Do Traditions Matter in Today’s World?

By Marianne Furtado de Nazareth –

Every Christmas my mother made large dekchis of sorpotel and at least a dozen Christmas cakes. Dad put up her special Christmas curtains that smelled of moth balls and the house was redolent with the inviting aroma of cooking and baking. We kids sat around the dining table rolling kal kals and neuries. I tried to carry on with her concept of tradition for years, as my sons grew, but over the years, one finds that tradition has to be forgotten, as there are no children left in the house to continue, with the tradition. And sadly all that is left of this tradition in the children’s minds are memories, as they do not have the time to carry it on in their new countries. For us too, it’s much easier to buy one cake, rather than go through the tradition of soaking the fruit and baking it at home. However the tradition of midnight Mass, in the chill of the 24th night in St. Joseph’s Chapel, with the choir singing ‘O Holy Night,’ we will never give up. That is one tradition which will endure, at least for my generation.

Traditions represent a critical piece of our culture and our lives. They help form the structure and foundation of our families and our society. They remind us that we are part of a history that defines our past, shapes who we are today and who we are likely to become. Once we ignore the meaning of our traditions, we’re in danger of damaging the underpinning of our identity.

  • Tradition contributes a sense of comfort and belonging. It brings families together and enables people to reconnect with friends.
  • Tradition reinforces values such as faith, integrity, a good education, personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, and the value of being selfless.
  • Tradition provides a forum to showcase role models and celebrate the things that really matter in life.
  • Tradition offers a chance to say “thank you” for the contribution that someone has made.
  • Tradition enables us to showcase the principles of our parents and grand-parents, to celebrate being part of a family.
  • Tradition serves as an avenue for creating lasting memories for our children and grand – children.
  • Finally, tradition offers an excellent context for meaningful pause and reflection.

As  parents, we must strive to  reinforce the values and beliefs that we hold dear. The alternative to action is taking these values for granted. The result is that our beliefs will get so diluted, over time, that our way of life will become foreign to us. It’s like good health. You may take it for granted until you lose it. If we disregard our values, we’ll open our eyes one day and won’t be able to recognize “our world” anymore. The values that support the backbone of our family, and our faith will have drifted along for so long that the traditions we hold dear may get lost forever.

If I asked my son living in London, if he was serving Sushi for his next Christmas lunch, he’d give me a puzzled look and think to himself, ” Mum is losing it.”  Like millions of others, he would enjoy roast chicken, stuffing, sorpotel, and sunnas which he has tracked a home – made outlet to buy them from.

We follow tradition so there’s no need to invent a special menu. By definition, we simply comply with the prescribed formula from the past. No need to think, whatsoever.

Then it seems only natural, for questions to arise as to the point of or value of tradition:

  • What does “tradition” have to offer us if, by its very definition – “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by family, society, for a long time” – it is rooted in the past?
  • Why value tradition or “old ways of thinking” or “doing” when we have learned how to do things in a new – maybe even “better” – way?
  • How can we grow, advance or develop as a society and culture when we continue to follow “traditional” ways?

These are certainly important questions. But, referring to the Catholic tradition of moral wisdom, author James F. Keenan, S.J., writes:

“Our tradition is a lively, life-giving one, even though some use the term tradition to halt reflection, discussion, education, insight, wisdom, development, or growth.” He continues: “In its richer meaning, however, tradition is always progressive, developing, and constantly calling us to receive it, enrich it, and humanize it.”

Surely one might find the synonymous use of the terms “tradition” and “progressive” in the same sentence a bit odd – almost paradoxical. After all, the progressive movement can largely be understood as the antithesis of tradition – challenging traditional ways of behaving, thinking or doing and labeling them as “outdated”, “irrelevant” or “unimportant.”

But, should it be? Does it have to be? Why is tradition important?

