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Disheveled Theologian: Theological Stocking Stuffers, Week 4 -- A tasty tradition

I like traditions. Especially at Christmastime. My mouth is watering for some of our favorite food traditions: Stollen, cream wafers, Oslo Kringle, sausage and mushroom egg bake. But I also love our decoration traditions: eclectic ornaments both handmade and vintage, new and absurd; the train beneath the tree; the village on the hearth; the sequin-covered hangings from my grandmother; my German nutcrackers.

There are music traditions: Handel’s Messiah; the choir boys of Kings College, Cambridge; Julie Andrews, Vince Guaraldi. And there are traditional books or stories: Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, Norman Rockwell’s Christmas Book, an entire bucket of children’s storybooks.

And there are traditions surrounding the presents: on Christmas Eve we open one gift each, the next morning we open stockings, eat breakfast, open gifts, always in that order.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that stockings are one of our favorite Christmas traditions and the most traditional part of the stocking comes thanks to my Scottish grandparents. It is a tradition I didn’t appreciate as a kid and my own kids have a hard time appreciating it as well. But now, as an adult, I can’t imagine my stocking without it.

What is this long-lasting tradition? It lurks at the very bottom of the sock. It goes in first and, usually, is removed last. It waits, nestled in the bottom of the rounded toe, for the stocking’s owner to acknowledge that, alas, the sock is empty once again for another year.

It is, if you haven’t guessed, an orange.

My kids don’t get the orange. “Why do I want this?” one of them asked one year, holding the offending fruit with furrowed brow.

“Because when your great-grandmother was a small girl in Scotland, an orange was a rare and precious treat and having an orange in the toe of a stocking was a wonderful Christmas surprise!”

My child was unconvinced.

“Just eat it,” I said. “And be thankful. It’s tradition.”

Traditions can be misunderstood, like that orange. They can be meaninglessly followed, if you don’t recall the purpose behind them. They can be oppressively compelled, holding nothing but duty in their coercion. Or they can be just simply traditions, followed in honor of their founders, like the tradition of naming a child after a kinsman, as the neighbors and family members of Zechariah and Elizabeth expected they would do.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’ Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’” Luke 1:59-63

Zechariah had been silent for nine months, thanks to the angel Gabriel, who closed his mouth when he doubted the angel’s words that he and Elizabeth would have a son. Now that son was born and Zechariah was in no way going to contradict Gabriel again, giving his firstborn son the name that the angel had told him to give to the child, going against the tradition of his family and community.

Sometimes traditions need to change. Sometimes the oranges need to be thrown away. Sometimes new names need to be given. Sometimes we need to look at the things we have always done — going to church, for example — and think about why it is we do it.

Because Jesus didn’t come to earth to become a tradition. He came to become our savior.

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer who lives in Worthington with her husband and three children. She has a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary and enjoys writing about the things she sees and applying theological truths to everyday situations. Her column, The Disheveled Theologian, is published weekly. Her email is gcodon@gmail.com.

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