I’ve been thinking a lot lately about various traditions. Really, this is a theme I tend to revisit whenever I’ve gone through a lot of changes in a short period of time. I need to feel grounded in something – feel like there’s at least one thing in my life that’s not moving too quickly for me to keep up with. Tradition, by nature, implies stability, repetition. But what, exactly, makes a repeated action a tradition?
So we all “sort of” know what a tradition is. But what makes any action a tradition? Repetition, certainly, but how often? How many times before it suddenly gets upgraded from “that thing we sometimes do” to a tradition? What if you miss one (or more than one)? Can it be a tradition for just you, or is a tradition a social activity? Can you deliberately, consciously start traditions?
Like many of the interests in my life, this stems from a concept we all “understand,” but a term that is rather vague. Is my meaning of “tradition” the same as yours? And, as is my habit (not tradition, not yet), I want to know what the word means, before I explore the concept itself.
Dictionary.com – my first stop:
1.the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice: a story that has come down to us by popular tradition.
2.something that is handed down: the traditions of the Eskimos.
3.a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting: The rebellious students wanted to break with tradition.
4.a continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.
5.a customary or characteristic method or manner: The winner took a victory lap in the usual track tradition.
I’m not done yet. Since “tradition” is a concept (more than just a label like in my last question), I went to the Encyclopedia (well, Wikipedia, which, despite its faults, is fairly good at showing what prevalent usage is):
The word tradition comes from the Latin word traditio which means "to hand down" or "to hand over." It is used in a number of ways in the English language:
1.A meme; beliefs or customs taught by one generation to the next, often orally. For example, we can speak of the tradition of sending birth announcements.
2.A set of customs or practices. For example, we can speak of Christmas traditions.
3.A broad religious movement made up of religious denominations or church bodies that have a common history, customs, culture, and, to some extent, body of teachings. For example, we can speak of Islam's Sufi tradition or Christianity's Lutheran tradition.
However, on a more basic theoretical level, tradition(s) can be seen as information or composed of information. For that which is brought into the present from the past, in a particular societal context, is information. This is even more fundamental than particular acts or practices even if repeated over a long sequence of time. For such acts or practices, once performed, disappear unless they have been transformed into some manner of communicable information.
Well. That somewhat takes the wind out of my sails, doesn’t it? It appears that the prevalent view of what a tradition is has a few important points:
- Cultural influence (or influenced)
- Passed down or inherited
Now, these would be accurate for some traditions that I have experienced. It is traditional for part of the family to gather together at Christmas. During that time, we also engage in other traditional activities. Unfortunately, I have been separate from those traditions, due to many factors (time, distance, my own decision to not have children – therefore not having anyone to hand down traditions to…) This does not alleviate the feeling of alienation that causes me to occasionally think about traditions.
And it invalidates the notion that individuals, or one generation, can create their own traditions without the need to pass them on. Let’s say, for instance, that Dan and I had the tradition of going to Half-Price Books and Noodles & Co once a month. (We sort of did, for a bit. Though, as with all traditions in my life, it sort of dissolved.) It isn’t cultural influenced (nor does it have any cultural influence of its own), and it was not passed down from a preceding generation, nor would we be passing it down to anyone else. So, if it’s not a tradition, what is it?
I’m doing all of the reference sources here, so let’s round it off with a trip to a Thesaurus. I generally find Thesauri to be inadequate at best, as synonyms can’t always be used to mean exactly what another word does. But today, that’s what I want.
Main Entry: tradition
Part of Speech: noun
Synonyms: attitude, belief, birthright, conclusion, convention, culture, custom, customs, ethic, ethics, fable, folklore, form, habit, heritage, idea, inheritance, institution, law, legend, lore, mores, myth, mythology, mythos, opinion, practice, praxis, ritual, unwritten law, usage, wisdom
Of these, custom and habit seem most likely to be what I’m looking for. I wasn’t too fond of custom, but here’s what I found for habit:
1.an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary: the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street.
A habit is not encumbered by needing to be either culturally significant, or by being passed down. It is indeed, exactly what I’m looking for. It’s still a bit ambiguous, because what in the world is “regularly followed?” And “almost involuntary” seems inadequate to describe something that’s usually done consciously, such as holiday celebrations.
So. I’m really not wedded to the idea of something like that as being a “habit.” It’s my habit to put my jeans on before my shirt in the morning. That habit seems a little less significant than, say, establishing the habit (with forethought) of going out with someone once a month to the same destination.
Unfortunately, all my quibbling aside, I’ve answered the question I began with:
A tradition is a culturally significant, repeated action that is passed down from generation to generation. It doesn’t matter how often one individual performs it; if it meets the above criteria, it is a tradition (such as wedding traditions .. that one hopes are only done once-a-lifetime.). A tradition, by nature of it being culturally related and hereditary, is a social activity. An individual can create a tradition, but, perversely, it can’t be labeled a tradition until someone from the next generation also performs the action.
So saith the dictionary, at least. Does this depress anyone else?
Next time maybe I’ll figure out what to call my (strike)traditions(strike) (strike)habits(strike) consciously repeated actions.
**This has been an opinion courtesy of SilverRose. If you’re still here, I’m grateful. Comments, thoughts, and arguments fervently requested.