A couple weeks ago, I shared some reflections about advent, the anxieties some Christians feel about its perceived secularization, and the reactions they have as a result of this sense of loss. I described how a strong faith with a minimal connection to the history of traditions can easily breed a perception that Christ must be on every element of mass culture to be relevant. It can also breed a notion that there is only one proper way to celebrate Christmas. However, those who do understand the how and why of traditions can also get caught up in a mentality of properness because the knowledge of the historical richness of traditions makes them more compelling in the here and now.
This is precisely what Applejack struggles with in the episode “Heartbreakers.” It’s Hearthwarming season in Equestria and the Apple family is off to spend the holiday with the Pie family. Applejack and Pinkie Pie look forward to the celebration as some confirmation that they’re cousins by some distant family connection. It’s certainly plausible since they’re both earth ponies and both families tend some type of farm or land for a living.
Applejack thinks this possible oneness means that both families will have the same Hearthwarming traditions, manifested in the exact same ways. Applejack also has a strong sense not only of the origins of the Hearthwarming celebration, but also how each of her traditions connects to the historical and symbolic significance of the event. Every last thing that her family does on this holiday commemorates the founding of Equestria via the unity of earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns. She directly connects to this history through the traditions that she has always known. Applejack feels such a deep connection to these particular manifestations, that she becomes legalistic about them and her innocent questioning of why Twilight Sparkle and Spike are opening their presents on Hearthwarming Eve hints at her sense that there is a certain way to celebrate Hearthwarming. Anything that doesn’t follow that way looses touch with the significance of the holiday.
But Applejack anticipates that the Pie family will have the same traditions and those traditions will confirm that there’s some greater unity between them.
Of course, she’s in for a big shock when she discovers that the Pie family celebrates the same milestones of Hearthwarming, so to speak, but in entirely different ways. Rock soup? Hiding presents? Making dolls out of rocks? Hanging the flag on a boulder? Not only are these traditions foreign to Applejack, but they also make no sense. They seem both drab and chaotic, and Applejack can’t understand how they’re affirming to the family or how they connect with the significance of Hearthwarming.
So, Applejack’s reaction is to impose the particulars of her family’s traditions onto those of Pinkie Pie’s family, believing that she’s improving on something that makes no sense and isn’t clearly connecting to Hearthwarming the way she understands it.
I know they have their traditions and we have ours, but I just want them to see how much better theirs could be.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard or sensed this sentiment in Christian contexts. I myself am continually getting over my own elitism about tradition, much like Applejack does in this episode. High-church folks like myself wonder why we need new versions of “Amazing Grace” while contemporary folks strip away churchiness in an effort to not get bogged down by doctrine. Meanwhile, the low-church/no-church folks avoid any religious structures due to their history of imposing oppressive ideologies. Having experienced two of the three types here, I have heard and believed the tradition elitism on multiple sides.
Applejack’s “improvements” to the Pie’s traditions involve clearing away the rock farm to make room for candy cane yard decorations, strings of lights, and a new flagpole. These decorations are familiar to many audience members because they resemble how we typically decorate at Christmastime. In other words, they are signals of a dominant way that Christmas is celebrated while the Pie’s ways come across as confusing, uptight, and depressing. Applejack has solved this “problem” by making vast changes and even building new structures on a land that doesn’t belong to her without even understanding the significance of the rock farm she destroyed or knowing where fault lines lay. Naturally, this invasion upsets Pinkie Pie’s family and it’s only made worse when Holder’s Bolder tumbles down the hill after the fault line, aggravated by the new flagpole, cracks. What Applejack believed was improvement was actually destruction.
This prompts the Apple family’s swift departure. Now, the differences between traditions and families seem impossible to mend. On the train ride home, Granny Smith explains why Holder’s Bolder is so important.
I got so caught up in the things they were doing, I never asked why they did ‘em.
Applejack realizes that she cannot simply run away from the mess she caused and wait for it to blow over. She stops the train to return to the Pie family and apologize immediately. She acknowledges her mistakes without any platitudes or expectations that her feelings will be coddled, and offers her own labor to push the bolder back up to the barn.
Here, reconciliation takes place and the last scenes of the episode show a mixing of traditions. Applejack recognizes that you can be one big family without having the exact same traditions, and learning each other’s ways ultimately enriches both families.
Christians talk about all of us being one big family–siblings in Christ–yet American Protestantism alone has dozens of separate denominations that produce dozens of different traditions. Many of us are entrenched in one tradition or another and when faced with another form of Christianity, tensions may arise. I went to a predominantly Protestant college and I had two very Catholic friends who faced disrespectful, ill-informed comments about Catholicism from students and professors alike. When they revived my college’s Neumann Club, I attended each meeting and gained an appreciation for what Catholics believe and practice, taught by actual Catholics instead of Protestants with a lowkey agenda of presenting Catholicism unfavorably.
I firmly believe that Christians can enrich each other by understanding–and I mean actually understanding–the multitude of traditions within Christianity. We can’t expect to successfully navigate a pluralistic society if we can hardly handle the nuances of our own faith. This Hearthwarming episode of MLP gives us a metaphor for what tradition-sharing within the same general group might look like.