Rethinking tradition

by Todd Hebert on December 11, 2012

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When an employee at my place of work has a birthday, he or she is treated to a cake. It’s a nice gesture. We’ll sing “Happy Birthday,” a few of us will have a slice of cake and then we’ll get back to business. The cake gets put in the fridge with only 2 or 3 pieces missing. It will sit there untouched for a week or so before finally getting thrown out. I guess we aren’t big cake eaters. But when the next birthday rolls around, we’ll be sure to get another cake and repeat the process.

Why bother getting a cake for every birthday when we know it won’t get eaten? Because it’s tradition. A birthday calls for a cake. That’s just how the tradition goes. It’s how it’s always been and it’s how it always shall be. The fact that we are not big cake fans is irrelevant. Traditions don’t have to make sense, but apparently they must be followed.

Think about all of the traditions that you follow. Not the personal or family traditions that have deep sentimental meaning, but all those other ones. Maybe getting hammered on St. Patrick’s day fits? A big one is buying chocolate and flowers for your significant other on St. Valentines day. Why do you follow these traditions? Most people would answer, “Well, that’s just what you’re supposed to do,” or “It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what everyone does.”

Those are pathetic answers. Why do we feel the need to do something for no other reason than because other people do it or have done it in the past? I think it’s time to rethink tradition.

On New Year’s Eve, most people who normally go to bed around 9:00 or 10:00 will challenge themselves to stay up until 12:01, just barely making it, before passing out in bed. Why? Simply because it’s New Year’s Eve. They have to see the new year in. They have to see the ball drop. Are their lives more complete for it? Did they witness something exiting? No, they are just doing what they’re supposed to do; they are following tradition.

Many otherwise intelligent people will see a movie at a theater and spend $20 on popcorn and soda. Would they spend such a ridiculous amount of money for the same two items at the local convenience store? Absolutely not. But since it’s at the cinema, and popcorn and soda is a tradition, they are somehow ok with.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no inherent problem with tradition. In their purest forms, traditions are rituals or beliefs that connect a culture with it’s past and ensure they don’t get lost to future generations. That is a beautiful thing. The problem I see is that most of us accept traditions blindly and don’t ask why we follow them or if they are even relevant.

Each tradition we follow needs to be looked at with fresh eyes as if we are participating or partaking for the very first time. Does it still make sense?

  • We could get a cake for the company birthday party, but since we know it won’t get eaten perhaps a pizza would go over better?
  • It’s St. Patrick’s Day so I’m supposed to go the bar and get hammered on Guinness. But I’m not a big drinker anyway and I never go to the bar midweek. Of course I’m not going.
  • Why would I ever think of staying up until midnight to watch some shiny ball “drop?” What the hell is the purpose of that ball anyway?

I don’t mean to pick on birthday cake, St. Patrick’s Day or any other tradition specifically, these are simple examples that fit my experience. Watching Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve may very well be an important tradition to your family. It’s certainly not my place to judge.

But by looking at traditions with fresh, rational eyes, as opposed to accepting them blindly, we can easily separate which ones actually matter and add to our cultural experience from those that are silly and irrelevant.


Monroe Birthday image courtesy of Foxtoungue.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

rob thomas February 6, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Good title. Unfortunately, the article lacks any substance.

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