Thursday, November 17, 2011

My traditional words of wisdom

What do July 4th fireworks, Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds, and my grandma's date pudding have in common? All three are strongly associated with tradition. The tradition holds that we celebrate the birth of our nation with colorful explosions in the sky on the night of the fourth, unless it's raining too badly. The tradition used to be that the first Major League Baseball game of the season would be held in Cincinnati. And it is highly traditional for my grandma's special mixture of dates, brown sugar, and around three ka-jillion calories to be served each Thanksgiving.

We have traditions to cover pretty much every annual event. I think the reasons they become traditions is because we are too lazy to change them. Or else we just don't want to fight about it. In fact, I think if enough research would be done, I could find that the word tradition is rooted from some Greek word meaning "we can't change this or people will burn down the city." Nothing is as protected as something we call a tradition. If it's just something that comes up every year, we can change it however you like. But smack of label reading 'tradition' on it, and it will never be allowed to change. Think of that time as a kid when you made a funny face and your mother told you to stop making that face or else your face would get stuck just like that. That's what has happened with some of our traditions. They just stuck like that.

Traditions are cherished because so many people fear change. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe change requires so much effort. Maybe it makes us unsure of our place in the world. Nah. Change forces us to do something different. People are creatures of habit. For some reason, many people enjoy the consistency (some might call it a rut) of having a set pattern to life. I've never been one of those people. While I like familiarity, I enjoy the challenge of doing something different. But others try to keep such a little amount of change that they make the Amish look hip and modern. That's fine for them, but just don't try to require me to live by the same code.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the value of tradition. We are approaching a time of year when tradition almost rules our lives. My reference to Grandma's date pudding, for example. It is on the table every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Only a couple of people actually eat it these days. I can't do it. It is so sweet and rich that my teeth begin to rot and fall out while the fork is on the way to my mouth. But somehow it is comforting to see that glass bowl of dark brown sugary stuff topped with Cool Whip sitting there beside the gravy. It's almost like Grandma is still with us for the family celebrations. And that's the value of tradition -- to remember the people and events that helped shape who we are today. But some traditions are just empty reminders instead of living history.

Maybe the best thing we can do with tradition is to actually figure out why each is important or trivial. Or better still, create new traditions that actually have meaning, at least for the time being. Have you ever purposefully started a tradition? I have. And I have known others who have done the same. One family began the tradition of working each Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen to feed those in need rather than gorge themselves on turkey and stuffing. Another family now takes the money they would normally spend on presents for one another and uses it to give to the needy at Christmas. The tradition I began gives us a chance to concentrate on the meaning of the holiday rather than the means we celebrate it by these days. That ties into the value once again of remembering that which has shaped us. Not that a few dozen plates of pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, and date pudding wouldn't change my shape for the worse, mind you! But when one of those traditions comes up in the next six weeks or so, maybe you can cherish the comfort of reliving some of the traditions which have made you who you are. Or just maybe, you can ignore it in favor of something more meaningful that will make you even better.

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