I nod to the few parishioners who recognize me. I meet Mom as she finishes putting on her alb — the white robe worn by altar servers — and quickly throw mine on. We give each other the once over before stepping into the vestibule to welcome people as they come in. The priest whose parking spot we stole arrives a moment later, having been delayed finding a new place to park. He robes up as the choir finishes their final carol. I grab the cross and head to my place for the procession. Mom lines up behind me, holding the censer while fragrant wisps of smoke waft towards the ceiling. I see Dad and Chris rise with the choir to begin the opening hymn. The music starts, I lift the cross, take my first step, and the Mass begins.
The Donnay family (the author third from left) after Christmas Mass, early 2000s | Photo courtesy of the author
The winter holidays are a time rich in tradition for my family. When my brother and I were younger, we would all drive to a tree farm and cut down a tree together. That tree would then sit in the backyard until Christmas Eve when we would decorate it as a family. We would go to Christmas Eve Mass, followed by Chinese food and a movie. The evening always concluded (and still does) with a reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree. Morning would see Chris and I rise early (although we rise less early nowadays) and wait patiently for the parents to come downstairs, as we weren’t allowed to go in the room with the tree until everyone was awake. We all gathered in the kitchen for homemade cinnamon rolls — called Seussical rolls after their whimsical shape — and tea before going into the back room to open presents. By early afternoon we would all reliably be in chairs and on couches reading.
Not the Donnay family Seussical rolls (sadly)
This ordering of events, particular rituals, and even specific food all falls under the heading of Christmas traditions at my house. This script could describe just about any Christmas celebration in my house over the last two decades with only minor alterations. And yet, as with all traditions, each one of these has a starting moment. A time when they weren’t traditions, but merely what we were doing for that particular Christmas. The Seussical cinnamon rolls, for example, were an addition from my brother’s first cookbook during his tween years. They have since established themselves as a canonical part of our holiday repertoire, but began as an experiment.
It makes me wonder about the nature of these family traditions. We bake the Seussical cinnamon rolls and comment on their shape year after year. We make the same joke about our tree decorating schedule every time: that we’re always the last to put it up and the last to take it down (since it often stays up far into January). These individual acts have grown out of their original context. In the repetition of them, we have endowed them with the weight of ritual.
These rituals have become tradition and, thus, they are now a performative part of the holiday season for my family. But who are we performing them for? To use a theatrical analogy, we all have the script. We are part of the cast, but there is no audience beyond us. So are we performing for ourselves?
Fluffy, the Donnay family cat | Photo courtesy of the author
Unless we are performing these traditions for our cat, who I’m sure is very amused by it all, these traditions must be a self-reflective mechanism. On one level, these traditions serve as the script for the holidays. They give each of us a rhythm to follow so that we can all be present together for specific moments. Not just physically present — although that has become more important as my brother and I move away from home — but emotionally as well. The scripted nature of our traditions allows us to conserve some of the emotional energy of having to generate moments organically during a hectic time of year.
One such tradition is decorating the Christmas tree. Normally done in the early afternoon on Christmas Eve, it is often the first moment when the entire family is gathered together. We put on some Christmas music (since my mom believes in celebrating Christmas in its proper liturgical season, this is often the first moment Christmas music plays in the house too), bring the boxes up from the basement, and sort through worn packaging to find just the right assortment of ornaments. Because this tradition draws us physically close together — as we navigate around each other to find the best spot on the tree to hang our ornaments — it makes it easier to ask my brother about his plans after graduation or to catch up on family news with Mom. Since my effort isn’t focused on starting the conversation, it leaves more energy to have the conversation itself. In this way, traditions allow us to focus on one another in a deeper way than we might otherwise.
These deep connections, facilitated by our shared traditions, also help us reestablish our bonds as a family. No relationship sustains itself without effort, although much of the emotional labor of sustaining familial relationships is often unequal or unseen, and the performance of traditions is one way to reinforce those relationships. They remind us of our shared history as a family and provide the vehicle for telling the stories that anchor our collective identity. Even though we all know the script, the act of performing it together is the crucial aspect, regardless of the audience.
These individual acts have grown out of their original context. In the repetition of them, we have endowed them with the weight of ritual.
Performing the Sacred
While we might be performing most of our holiday traditions for ourselves, there is one element of Christmas that is entirely public, if no less performative: Christmas Mass. A Catholic Mass is a profoundly theatrical affair. At its heart, the central element of the celebration involves a reenactment of the Last Supper. The entire flow of the Mass is choreographed. Props — in this case, the cups of wine and the communion wafers — need to be pre-set in the correct position. They need to be tracked to the appropriate place at the appropriate time. Music accompanies the service throughout. A large group of people needs to stand, kneel, and sit in unison.
In short, to play a role in the Mass is to be a performer. My mom and I, as altar servers, occupy the liminal space between onstage and off. At times we are stage managers, ensuring that everything flows smoothly and no one in the congregation is distracted from the service by logistical needs. At other times, we are active participants in the action, following carefully choreographed paths within the celebration. The processions at the beginning and end of Mass mark my most visible moments, as I bear the cross down the central aisle of the church. However, during the preparations for the Eucharist, we strive to be as unobtrusive as possible while setting the altar. And yet, the moment the altar is set we are again called upon to perform as we go receive the gifts being brought from the congregation. The goal is to seamlessly switch between a presentational mode and near invisibility.
In contrast, as choir members, my dad and brother are much more conventional performers. There is, however, one complication to their performance: neither my dad nor my brother are practicing Catholics. Chris stopped practicing in his early teens when he felt like the Church did not respect all aspects of his identity. Dad’s family went to church occasionally when he was younger, but stop attending regularly after they moved to Canada. The one exception was always Christmas. It was important to his mother they go together and so without fail they would go. It was, after all, a tradition.
The Donnay family after Christmas Mass, 2016 | Photo courtesy of the author
Both Chris and Dad have expressed similar feelings about attending Christmas Mass. Whereas Mom and I attend out of a religious obligation (obligation in the technical sense, not the “I can’t believe they’re making me do this” sense), a sense of family tradition motivates them. When Chris and I were young, we would sing with Mom at church sometimes. As we grew older, Dad began singing with us as well and it became one of the few activities that all four of us could do together. That momentum has carried forward so that even though Mom and I now altar serve instead of sing, Chris and Dad continue to sing with the choir. Chris also explains that, since he doesn’t practice, singing provides a way into the service for him. As a musician, he can put some intellectual distance between the aspects of the Mass he doesn’t agree with and his participation. This allows him to separate the family tradition, which brings him to church, from the service that he otherwise would not attend.
On one level, these traditions serve as the script for the holidays. They give each of us a rhythm to follow so that we can all be present together for specific moments.
In this way, participating in the Mass serves the same functions as our other traditions: it provides scripted space for strengthening relationships and the opportunity to be together. For Dad and Chris, the fact that Mass is a public ceremony actually has little bearing on the situation – besides providing the place to sing. While Mom and I are there to perform the sacred, Dad and Chris are performing something equally as important: family. In the end, all of our holiday traditions are really family traditions in that they have family at their center. Whether it’s singing at Mass or hauling boxes up from the basement to decorate the tree, traditions are a vehicle for our family to come closer together. They remind us of our shared history and strengthen the relationships that will carry us forward into the future.