People are always talking about traditions at Christmas time. I had dinner tonight with a family whose tradition is fondue on Christmas Eve. They asked me if I had any family traditions for Christmas.
We always had pickled herring on Christmas.
Pickled herring is pretty much the only seafood product that I don't like. At all. I will eat almost anything that comes out of water. I cannot stand pickled herring. Seriously, pickled fish?
We had a lot of transition in my family, and thus, not much tradition. It equipped me well for ministry, which is change, change, change. Not so much for the congregation (if you want to keep your job), but for the minister. We move. We adapt to the traditions of our congregations. If we don't, we cause trouble. I've actually come to appreciate tradition, although I don't really get it. The stabilizing force in a community is tradition. The things we share, over and over. I'm very good with change, but not so good with continuity. It's taken me eight years to realize that most people's faith journeys are built around the things they do every season, every year, every week. I don't have that. I have change, and pickled herring.
My family is 1,500 miles away, and this is the tradition they have gotten used to: I won't be there. They will work out their plans with my brother and sister who are married and now have other traditions to be part of, and they will all know that I am not part of those negotiations. If I'm good, as I finally was this year, I'll manage to send boxes of gifts that contain the hope that my nieces and nephews will remember who I am, that I can somehow be a part of their lives even though they see me once or twice a year. I don't think it's working.
I don't want to move back there, and I can't - I've made a name for myself as a troublemaker, a liberal. I've made myself an east-coaster through and through. Where I grew up, I would be abrupt, aloof, rude. I'm the outsider, now. And I've started to put down roots where I am. When one of my kids fainted in the Christmas Eve service tonight, I thought, "This will be the thing I remind her of when she's a senior and moving on." I'm having a hard time imagining leaving, and that is the hardest thing of all, seeing myself as someone who might stay. I have a life here in a way that I haven't before, anywhere, and that in itself is scary, because what do I do when I have to leave? And even scarier, what do I do if I stay?
One of the many things that is hard about it is realizing that I might never be at another Christmas gathering where there is pickled herring, where it is the people who have known me my whole life, where they will put out crazy fish products because we're Scandinavian but know that I won't have anything to do with it. I haven't been there for twelve years. Chances are, I'll never be there again. I am, through and through, a minister. Even if I could be away for Christmas, I wouldn't. I've spent the last three years with a friend's family; this year I wasn't invited. It reminded me that I am still a guest. That's not my family. If I flew home tomorrow I could still show up, unannounced, for my own family's pickled herring day. Here, in the life that I could very well have for the rest of my life, I will have to be invited. There is always that chance that I may have nowhere to go.
It's Christmas, and more than any other day of the year, I don't know who I am or where I belong. Home is my apartment, my dog, my roommate, the life I've created for myself. But I come home on Christmas Eve and I wonder, why is there no pickled herring here? Or something else I come back to on a holiday, something I can call my own, something I don't have to be invited to? Where is the thing that will hold me together? What is my tradition?