Just what is tradition?

As you may have noticed, I’ve been pondering tradition and what it’s all about for the past few days. The pondering has all been brought about by the fact that as a single person there seems no point to me in celebrating a religious festival that I don’t believe in. I also disagree with rank consumerism that the holiday is endowed with, as well as the glitter and glitz of hopes for a better world after the big day (or days if you include New Years day), hopes that, from my experience, prove to be false unless you can change either yourself or your circumstances to make it better.

Yes, I’m cynical.

However, I do find the traditions of Great Britain interesting, particularly their history and origins. I’ve been trying to work out why this is and what purpose it servers for me, what it means for me in terms of my life and how I approach traditions.

My first step has been to read about what ‘tradition’ means, and Wikipedia has been my first stop, and here are some of the bits of the article I found interesting.

A tradition is a ritual, belief or object passed down within a society, still maintained in the present, with origins in the past.  Traditions can persist and evolve for thousands of years … and new traditions continue to appear today.  While it is commonly assumed that traditions have ancient history, many traditions have been invented on purpose, whether that be political or cultural, over short periods of time.

Orignially, traditions were passed orally, without the need for a writing system.  Tools to aid this process include poetic devices such as rhyme and alliteration…and form part of an oral tradition.  Even such traditions, however, are presumed to have originated (been invented by humans) at some point.  Traditions are often presumed to be ancient, unalterable, and deeply important, though they may sometimes be much less ‘natural’ than is presumed.  Some traditions were deliberately invented for one reason or another, often to highlight or enhance the importance of a certain institution.  Traditions may also be adapted to suit the needs of the day, and the changes can become accepted as part of the ancient tradition.  Tradition also changes slowly, with the changes from one generation to the next not being seen as significant.  Thus, those carrying out the traditions will not be consciously aware of the change, and even if a tradition undergoes major changes over many generations, it will be seen as unchanged.

Many objects, beliefs and customs can be traditional.  Rituals of social interaction can be traditional, with phrases and gestures, such as saying ‘thank you’, sending greetings cards etc.  Tradition can also refer to larger concepts practised by groups (e.g. family traditions at Christmas), organisations (e.g. company’s picnic) or societies (e.g. public holidays).

An invented tradition is a new practice or object that is introduced in a manner that implies a connection with the past that is not necessarily present.  A tradition my be deliberately created and promulgated for personal, commercial, political or national self interest; or it may be adopted rapidly based on a highly publicised event, rather than developing and spreading organically, which occurred in the case of the white wedding dress, which only became popular after Queen Victoria wore a white gown at her wedding.  Most of the traditions of the monarchy, seen as rooted deep in history, actually date to the C19th.

Invented traditions are a central component of modern national cultures, providing a commonality of experience and promoting the unified national identity espoused by nationalism.

At Dictionary.com the definitions of tradition include:

  • The handing down of statements, beliefs, legends customs, information, etc. from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice.
  • A long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting.
  • A continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.

And the absolute gem of my Googling – the transcript of one of the BBC Reith Lectures, 1999 – Lecture 3 – Tradition – Delhi, given by Professor Anthony Giddens.

In my view, it is entirely rational to recognise that traditions are needed in society. We shouldn’t accept the Enlightenment idea that the world should rid itself of tradition altogether. Traditions are needed, and will always persist, because they give continuity and form to life.

Tradition can perfectly well be defended in a non-traditional way – and that should be its future. Ritual, ceremonial and repetition have an important social role, something understood and acted upon by most organisations, including governments. Traditions will continue to be sustained insofar as they can effectively be justified – not in terms of their own internal rituals, but as compared to other traditions or ways of doing things.

I think for me, I’m coming to realise that the importance of traditions, as stated above, are that they give continuity and form to life.  What I will struggle with is whether they have meaning for me for me to celebrate, meaning for me as an intellectual pursuit, or meaning for me as something to observe/experience/witness.  Whichever I do, I am still taking part in that tradition and so becoming part of it in some way, and maybe that is the most important realisation of all of this rambling, digging and delving.