I am anti-traditionalism. When someone comments that “We do this because it’s tradition”, my gut reaction is to ask “Why?”
But I feel rather conflicted in giving up our particular family traditions.
In Polish culture, Christmas Eve takes precedence over Christmas Day because Jesus was born at night. The feast that occurs is pescatarian: We are not supposed to eat meat on the 24th but fish is fine. There are also traditionally twelve courses (after the 12 faithful apostles, obviously), with opwatek in the beginning (basically a church wafer that you break with your family).
Several of these traditions are rooted in Catholicism, so when you take out the religion, the whole thing just falls apart. But there are underlying ideas behind all these actions, and whether you are Christian, Atheist, Pagan, or just human, you need to feed your soul. In his book Religion for Atheists, Alain De Botton says “Differ though we might with Christianity’s view of what precisely our souls need, it is hard to discredit the provocative underlying thesis, which seems no less relevant in the secular realm than in the religious one–that we have within us a precious, childlike, vulnerable core which we should nourish and nurture on its turbulent journey through life.” (By the way, this is a great book that explores how we can deepen our secular lives through the concepts in religion).
So maybe we don’t need twelve courses. The number doesn’t need to be specific, but it’s nice to have a big feast and you can definitely just celebrate family and friends. We definitely don’t need to break church wafers, but maybe we can make our own sharing ritual, like baking cookies together and offering our creation with a wish of luck. Maybe we were onto something when one of the most sacred nights of the year should be free of animal slaughter (well, except the fish), plus pretty much every other holiday involves some meat centerpiece. Maybe doing a vegetarian (or vegan) celebration is appropriate for the theme of compassion.
In a way, these thoughts are still irrelevant in this point in my life because I will be spending the holiday with my partner’s family, and they have veal for Christmas Eve dinner (while Italian, they don’t like the seven fishes and I’m honestly a bit bummed about it). But these things have been a part of my life, something unique that I’m not sure I want to part with, and I’d like to reclaim it on my terms.