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Why tradition and ritual still matter in a modern world

BY Dr Max Pemberton

21st Dec 2022 Life

Why tradition and ritual still matter in a modern world

Traditions like Christmastime are what make us human, and they have a crucial role to play in how we relate to each other, argues Dr Max Pemberton

“What? You can’t be serious?” I shouted in disbelief. “What do you mean there wasn’t a donkey?” Clearly this nun had gone mad. She smiled angelically at me and persevered.

“Most scholars agree that given Mary and Joseph’s social and economic position, it’s unlikely that they would ever have travelled on a donkey. And of course there’s no scriptural evidence to support the idea that there was a donkey.”

Evidence? She wants evidence?

"Given Mary and Joseph’s social and economic position, it’s unlikely that they would ever have travelled on a donkey"

“But what about the Christmas carol ‘Little Donkey’?” I asked triumphantly. “What about all those Christmas cards with the donkey on? Everyone knows there was a donkey. How else did they get from Nazareth to Bethlehem?”

“They walked or possibly hitched a ride on a wagon,” she offered, rather prosaically.

Huh. What does a nun know about the Bible? I immediately started scouring the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There must be a donkey here somewhere. Nope, nothing. I double checked. No, not even a whiff.

I recoiled in horror. My world had collapsed.

A traditional education

I was 16 at the time, studying scripture for my A-Levels, and the nun who had broken this earth-shattering news was my teacher.

I looked at Sister Mary Stephen in her habit, gently shaking her head at me. “It doesn’t matter that there wasn’t a donkey,” she said calmly.

Going to a co-ed convent, I wanted to take the opportunity to learn about one of the most important books ever written from someone who had dedicated her life to it: a nun. So, along with my science A-levels, I took religious education.

Regardless of your religious conviction, the Bible is a fascinating historical document, but when it came to the Christmas story, instead of being the voice of reason, the man of rational science, it was I who held on to the traditions and unfounded beliefs, and Sister Mary Stephen who challenged me.

The truth is, of course, Sister Mary Stephen didn’t need the donkey, because she knew what the Christmas story was really about.

The true meaning of Christmas

Vintage Christmas card shows girl in white dress carrying Christmas tree under starTraditions like dressing a tree at Christmas time help us to create a shared experience with the rest of humanity

The “meaning” of Christmas, which is so often talked about at this time of year, operates on two levels.

Firstly, there is the level of tradition; the rituals and objects we associate with it. Psychologically, we hold on to these because they root us historically and give us meaning.

They develop and are incorporated into our internal world as a way of defending ourselves from the chaos of the world outside. Turkey, carols, Christmas trees and so on are comforting, familiar objects, and are often seen as an important aspect of Christmas.

It’s interesting that so many of these traditions, which we like to think of as being as old as the hills, actually only go back a few generations.

Go back a few hundred years and the Christmas traditions would be very different to the ones we hold now. But traditions are important because they bring us together in a shared sense of belonging.

"We are social animals, and we need to feel connected to one another"

We are social animals, and we need to feel connected to one another. We create a mythology around key events like Christmas in order to give us a sense of shared, common ancestry, even though this is in itself often a myth.

Of course on the second and deeper level, the Christmas story is one of celebration and love.

Tradition may be useful psychologically, but ultimately it’s fragile and finite. A Christmas based solely on traditions will soon lose its meaning because tradition is easily invented and just as easily destroyed.

The real meaning of Christmas is love, not donkeys or baubles.

Inventing new traditions

I’m a great believer in the power of tradition and ritual, but knowing that most of our traditions were invented by our ancestors can be quite liberating, as it means that we too are free to create our own traditions to tie us together.

This is something I often discuss with my patients and encourage them to try themselves.

"Knowing that most of our traditions were invented by our ancestors can be quite liberating,"

As families become increasingly fragmented and atomised, I think realising that you can create your own family traditions, and doing so consciously, can help to bring people together and forge a sense of unity.

Right up until she died earlier this year, Sister Mary Stephen would send me a Christmas card with a donkey on it every year and I would do the same for her.

It had become quite a tradition.

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