Sometime after dinner on December 24th, my father and I will sit down in front of a television and watch Detective John McClane get off a flight to LAX, carry a big stuffed bear through the airport, ride in a limo to Nakatomi Plaza and take an elevator to the Christmas party on the 30th floor.
During John McClane’s limo ride, probably around the time the driver turns up the volume on Run DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis,” I will proclaim this movie, Die Hard, to be “the best Christmas movie ever,” as I have every year since 2000. My father will shake his head and then he and I will watch the events of the hijacking of the Nakatomi Corporation’s party, ensuing hostage crisis, and heroics of a barefoot NYPD detective, culminating in the deaths of several bad guys and the destruction of a 35-story building.
We know exactly what is going to happen in this movie, as anyone who has seen it more than a dozen times would. We probably have 60 percent of the dialogue memorized. But every year around the holidays, we do this same thing.
My dad and I don’t sit around and watch movies all the time when we’re together—but we strategically watch one movie every year. It’s the punctuation mark on a 12-month period for me, a point that I arrive at pretty exhausted from work and travel. Die Hard is a comfortable couch of a movie that we both sink into for a couple of hours, no one has to talk unless they want to snicker at the memorable/cheesy lines, or crack wise at the low-hanging fruit of ‘80s action sequences. I finally relax for the year, physically and mentally, and poor John McClane is lucky to survive it.
We all find a unique comfort in tradition. The end-of-year/winter solstice holidays we celebrate in the U.S. are probably the most tradition-heavy time of the year, full of things we do because we’ve always done them, or people in our social circles have always done them: hanging socks up by a fireplace, putting up an evergreen tree and hanging dozens of ornaments on it, or lighting candles in a certain formation or order. And of course the less-celebrated traditions like traveling during the busiest and most hazardous weather period of the year, getting in political arguments with our relatives at dinner, and getting mildly to horrifically stressed out about buying hundreds or thousands of dollars’ worth of proper gifts for people who may or may not use or even own them in six months.
Research on traditions says good and bad things about them: plenty of family and ethnic traditions can be good for us psychologically and help us through hard times or anxious situations, but discriminatory social traditions can perpetuate abuses of human rights and the mistreatment of groups of people.
But mostly when we think “tradition,” we think of positive things. And often silly things, if we’re honest about it. Like building structurally unsound and inedible gingerbread houses, religiously watching games played by a perpetually losing (but close to our hearts) baseball or football team, or shoving a dead chicken into a dead duck into a dead turkey and then cooking and eating it. And Festivus.
Traditions come from lots of places and ideas, but the main qualification is repetition. No one knew the first ultramarathon would become an annual thing, but it has. Most of us take a photo with our partners whenever we stand on a new mountaintop, no matter how many times we’ve done it. I’m a firm believer that anything, if done every year, can become a tradition, no matter how silly it is. I used to buy my grandmother a fruitcake every year as a holiday gift, even though she hated fruitcake. Over the years, the wrapping process had to become more creative so she wouldn’t guess what was inside. She’d open the fruitcake, we’d laugh, and then throw it away. Tradition.
I think sometimes the entire point of a tradition has become just a reason to schedule something to do with family or friends, instead of saying, “Hey, come sit down and talk to me for an hour about your life.” Whatever yours is (or are), however ridiculous, I’m sure the important thing is to just do them. It’s not the activity itself, it’s taking time to do it.
And, if you need ideas, I recommend Die Hard. That’s two hours and eleven minutes of quality time right there.