The kitchen is thick and sticky and my skin feels damp like the back of a post-it note, catching every piece of dust and flour in the air. I’m drinking sweet bourbon on the rocks, feeling the condensation gather on my fingertips when I lift the glass for a sip.
This is what Christmas in New Zealand feels like, December’s slow crawl into oppressive 93% humidity. The rain doesn’t fall, it just sinks from a sky that’s become a thick grey blanket over the city.
It’s terrible weather for baking anything, let alone shortbread. Shortbread and gingerbread belong in a Winter Solstice for precisely the reason it is easier to work with buttery short crust when it’s freezing outside.
But it’s Christmas time everywhere, including here and the Western world is largely caught up in a wave of tradition – baking, feasting, carol singing, tree decorating, maybe even a church service or two. Traditions that have been formed over centuries and decades in order to create festivals of remembrance and stories of celebration. And I’m baking, because that’s what we do at Christmas even though I am not meant to eat sugar or gluten.
There’s a science to baking – use a trusted recipe and trustworthy tools. Measure, mix precisely and follow the damn instructions. Just do it the way people have been doing it for centuries and little can go wrong. Unless you’re trying to make Scottish shortbread in a New Zealand summer. Then you have to figure out how to keep the essence of the tradition alive with a method that works in your new environment.
Except I’ve fallen short. My mother has a recipe book full of childhood memories and her shortbread is the best. But the book has a frayed spine, faded ball point pen and sellotape that has lost its stick. It’s almost become too precious to touch and certainly too precious to borrow. So when I should be using my grandmother’s and mother’s fail-safe recipes, I’m using the Internet. Instead of copying by hand the recipe safely tucked into the handwritten kitchen treasure, I’m scouring Pinterest and Google. It’s a sham. There is nothing traditional about this baking exercise. I’m using my laptop instead of a recipe book and rather than being a trusted source, I’m just giving it a go. I’ll try a new one next year if it doesn’t work out.
But I’ll be leaving out the best parts of the story. What worked and what didn’t. How I managed to keep the butter in the crust cool, how I learned to test the oven for hot spots. There is so much that we miss if we forget to write our new traditions beside the old. Even the Christmas tradition we celebrate now, was built on top of another ancient tradition and we can’t forget that is not just about the product of our efforts but also the practice and journey towards it that matters.
Baking shortbread is about understanding the relationship of butter, flour and temperature. It’s as simple as that. Too warm, the dough won’t hold, too cold it won’t be malleable. Baking requires patience on an ordinary day; whether letting dough rise for cinnamon scrolls and bread or waiting for custard and ganache to set. In 24 degree heat, waiting becomes part of the tradition because the relationship requires it.
Similarly, traditions (or rituals) are the way we understand the relationship between the past, where we have come from, the present, who we are now and the future, including who we long to be. Think about the ritual of communion, of breaking bread at the beginning of a feast, of wedding toasts, of honeymoons, of bar mitzvah or coming-of-age rituals. They are ways of marking what has been, what is and what we hope for.
When you cast aside tradition too hastily, you risk losing a connection to what propels you forward. Advent requires a certain amount of ritual regardless of your spiritual belief because it connects to things of old and things of the future. Find me a man or woman who doesn’t recognize some symbology of newness or hope in the Advent/New Year season and I’ll show you a liar or a fool.
I am both trapped by tradition and freed by it. Trapped by always looking back into history but freed by learning from it. We urgently need a connection to the future that makes sense of our past, particularly when it comes to religion because our current traditions aren’t enough. But it appears we’ve stopped creating new traditions – instead we are trying to find more meaning than ever in the old ones. The trouble is, the old traditions need help expanding to meet the requirements of the new landscape.
When someone new joins the family, people have to rearrange their favourite chairs to make room at the table. Something old must make way for something new that adds new meaning.
In the same way I need to write down the recipes that are now mine – the ones I’ve tried and proven regardless of where they came from. A recipe book that ball point pen won’t fade from, pages that can take the heat of my Antipodean kitchen. I need ways of capturing the recipes that are shared with me, borrowed by me and the ones I create myself to share with others. And it needs to be permanent. A chronological recipe book that begins with my grandmother and moves through each generation including my own; collecting our traditions, what we’ve learned along the way and passing something into the future.
Religion is the same. There are dozens of families who will get up this Sunday morning and head to church services because that’s what they do at Christmas. A moment in time inspired by the past and possibly very disconnected from the future. We’ll likely be turning up all week at midnight masses, carol services and Christmas productions. What are the rituals of religion worth keeping and which ones should be recorded as part of our history but replaced or evolved to something new?
Why so urgent? Because for the next week I’ll be encountering people who need the shortbread and gingerbread I’m baking tonight. I’ll expand the metaphor – all this week, the Advent season brings all sorts of people into connection with spiritual communities because of tradition, but I don’t think that tradition is going to cut it.
There are plenty of traditions and rituals that have been meaningful and worthwhile through our history. There are also some that are probably long past due for retirement. Others that should be resurrected. We should be mindful that our spirituality is changing before us all the time, therefore our expression and our storytelling also must change to reflect that new environment. It is not a crime to reinvent tradition, in fact we do it every year.
Our traditions need to be both old and new – old enough to connect us to the essence of our story and new enough to point the way to a future that is approachable and makes sense in our new land.