In our part of the world, people take their deer hunting very seriously.
There are many tell-tale signs that the hunting season is upon us:
- The sudden increase of illness in the workplace
- For those with more integrity, an increase in the percentage of employees on vacation
- A dramatic reduction in traffic in the city
- Equally dramatic reduction in church attendance and Sunday School attendance (and I thought that it was because word got out that I was teaching)
People take deer hunting so seriously that, the Sunday before the opening of the season our Pastor once said from the platform, “On behalf of the staff of the church, I’d like to be the first person to wish you deer hunters a Merry Christmas.” Remember, we’re talking here about a state where you can sell an old, beaten up pickup truck for 3 times what it’s really worth by advertising it as a “great hunting truck.”
I was a hunter in my younger days, growing up in Pennsylvania. Our deer season always opened on the Monday following Thanksgiving. We had a sort of “Thanksgiving day ritual” in which we rose far too early on Thanksgiving morning and headed to the woods to look for deer signs and stake our claim to the spot where we would place our shivering bodies on the following Monday morning. It just wasn’t Thanksgiving day without a few hours spent examining deer droppings and “buck rub” (the places where male deer have polished their antlers by rubbing them against small trees).
The Monday morning ritual was just as rigid. We had to be in the woods well in advance of sunrise, so that, just in case any deer saw us walking in they would forget about us by the time the season was officially opened. I would stand in the shadow of my designated tree and enjoy the wondrous splendor of sunrise in the woods. Shortly after the season opened at 7 AM, a shot would ring out, followed by a yelp from my dad, and I would trudge over to his designated spot, where we would clean his buck, tie a rope sling to it, and I (as the younger, stronger member of the team) would drag it out to the car. By then, we were cold and tired, and the best hunting of the day was done, so we headed for warmer environs to show off our trophy.
In all those years of hunting, I never did shoot a deer. But, I got to experience some wonderful sunrises, and learned a lot about how to drag a dead deer.
I remember the last time that I ever went hunting. I was in my 20’s, and had to drive 45 miles from my home to my dad’s place to pick him up. We were hunting what’s called “small game”—bunnies, grouse, pheasants and such. This meant hours of slowly walking through fields and light brush, or perhaps through one of the many vineyards on the southern shore of Lake Erie (where some of the grapes in those Welch’s jars came from). It was NOT a productive day for the great hunters. It was cold, wet, and frankly, if I were a rabbit, I’d have been in the burrow with a hot cup of coffee and a good book.
As we slowly paced through the fields, we talked about the events of the day and the things that were happening in life. Our relationship had changed a lot since the day when I was first included in these Saturday morning hunts. I was now an adult, although still a 12-year old boy in my father’s eyes. Although our relationship was still far from ideal, and we held vastly differing views on most subjects, my father had learned a great deal over the years between my 18th birthday and my early twenties. Isn’t it incredible how much an older man can learn in the course of a few short years?
As we talked, it became more and more apparent that neither of us really wanted to be out here freezing our backsides off. Dad had reached an age where the damp cold went to his bones and joints and made him really uncomfortable, but he didn’t want to disappoint me. I had come to a point in life where I liked walking in the fields and enjoying nature, but didn’t really enjoy doing it on a cold, wet morning with a loaded weapon in my hands, I kept doing it because I didn’t want to disappoint Dad.
Finally, we just stopped and looked at each other for a moment, and silently acknowledged the end of an era. Dad said, in much more colorful terms than I’m going to quote, “If you don’t want to do this, and I don’t want to do this, then why the heck don’t we go find someplace warm and dry and and get a cup of coffee or something?”
We paused, laughed, and in the vernacular of the South, “cut a trail.”
Tradition is like that sometimes. For years, tradition serves us. I wouldn’t trade those Thanksgiving mornings in the woods, or the memory of returning to a warm kitchen with the intoxicating aroma of thanksgiving dinner in preparation, for anything in the world. The memory of that tradition is warm and wonderful, and I will cherish it as long as I live.
There comes a time, however, when tradition no longer serves us, but we serve it. If we fail to honor that tradition by retiring it and moving on to a new era, we allow that tradition to grow cold and lifeless, and risk losing the memory of the sweet days when the tradition served us.
In our families, in our businesses, and in our churches, tradition serves an important role that we must never minimize. Sometimes, it takes a lot of guts to retire an old tradition and start a new era, but if we fail to, our revered old tradition will still die-and the part of us that it used to serve will die with it.