Every December, the days start to glow with our good feelings toward everyone — family, friends, and even strangers. Every year, we put up our Christmas tree on the same day. Every year, my wife Angie hangs that reindeer on our chandelier, making the same weird shadow on the floor.
Is it all just habit? A mere extension of Ivan Pavlov’s theory of observable behavior? His theory was that, with repeated association of the unconditional and the conditional stimulus, the conditional stimulus will cause a reflex of its own. In other words: Black Friday hits, and we all salivate and go shopping. When the same things happen over and over, December after December, some of our actions seem to come about all by themselves.
But I don’t call the reindeer on the chandelier a habit, I call it a tradition. The difference is that traditions are more than just reflexes: traditions evoke an abundance of feelings.
For example, my wife and I have a tradition that lasts all year. It might not look like much to everyone else who sees it, but it’s pretty special to us. And it involves French fries.
Yes, you read that correctly: French fries.
During our first few weeks of courtship a mere six years ago, she told me how much she loved those tiny little crunchy fries from McDonald’s that get left in the fryer too long and fall down into the bottom of the container. The ones that leave her with ketchup all over her fingers when she tries to dip them, ’cuz the fry is so short.
Those little “crunchies” are my favorite, too.
So, ever since 2000, at least once every couple weeks we set out in search of a brightly-lit set of golden arches for those crispy bits of potato. We have never actually talked about it, but we always use the same process. First I eat all my “normal” fries, hunting for the elusive “crunchies.” (Any fellow fans of the little crunchy fries know that they’re less than sparse: four or five per carton is considered a good find.)
When all that’s left are my “crunchies,” I feed them to Angie, one at a time. She does the same to me.
How can something so small in someone else’s eyes mean so much? I say it’s the tradition. It is the warmth I feel when the corners of her mouth start to turn toward the sky — when she’s doing her best not to give away the fact that she just ate her last “normal” fry, and she is about to “surprise” me with a taste of crunchy goodness. It is the sheer unselfishness she displays that gives me so much joy.
We must be careful not to let traditions turn into habits. Something isn’t a tradition just because my father or my father’s father started doing it every year — it’s tradition because of how I feel about my father, my grandfather, and my whole family.
That’s really what the holidays are about, aren’t they? The traditions that remind us how we felt as children when we knew Christmas was coming. The tradition of remembering to tell people we care about them. The tradition of forgetting about life’s little speed bumps, even for just a little while.
Even the tradition of that beautiful glow on Angie’s face when she’s about to reach across the table with two ketchup-covered fingers.