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Bah! Humbug!

Sorry about that, but tradition needs to be observed. It is Christmas Eve, after all. I have been out all day trying to roll sheep (being the nearest thing we have around these parts at this time of year to white fluffy stuff from which to make snow-men).  The sheep did not seem impressed with the idea, although they did eat the carrot-for-a-nose. There is, however something to be said for dashing through the sheep, on a one a one horse open slay… The joys of Southern hemisphere, and traditions like hot Christmas dinner – when it 40 C (104 F I hope). Still: It’s still the season to be jolly, however. Or eat drink and be Mary, according your preferences.

As a writer, you have to think about why these traditions form and endure (despite the fact that I nearly died of heat-fatigue and dehydration in a Santa suit, in what is our summer). What makes people tick, what makes them respond, what they choose to come back to, is life and breath to a writer’s career.

Traditions are of course complex things with, at times, bizarre origins. They may have no more real reason to be, but go on year after year.  Some of them (like Hakarl) you have to wonder if are only kept alive as a sort of hazing horror for the next generation. But generally, traditions give a reasonable number of people pleasure, or, unless enforced by someone in power who they give pleasure to… they’d fade away.

Part of this is that it sort of mental shorthand. The symbols and traditions have strong associations, moods, memories, and wider stories. You all know what goes along with ‘Bah! Humbug!’ I carry Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come, Tiny Tim etc.  When a culture loses this shorthand… telling stories gets much slower and harder.

Part of it is that we are creatures of pattern and habit. We like and find comfort in the familiar – especially when things are pretty miserable, but even when they’re not. We’re building on those patterns (adding and losing bits, perhaps). As much as people CLAIM to like ‘new’ stories and ideas, there’s no getting away from the fact that something that works on those traditions — perhaps with a new twist or two, but even without it often outsells books that strike out on their own (Louis L’Amour mostly worked within a traditional framework. I’d like to have his sales. The Harry Potter books are twist on the staple tradition of British kids’ boarding-school books. Despite this they seem to have sold one or two copies).

So here is my short Christmas Eve point: ignoring traditions may get you a lump of coal in your stocking and rotten sales to boot. Using them to add to your work, to build on – whether we’re talking the traditional (and very popular) tropes – be it a fantasy collect-the-tokens, or Bug-Eyed Monsters invading Earth remains more popular than following new attempts at ‘traditions’ (like yet another Handmaiden’s Tail clone) that are not popular. Using the language and style of the genre at least won’t lose you the established readers

And you could make your Christmas brighter and ours happier by supporting the books of the Mad Geniuses. For some of you that’s a tradition too. I love it and long may it continue.

Merry Christmas to you all! (For any of you who object to this, please follow my lead: volunteer to work this Christmas. Our kids are not with us this year, someone has to do Ambulance duty, and it might as well be me, so others who celebrate the Christmas tradition can enjoy it with their families.)


22 thoughts on “Tradition

  1. For me the interesting question is what is essential to the tradition and what is changeable.

    I’ve heard that the American tradition of Jack O’Lanterns came from the European tradition of making Turnip Ghosts. The idea of carving a scary face on a vegetable remained constant, but the available vegetable changed. (I’m always nervous making historical references to the Mad Geniuses–I’m sure that’s a drastic oversimplification and someone will correct me. But I stand by the analogy.)

    You can take a traditional story and put it in a different time and place (“The Tempest” and “Forbidden Planet”, “High Noon” and “Outland”, for example) without changing the essential nature of the story.

    The story beats and the relationship between the characters remains constant–so much so that the audience can anticipate where a story is going because they have seen “the same story” before.

    You can reskin the characters but leave their narrative functions intact. “The Name Of The Rose” is a police procedural, even though William Baskerville is technically not a cop. “Leon” (aka “The Professional”) is a Coming Of Age story despite the fact the eponymous protagonist is in middle age (and his mentor is a pre-teen). “Alien” is a slasher film in space, with Ripley as the smart girl who survives to the end.

    In short, following traditions doesn’t mean imitating the past, it means using the old stories to model new ones.

      1. The ghosts of too many turnips create a miasma, and could even cause malaria.

        But broccoli is even worse. Deadly stuff, that.

    1. BTW, for research purposes, the claimed history of a tradition is — unreliable People’s explanations tend to be ex post facto.

  2. When I did air-evac, I didn’t mind working Christmas (once I learned not to stay up until midnight listening to Lessons and Carols on the radio.) As I told one patient, “I’m sorry you needed us, but I’m glad we could help.” We made our own traditions, although I suspect most Chief Pilots would not be as willing to ignore the antlers. (An antler head-band got passed around. It was the pilot’s turn the year I got called out. It never appeared where patients or their family members could see it, but the line-guys did a double-take and grinned when I appeared in uniform with antlers on.)

