December 21, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)


What an enormous magnifier is tradition! How a thing grows in the human memory and in the human imagination, when love, worship, and all that lies in the human heart, is there to encourage it.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

Every religion and culture has its traditions. Those traditions range from very delightful ones to inane to insidious ones.

Although my parents were brought up with many strictly-observed traditions, I had almost none, other than my own birthday. What family traditions I acquired were acquired by marriage and they were Christian, not Jewish.

Whatever is done within a family becomes a tradition that is often observed religiously in the next generation. People rarely stop to think that those traditions can be very different in different families. Opening Christmas presents is one that is highly variable from family to family. In one family, the kids rush down on Christmas morning and frantically tear into the packages, scattering wrappings all over and shouting with joy at each surprise. Another family will wait until all are assembled and then each child takes a turn opening one present at a time. Some families open gifts on Christmas eve and everyone, except the kids, sleeps late on Christmas day. What many people are unaware of is that they themselves can set whatever traditions they want for their family. Unlike the Ten Commandments, they are not carved in stone. Still, I have heard people say that "it doesn't seem like Christmas unless...." You can add whatever you want to that sentence.

Large feasts are often a family tradition, with relatives coming from afar to join in the celebration. This is fun for everyone except the person who has to prepare it. In some families everyone pitches in with the feast and the cleanup afterwards. In others, it is left entirely to mamma or grandma. In those cases, there may be a rebellion in which mamma says "to hell with tradition! I've had enough!"

Getting dressed up and going to church is a common tradition for those who go to church.

Among the innocuous traditions are Easter egg hunts, in which children are taught that rabbits leave decorated chicken eggs lying around for children to find. Overeating is another tradition.

One tradition is to get bombed out of your mind on New Years Eve and regret it on the following day.

Many traditions are seasonal: Easter and Passover are spring festivals, with all of the symbols that go with springtime and hoped-for fertility. Christmas and Hanukkah are winter solstice festivals. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival. The new year celebration is held on whenever your culture arbitrarily wants to start the year. Our new year starts in mid winter and the Moslem new year starts in the spring. No one has really bothered to bring the calendar of religious holidays back in synchrony with the sun and the stars. Jewish and Christian holidays are often determined by the lunar calendar: the first full moon in the month of...

It is not just coincidence that major religious holidays coincide with climactic events.

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