What Makes A Tradition?

This time of year in the U.S. is filled with traditions, from a big turkey meal to trimming the tree to making resolutions. These traditions can be small and extremely personal, or common and prevalent throughout the culture. Some are rooted in religious beliefs, some are centered around family, and some are just for fun.

Related: Listen to an episode of the Intellectual Roundtable Podcast, where Lee and Michael discuss this question: ‘What makes a tradition?’ We also discuss another question as well, ‘What are you optimistic about?’

But there is a larger question at work here: does a tradition have to be an annual event? Is it necessarily centered around a holiday? What is the difference between a tradition and a routine?

What makes a tradition?

Related questions: How do you make a tradition? What does it mean to be thankful? Where do shared ideas exist? How are patterns important?

5 thoughts on “What Makes A Tradition?”

  1. A tradition certainly does not need to be annual nor tied to a holiday. For instance, many religious cultures have a tradition of saying grace before a meal.

    For me, the bigger questions are whether or not a tradition must it be part of maintaining a group identity, if it must have some sort of cultural significance, and must it be passed along from generation to generation.

    For me, the answer to each question above is no. What is required, however, is that a ceremony or practice must carry on over time something meaningful to the practitioners, and it must be tied to a particular type of event.

    For instance, each year my wife and I exchange ornaments, usually tied to something that happened in the previous year (e.g. a trip to France, a kitchen remodel). We do this while snacking on homemade chocolate biscotti. Is this a tradition? I think so, for the reasons stated above — it’s meaningful to us (our memories with each other) and tied to a particular event (the holidays).

    However, as noted above some definitions of tradition say the ceremony or practice must be:

    — tied to a group identity — my wife and I are a couple, not a group;
    — have some sort of cultural significance — while significant to us (tied to memories of the previous year), the practice does not have a cultural significance (we are not religious, in fact, I am an atheist); and,
    — passed along from generation to generation — my wife and I do not have kids, nor will we.

    Still, this exchange of ornaments is a tradition for us as a couple. To simply call our practice a “routine” debases a meaningful, time-honored ceremony.

    1. I think it’s very important to have “personal” traditions. Your practice is by no means, “a routine”. For you both this can be considered a time honored tradition for as long as your relationship lasts. (Hopefully a very long, healthy, life.)

  2. I don’t celebrate any secular or religious holidays and I don’t observe traditions, not by the definition of the word. In fact, I don’t understand why people set so much store by traditions, as if breaking or not observing them is wrong, or brings bad luck or something. To me, to do something every year because “it’s tradition” makes no sense.

  3. What makes a tradition? The first thing I think of is my religious tradition – the Catholic church. Especially celebrating Christmas and Easter. My family celebrates Christmas with a special meal, a visit from Santa, going to Mass, ( lately it’s been the Children’s mass on Christmas eve) – the church is packed and you need to go early to get a seat–caroling at a group home for the disabled, and participating in the Minnesota Homeless Coalition’s annual walk/memorial service. This year it’s on the Thursday before Christmas. I also enjoy sending cards to family and friends, and donating to the Pax Christi Caring Fund to brighten the Christmas of a family in need. One year that family was mine.

    When the tradition starts to become onerous or routine, it’s time to get creative. Lately I’ve been trying to make Monday’s as special as the weekend, by staying in the present and being grateful for the many blessings I’ve received. Lately, the scripture readings at church have been talking about Jesus’ second coming. He says it will happen when you least expect it. I’ve decided that is now, so I’m doing my best to be ready. Which means I have a pile of stuff, papers and books I need to get rid of, and not leave it for my family to do if something happens to me.

  4. Looking forward with excitement and joy to a participating in a practice or repetitious event in the same manner again and again kind of makes it a tradition, I think.

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