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December 23, 2016


Fostering Community

[This message was delivered by Dr. Foster during the Middle and Senior School Christmas Dinners at Trafalgar Castle School]

When I was growing up, Christmas was always a time of great anticipation and excitement. I remember decorating the Christmas tree every year as a family, with my father always putting the lights on first and the star on last. I recall carefully unwrapping each piece of the manger set to see if the three wise men and shepherd had survived another year of basement storage unscathed, and I most certainly remember dutifully leaving a plate of milk and cookies for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer. I was raised in the Salvation Army Church so other Christmas traditions included caroling with the band, collecting toys for donation to families less fortunate, and the diligent learning of my lines every year for the nativity play (I can still recite Luke chapter 2, verses 10 to 12 with great confidence).

Some of these traditions were carried on in our own home after our daughter, Olivia was born, some fell away, and new ones that we created together as a family were added. Olivia’s Danish grandmother carried on her own family’s tradition of a day spent baking and decorating sugar cookies, an undertaking she shared every year with all eleven grandchildren. Olivia’s grandmother, or Farmor (as she’s referred to in Danish) is now 92 and quite frail, but the grandchildren still get together with her every December. They are the ones now doing the baking while Farmor watches nearby with a cup of tea (or a gin and tonic, depending upon the time of day), but a meaningful family tradition continues nonetheless.

Traditions can be unique to families. A friend of mine who comes from a rather exuberant and boisterous clan, once jokingly stated, “It wasn’t Christmas in our house until dad threw the turkey at my brother!” So while we generally associate traditions as precious touch points proudly passed down through generations, it’s sometimes helpful to think about the value of what we perpetuate.

There’s a story I’ve often heard that goes like this. A young woman was preparing pot roast just the way she’d always seen her own mother prepare it. She spiced the roast, cut the vegetables, and then cut a piece off both ends of the meat before placing it in the roasting pan. A friend who was watching her cook asked why she cut the ends off the meat. “Because that’s how my mother taught me to do it,” she replied.

Thinking more about this, the woman called her mother the next day. “When you cook pot roast,” she asked, “why do you cut the ends off?” Her mother replied, “Because that’s what my mother did.”

The question made the mother think, so the next time she called her own mother and asked her why she had always cut both ends off the pot roast. “Because,” the mother replied, “my roasting pan was smaller than the roasts I got at the butcher. I had to cut the ends off or the roast wouldn’t fit in the pan.”

As I learn more about Trafalgar Castle with its glorious history and its many traditions, I’m reminded that we sometimes have to ask if we have a proverbial pan in our midst. In other words, are there moments when we would be wise to reconcile tradition with relevance? The author Somerset Maugham wrote, “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer,” – wise words, indeed. I believe tradition should be a guide. We should examine the hopes and aspirations that produced a tradition in its time and in its context, and ensure that the original purpose of that tradition is always served, even as things change over time.

I think about this evening, for example. Our school community, from its very beginning, has always come together to celebrate the joys of the holiday season. Originally, the carols that were sung and the scriptures that were read reflected the traditions of the Methodist Church that founded our school in 1874. Over the years, our school community, like our country, has changed to reflect a rich and broad fabric of beliefs, languages, religions, and cultures. Our school consciously strives to be an increasingly inclusive community that welcomes, respects and values diversity. So what does it mean to reconcile tradition and relevance in events like this evening?

I have learned that a love of tradition is, in fact, a Trafalgar tradition. I believe that will always be the case. So while some things have changed over time, while we no longer exclusively sing carols, and while scripture has been replaced by other thoughtful texts, the original hopes and aspirations of our Methodist founders remain. In that spirit, like generations of Trafalgar families before us, we celebrate our school’s longstanding tradition of coming together at this time of the year to rejoice in family, friendship, and community.

So, I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Happy Holiday, Hanukkah Sameach, or even a Festivus for the Rest of Us – whatever most brings you and your family joy and peace this time of year.

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