  3. It reminds me of the claim that an SF/F story can have “real toads in imaginary gardens” or it can have “imaginary toads in real gardens,” but that most people won’t like “imaginary toads in imaginary gardens” because they have nothing to relate to, and, of course, “real toads in real gardens” isn’t genre.

        1. Given the mass disparity (50g) anything we would use for guns would be a crew-served weapon for toads. I guess the toad army would have almost all of them.

  4. Merry Christmas Dave! May you sleep through your entire shift.

    “So here is my short Christmas Eve point: ignoring traditions may get you a lump of coal in your stocking and rotten sales to boot.”

    Can’t speak to sales, as I still have no experience. But the books that get coal from me are the ones “deconstructing” honored traditions and disrespecting the people who made them. Every year there’s a new crop of “Original and Creative Stories!!!” calling Santa Claus’ workshop a sweat shop, making him a zombie, or some such.

    Definite coal action there.

    1. About a week ago, there was a link on the Passive Voice to an article on how to “Rebrand Santa for the modern age.”

      While the ideas presented were things that would make me say, “Bah Humbug” permanently, someone in the comments gave a link to the actual survey results. Yeah, apparently 10% of the respondents think Santa should be in an electric car, 8% think he should get a tattoo, and 11% think he should be a girl, but the vast majority want a male, tattoo-free Santa riding in his usual sleigh without an iPhone.

      1. That’s cultural appropriation and they, small a percentage though they are, should be ashamed of themselves.

    2. The Three-Decker

      “The three-volume novel is extinct.”

      Full thirty foot she towered from waterline to rail.
      It cost a watch to steer her, and a week to shorten sail;
      But, spite all modern notions, I found her first and best—
      The only certain packet for the Islands of the Blest.

      Fair held the breeze behind us—’twas warm with lovers’ prayers.
      We’d stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs.
      They shipped as Able Bastards till the Wicked Nurse confessed,
      And they worked the old three-decker to the Islands of the Blest.

      By ways no gaze could follow, a course unspoiled of Cook,
      Per Fancy, fleetest in man, our titled berths we took
      With maids of matchless beauty and parentage unguessed,
      And a Church of England parson for the Islands of the Blest.

      We asked no social questions—we pumped no hidden shame—
      We never talked obstetrics when the Little Stranger came:
      We left the Lord in Heaven, we left the fiends in Hell.
      We weren’t exactly Yussufs, but—Zuleika didn’t tell.

      No moral doubt assailed us, so when the port we neared,
      The villain had his flogging at the gangway, and we cheered.
      ’Twas fiddle in the forc’s’le—’twas garlands on the mast,
      For every one got married, and I went ashore at last.

      I left ’em all in couples a-kissing on the decks.
      I left the lovers loving and the parents signing cheques.
      In endless English comfort by county-folk caressed,
      I left the old three-decker at the Islands of the Blest!

      That route is barred to steamers: you’ll never lift again
      Our purple-painted headlands or the lordly keeps of Spain.
      They’re just beyond your skyline, howe’er so far you cruise
      In a ram-you-damn-you liner with a brace of bucking screws.

      Swing round your aching search-light—’twill show no haven’s peace.
      Ay, blow your shrieking sirens to the deaf, gray-bearded seas!
      Boom out the dripping oil-bags to skin the deep’s unrest—
      And you aren’t one knot the nearer to the Islands of the Blest!

      But when you’re threshing, crippled, with broken bridge and rail,
      At a drogue of dead convictions to hold you head to gale,
      Calm as the Flying Dutchman, from truck to taffrail dressed,
      You’ll see the old three-decker for the Islands of the Blest.

      You’ll see her tiering canvas in sheeted silver spread;
      You’ll hear the long-drawn thunder ’neath her leaping figure-head;
      While far, so far above you, her tall poop-lanterns shine
      Unvexed by wind or weather like the candles round a shrine!

      Hull down—hull down and under—she dwindles to a speck,
      With noise of pleasant music and dancing on her deck.
      All’s well—all’s well aboard her—she’s left you far behind,
      With a scent of old-world roses through the fog that ties you blind.

      Her crew are babes or madmen? Her port is all to make?
      You’re manned by Truth and Science, and you steam for steaming’s sake?
      Well, tinker up your engines—you know your business best—
      She’s taking tired people to the Islands of the Blest!
      ― Rudyard Kipling

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