I think there is a real beauty to be found in tradition – a beauty that may not propel us forward in the sense of quantifiable “progress” or change, but that does propel us forward as human beings in life wisdom, understanding and even emotional intellect.

And, aside from the more obvious and equally important – the function of tradition is-  a way to pass on the values, morals, customs and culture of one generation to the next, tradition also teaches us something about life, where we came from and who we are as people.

By pausing to consider traditional methods of behavior or thinking, and engaging in traditional activities, we are forced to look beyond the “self” and our own “world” to the world of others, to that which we came from, reminding us of our vulnerability – and, ultimately, our connection to something larger than ourselves.

To dismiss tradition because it is in the “past” or is “flawed” in one way or another is to discount the wisdom, insight and perspective that it can offer, which, subsequently, can help shape us into more wholesome and compassionate human beings.

Things change. Improvements are made. The world evolves. But, the essence of who we are as humans – our struggles, our fears, our needs and desires – has largely remained the same due to the inherent characteristics that define human nature. Tradition, then, seems to be a subtle reminder of this, heightening our awareness of self and others, cultivating a sense of belonging and stability, and acting as a guiding force in our lives and society.

It is in this sense that tradition is always developing – calling us to “receive it, enrich it, and humanize it.” As author Ardis Whitman wrote, “We must cherish our yesterdays, but never carry them as a burden into the future. Each generation must take nourishment from the other and give knowledge to the one that comes after.”

And so, it is not that tradition is saying stop, or halt or “think no more.” It is not saying, “do not question”, “do not grow” and “do not change.” Rather, it is saying, “remember.” Think, but remember. Question, but remember. Grow and change, but remember. Remember who we are as humans, where we came from and how we can take the knowledge, wisdom and experiences transmitted to us from generations afar to live a life more beautiful – and more meaningful.

But, you may ask, what of the changes, improvements and progress we have made? Surely they couldn’t have been made by sticking solely to traditional ways. Yes – and they certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. I am very sure that somewhere deep inside, each one of us there is a yearning for a sense of consistency, simplicity, stability and predictability. Is that not a natural human tendency? And is that not what tradition can offer us?

“Without tradition,” says the character Tevye in the famous film “ Fiddler on the Roof” which is about a Russian family forced to flee their homeland, “our lives would be as shaky as…a fiddler on the roof.”

So whether you’re passing the sorpotel or the sushi, now is a perfect time to focus on creating your own new, fresh, and game-changing traditions.


Dr Marianne Furtado de Nazareth,
Former Asst. Editor, The Deccan Herald, &
Adjunct faculty St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bangalore.

 

2 comments

  1. Hi Marianne,
    Your article has covered a whole lot of areas with which I whole-heartedly agree. You and I grew up in nuclear families that were very much in touch with our extended families, our grandparents especially, uncles and aunts who probably lived within striking distance. So it was easy enough for our parents to follow traditions inculcated in them from childhood. Today the scenario has changed. Our children have moved away to distant shores, in many instances both partners are working, they do not have household help, in some cases they have sadly stopped going to Church, they believe in celebrating the traditional festivals of their new countries. Some or all of the above, does not help with keeping up our precious traditions.
    Again, back home, the older generation are either no more or bed-ridden or in Senior Citizen institutions. Health issues, lack of proper household help, the homes emptied of children and grandchildren who may or may not come for the holidays, diet restrictions, etc. are all contributing to diminishing the continuance of traditions in our motherland. Whether or not we like it, we have to face reality. Idealistically speaking, nothing like good old traditions. I’m all for it. But our generation, I feel, to a large extent can only do our best to carry on traditions in OUR homes. The future generations have to see fit to continue them.

  2. Yes, that’s what my article aimed to bring out. Traditions can evolve and probably become like ours now — the entire family meet for Christmas or one major event in the year. That has become a new tradition in our family.
    It was fathers sermon at the Mass you and I attended that gave me the idea and I ruminated about it on the way back in the bus!
    Thank you for your review.

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