Christmas morning. If you had to get up before everyone else (that was my youngest sister and me), you didn’t look at the tree. Even after we knew that it was mom and dad putting the presents under the tree. You just didn’t look. Our bedrooms were upstairs, the only bathroom in the house, downstairs. I’d walk down, careful to be quiet. I knew where the tree was. We kept the lights on all night. When I could see the red-yellow glow of the combined multi-colored lights, I’d put a hand along the side of my face, covering even my peripheral vision. You didn’t look at the tree.
The night before, we’d all have gotten new pyjamas. This was after we drove around to a few folks’ houses to drop off cookies in bowls made of gingerbread. Mom did those most years. The top rim of each bowl had other cookies stuck to it, all around the perimeter. Some kind of sugar icing-glue. After the drop-off, it was home for pyjamas, then bed.
When morning came, after everyone was up, we’d line up on the stairs. Oldest at the top, and so on. As we got older, we added boyfriends, girlfriends, then fiancees. It stopped short of grandkids and niblings, only because my parents then moved into my mom’s mom’s place and there were no stairs there. We’ve got stairs in the place I live now, but we don’t take pictures. These last couple of years, we haven’t even waited until Christmas morning to open presents. But we still get new pyjamas.
The Power of What We Hold
Families have different traditions. Some of them are powerful outgrowths of a need to survive generations ago. Others, like my family’s Christmas Eve PJs, are nice things to do, ways to set the day apart and make it special. A way to create memories.
My partner and I recently watched We Are What We Are, a thriller/horror movie about a family that continues a cannibalistic practice handed down to them because their ancestors had to eat one of their own to survive a brutal upstate New York winter in the late 1700s. It’s their own personal mythology, handed down from mother to daughter through a journal written by the daughter of that surviving family. It got me thinking.
I often feel like my family didn’t have many traditions. We went to church, but we weren’t really religious. We were Methodist, so the closest we came to ritual practices were communion, the Christmas Eve service, and potlucks filled with casseroles. Outside of that, we had our own Christmas traditions and when thinking about what stuck with me as important, those pyjamas top the list.
I find myself thinking that other families have more concrete traditions than that. It’s an “outside looking in” kind of thing. It’s probably not true. However, it’s informing how I’m approaching Grimsbury.
When I think about this setting, I get the sense of a place where people know their roots. They know their traditions, their personal family folklore, their rituals. Those things matter for one reason or another. Also, I imagine a place where those traditions and such are all real and carry real power. This is a trope that comes up in horror movies a lot, like the one I mentioned above. It’s that weird tradition that your grandfather used to do which he said kept the devil out. In your family’s case, it really did.
A Richness, a Source of Power, a Promise
There’s going to be a through line for Grimsbury that revolves around rituals and traditions. The setting has families, religious communities, seers, gangs, all groups that engage in ritualistic activities of one kind or another. In this setting, those practices and traditions will have real power and weight. I don’t want to get cliche or heavy-handed with that, but I want it to be present. I don’t want each story to revolve around a tradition being upheld or not. That would get to be samey and predictable. What I do want is for rituals and traditions to be powerful when invoked.
It doesn’t mean these will be big rituals or traditions, either. The regularity of a man who visits the Golden Flamingo every Thursday night and flips a quarter into his empty shot glass before he leaves each week is as powerful in its own way as the trailer park seer who sacrifices a rat to hex her neighbor four trailers down.
In a setting like this, it might even be of benefit to someone to not have any rituals or traditions. If you develop a habitual action, it might grant you something. It also might demand a continuation of the ritual. What happens when the ritual isn’t complete? In a universe where rituals bind, what’s the price paid when the ritual doesn’t happen? Maybe it’s as small as Christmas morning not feeling the same when you’re not coming downstairs in clothes that still have the plastic smell of a department store on them. Maybe it’s more than that. A broken ankle during a track meet. Blue rock not punching in the way it usually does, right when you need it to.
Rituals, traditions, and habitual practices will matter in Grimsbury, and that knife cuts both ways.
What traditions do you have? Did you pick them up from family? Friends? What power do they have or give you? What do you lose if you don’t do them?