Transforming Traditions

Faboosh, Part II by Eugenia Loli (CC BY-NC)

Faboosh, Part II by Eugenia Loli (CC BY-NC)

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.
—Gustav Mahler
Tradition can be understood as a pointer to that which is beyond tradition: the sacred. Then it functions not as a prison but as a lens.
—Marcus J. Borg
Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving—born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way. —Thomas Merton
 ‘Traditional’ . . . the word itself implies a movement. Tradition cannot mean standing still. —T.S. Eliot



For most of human history, people washed in public bath houses and slaughtered animals for luck. Two hundred and fifty years ago letters arrived on horseback, marriages were arranged, and millions died of smallpox. One hundred and fifty years ago the US Constitution protected slavery. In the early 20th century children still worked in factories and women couldn’t vote. Last year gay Texans couldn’t marry.

Change is good.

Traditions are a mix of inherited customs, convictions, and individuals’ small adjustments over time. No one celebrates a holiday exactly like their parents or grandparents did: electricity replaces candles, men and women begin worshipping together, children become seen and heard. Someone adds a dash of tarragon or a new melody. Such gradual changes are inevitable. But you can make conscious, purposeful changes, too. While familiarity is comforting, holidays are valuable opportunities to infuse outgrown rituals with meaningful change.

October offers two opportunities to transform long-standing traditions. The first is on Columbus Day, which—while still officially on the books—is slowly being replaced by observances of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Since historical documents have revealed Chris Columbus was a violent despot who paved the way for African-American slavery, it seems fitting to reappropriate his holiday to honor the people whose rich cultural heritage he nearly destroyed. Brushing up on lesser-known American history is a great way to start.

Then there’s Halloween, that modern incarnation of an ancient pagan nod to death and the dearly departed. Check out this fun overview of the history of Halloween, then consider how you could move beyond sugar and costumes to make this popular holiday more personally meaningful. I like to take cues from the related traditions of Samhain and Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. Using art, crafts, and playful ritual to honor life, death, and loved ones who have passed on is a wonderful way to reinvigorate this history-rich holiday.

Traditions inform our identities, remind us where we come from, reconnect us with our ancestors, and comfort us in hard times. But not everything old is sacred, and it’s important to reevaluate received wisdom and judge its merits for ourselves. Some traditions are valuable gifts that we can unwrap anew with each observance. But some traditions miss the mark. When that happens, being honest about it and making changes that better reflect our values and shared history enrich everyone’s experience.

As a kid, I loved milkshakes and hamburgers. Now I treat myself to soy milk lattes and celebrate Thanksgiving with Tofurkey. And while my ancestors might not recognize these new customs, I think they’d appreciate the care and intention with which I act. Rituals and traditions are supposed to heighten our awareness of and engagement with daily life, and mine do.

What customs or rituals have you outgrown? How could you reimagine them? Traditions are an ongoing conversation. What will you contribute?


What do you think?