As human beings, we desire and depend upon boundaries. Much is said about our insatiable pursuit of personal freedom. However, it is those boundaries to our freedom that we depend on most. For example, in democratic governments, we enact laws to rule our social and economic behaviors. As long as these are reasonable and agreed upon broadly, the society prospers.
On the other hand, dictatorships and other autocratic forms of government with oppressive laws are commonly overthrown when the population violently disagrees with the laws and rules of those in power. The rebels who overthrow the government often become worse than their predecessors. Thus, the cycle repeats.
Another class of boundary is tradition. A tradition is a cultural adaptation of rules of behavior, not as legal laws but as tacit agreements on more of a foundational level. Traditions are enforced by peer pressure, and offenders are usually punished by ostracization or, in extreme cases, banishment. Laws bind a nation; traditions bind a culture. Tradition gives a sense of belonging, acceptance, protection, and, most importantly, identity.
One of my favorite movies is “Fiddler On The Roof.” It is a musical comedy-drama starring Topal as Rev Tevye, the husband of Golde and father of five daughters. In it, he sings a song called “Tradition.” Within the lyrics is a statement that summarizes his view of tradition. “Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
The movie is about his family and their village under the edict of the Tsar of Russia, who evicts anyone Jewish from the town of Anatevka, and the changes affecting traditions older than Tevye can remember. The younger generation is more adaptable to change and begins breaking with centuries-old traditions. It also portrays how difficult it is for those steeped in a lifetime of tradition to undertake drastic change and adapt.
Many of us have lost our older, closely held traditions to modern life. It is true that with wide open travel and communication, only the most remote regions of the earth have cultures and societies that are isolated enough to have cultures bound closely by ancient traditions. Even though our modern traditions do not typically bind many of us as closely as old traditions, we still have forms of traditions. Within a family, we may have a tradition of having dinner for extended family on Sundays, having an annual reunion, or other similar activities.
As part of American tradition, many of us may celebrate the Fourth of July, George Washington’s Birthday, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Juneteenth, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and more. Other religious and cultural holidays are celebrated as well, such as Easter, Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, and others.
The difference between most modern traditions and many of those in times past is readily apparent upon close examination of their purpose. Centuries ago, traditions were about group survival as a unit. Life was tough, and if each member did not contribute and add to the cohesiveness of the whole, their survival potential could suffer. In most cases, modern traditions lack that goal, though they tend to bring people together in general. Sometimes, it can be merely an excuse to celebrate, set off fireworks, eat and drink excessively, or sleep late. The survival imperative is not apparent but may, in less obvious ways, be a shadow of former importance. National, church, workplace, and family celebrations bring about a feeling of being part of something larger than self, though unlike in the past, non-participation usually does not incur punishment.
Even in these modern times, coming together to celebrate God, country, and family in common can bring great benefit and camaraderie. Here’s to your traditions – cheers!