I first wrote this piece in December 2019, just two months after my father passed away; the combination of Christmas and loss was a potent one for reflection on family traditions. Now some five months later, in midst of extraordinary times for which there are, thankfully, no traditions, I am moved to revisit.
I am a great believer in traditions – they connect us to the past, reinforce links between communities be they based on faith, interests, location or especially relevant for me schools. Traditions also serve to mark the passage of time and ensure due significance is made of momentous events in life – birth, first and last days of school, significant birthdays and marriage to name but a few.
As a child I went to Boarding School and the rituals associated with the end of term have stayed with me forever – even as a tired teacher really looking forward to turning off the alarm clock and putting down the red pen for a couple of weeks the end of term cannot quite live up to the excitement I experienced as a child. The penultimate afternoon of school was cancelled and whilst day girls watched a film, us boarders returned to our boarding houses and packed our trunks ready for them to be stored or collected along with us, by parents the following morning. Looking forward to returning home after ten or more weeks at school was a special kind of excitement.
Christmas is of course a time of traditions both for Christians and others. Putting up the tree, visiting relatives, watching the Queen’s speech or eating turkey; they each hold significance within our communities. I read an article recently that suggested that when you open your Christmas presents signifies the socio-economic class you belong to. Well I am not sure about that but I do remember a Christmas of my young adulthood when friends and I hired a cottage in Devon to do our ‘own’ Christmas. It was chaos because each person wanted traditions from their own family Christmases re-enacted by this new community – we ended up with a Christmas dinner that included turkey and beef, onion as well as bread sauce and as many vegetables as there were people.
Of course sometimes traditions need to or are forced to change. A change of circumstances be that for happy or sad reasons dictates that a tradition is no longer workable in any given community. For me this is my first Christmas without my parents whose expectations of Christmas influenced greatly my own. A number of years ago I heard a wise woman say that if traditions don’t work for you or your family, ‘make new ones’ and I have held onto this ever since. It is time in my family to choose which traditions of my parents we are going to maintain – Queen’s Speech, Boxing Day walk and The Sound of Music are in and which no longer work for us. Time to enshrine our own traditions which in turn will become those my sons evaluate in years to come.
The current pandemic is forcing us to alter traditions in very significant ways; people are unable to celebrate their weddings, birthday parties cancelled, grand-parents denied first or subsequent visits to new babies and so much more. Perhaps one of the most tragic difficulties families face is being unable to arrange traditional funerals for their loved ones. My father had the most magnificent funeral – a suitable level of pomp and circumstance in a packed village church surrounded by the people he loved and that loved him, I would have been devastated not to be able to give him that send off and my heart goes out to families denied such a farewell. However, looking for some glimmer of positive I have been touched to read that the tradition of people standing silently as a hearse passes by is returning in these times – I have been moved to read of residents standing clapping on their driveways to say farewell to neighbours. I am also lifted by the promises of wonderful parties of celebration to be held when circumstances allow – perhaps some of these changes will stay with us and we’ll explain to our grandchildren why since COVID 19 we have two parts to a funeral; a family service and a celebration?
Here at Dixie we consider ourselves lucky enough to be a school with strong traditions – the ritual of entering school through the main oak doors in September connects today’s Dixie students with the centuries of Dixie scholars including, of course, our most famous pupils Thomas Hooker and Samuel Johnson. Yet we are also young enough to ensure that our traditions really work for our students and staff. We cherish the ringing in of the school year by the youngest member of Year 6 (by the bell that once hung on the clock tower) and the ringing out of the school year on the final day of term following a whole school Prize Giving. This latter tradition is very young having started when Mr Lynn joined the school in 2014. Mr Lynn’s now famous assemblies on the last day for the Upper 6th are enjoyed by all; a chance for students to reminisce, parents to reflect on how their babies became young men and women and for us all to wish our departing students the very best for their futures.
I am also struck now by how quickly some traditions form – how many of us are enjoying regular zoom meet ups with friends and family? My family have been engaged in a quiz with others which I am confident will carry on after I am allowed to actually go out on a Saturday night! Our now established weekly catch up with my husband’s family has been a delight (especially watching father-in-law grapple with yet another app that we suggest) and will, I am sure be maintained.
In our final assembly of the Christmas term, Mrs Craig took on the mantle form Mr Haddon and offered the school a Christmas reflection following Mr Lynn’s usual presentation assembly. She spoke of the historical message of Christmas, when ‘before became after’ and urged us all to use the holidays to reflect on our own before – times when we have not spoken or behaved as well as we might have done and to look forward to the after, make a commitment to the future. Tomorrow sees a young but, I hope precious tradition emerging at Dixie. Following our Christmas lunch and dressed in our Christmas jumpers the final afternoon will be spent by Sixth Form engaging in the annual 6th form Quiz. For the rest of the school, we will be taking part in Christmas at the Dixie – just the second year we have done this, students have all opted for one of a variety of traditional (a walk, board games and movies) and not so traditional ( Yr 11 DT NEA catch up session) activities. There are signs that this is becoming a strong tradition with watching Elf at the top of the leader board for students’ traditional Christmas at the Dixie activity.
I hope you all get to enjoy the traditions important to you and your families this Christmas and that those that no longer serve you well are replaced by new and improved ones. This is the final area of reflection for me – despite the very many things I miss desperately about ‘normal’ life nearly all of which centre around people, there are things that have had to change that I hope will stay changed forever. I am enjoying my enforced relaxation over a weekend and for one will strive not to return to a situation where I am so busy seeing people and doing things all weekend I finish the weekend exhausted and ill equipped for the week ahead. I’d like to think our now traditional family film night will continue although my sons are sincerely hoping their days of being subjected to classic Rom-coms are nearing an end!
Perhaps the over-riding message here is to choose your traditions, make them ones that are right for you and your family accepting of course that some are out of our control.
With best wishes to you and your families.
Catrina Young, Deputy Head, Senior School