Midwinter offers a vast array of conventions masquerading as traditions. The giveaway that they are conventions is there if you poke around in their history, of which there is little, and in the way that they come across as somehow universal, while traditions are far less prone to this. The modern obsession with gratuitous consumption has more to do with the images hammered into us by advertisers, and the dominant cultural narrative that there must always be more. It must be bigger than last year, cost more, have more lights on it and make more noise. We must get fatter, and in the New Year feel even more guilty and sign up for an even more austere diet.
What is tradition then, if not conventions? Traditions don’t require people to know or understand what they’re doing – The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and the Hunting of the Earl of Rhone are fine cases in point. No one has a clue what that was originally about, but we keep doing it anyway. Morris dancing as well, has its origins and purpose obscured. However, many traditions, when you prod them, have a function of social rebalancing. Be it the letting off steam around festivals and Lords of Misrule, or the legitimised begging of mummers and wasailers, traditions keep things working nicely. Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun is the book for anyone who wishes to delve further.
Traditions honour and celebrate the cycle of the seasons. You can see in Christmas and New Year conventions some lingering echo of that, but the idea of lights and feasting as a reaction to darkness and privation isn’t much discussed. It is a time of year when charities go out of their way to appeal to us, but there is precious little rebalancing in our greed based culture. The UK had (according to homeless charity Shelter) 93,000 homeless children this Christmas. Police in London took blankets and other possessions from rough sleepers. Traditional Christian values around charity and compassion have been entirely separated, for the majority of people, from the festival of getting drunk, eating too much and falling asleep in front of the telly.
Conventions encourage us all to do the same thing. Christmas and New Year traditions have varied a fair bit over time. Sure there’s always been some carousing, except when the Puritans were in power and abolished mince pies. (Mince pies used to have meat in them by the way, what you buy in the supermarket is not what was traditional). Traditions tend to be broader, wider, and more flexible. The same song can have three different tunes, the same story can be told in a dozen different traditional songs. The same festivals can be celebrated all over the place, but not necessarily by everyone, or on exactly the same date or in quite the same way. Traditions grow, evolve and are peppered with local innovations. Burns Night might seem like an ancient Scottish tradition with its Haggis and impenetrable poetry, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not very old at all.
Will the modern conventions of turkey on Christmas day (A recent import from America) with roast potatoes (only been here a few hundred years, the potato) carry on forever into the future? Probably not. Any more than the iconic boar’s head stayed as the high point of the feast. We don’t cook birds in their feathers to make dramatic table presentations any more, either. We’ve folded the winter festivals inwards, focusing on hearth and screen and visible spending power. Can we keep on that way, ever bigger and better and with even more lights on it? The thing about traditions is that they respond to the needs of the day or they do not continue. The needs of the future will be for greater responsibility, and a far fairer sharing of resources. Give it a hundred years or so, and the outsized turkey and mountains of wrapping paper may seem as ludicrous to our descendents as beef in a mince pie seems to us.
About the only thing you can say for tradition, is that it doesn’t stay still. Anything that seems solid, certain and reliable, is probably just a fleeting convention.