Tuesday, November 23, 2010


With the holiday season upon us, I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts on tradition. Without it, where would our holiday season be? The memories, expectations, and meaning we derive from our holidays are based in the traditions we create and follow each year. Some traditions are more ingrained than others. For example, I've never not had turkey for Thanksgiving. However, where I have eaten the turkey has changed over the years. In fact, this year, for the first time, my mom and her husband will celebrate Thanksgiving at my house. Normally, someone from my generation would not yet be entrusted with the weighty responsibility of hosting such a sacred meal. However, my husband will be on call at work this week so we're unable to leave town. Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday until my dad died. His birthday was November 26, so we always celebrated his birthday on Thanksgiving. Given that the ending of that tradition was such a painful one, it effectively disrupted the entire holiday for me. Since then, I've celebrated it at my home without any company, with my husband's family, and even at church. And I find that I have less anticipation for Thanksgiving given that I haven't developed new traditions which connect me to the holiday.

Conversely, I have begun to enjoy Halloween immensely. I surprised myself by decorating our front yard this year more than in years past. My husband and I even dressed up for the occasion. I realized I was becoming more enthusiastic because it had become a significant day for our family. With young children at home, we had made a point to make it festive for them. We are typically in town for Halloween, so that facilitated creating easily repeated traditions. We attend trick-or-treat-a-trunk at church and trick-or-treat in the neighborhood as well. This year we even added a party at a friend's home and trick-or-treating at Botanic Gardens. And thanks to the message at the UU church we visited on Halloween, we also added honoring the deceased in our family. Our tradition is being built upon and enriched over time. Next year, we're likely to repeat the new events we tried this Halloween.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of tradition, both for individuals and communities, even society as a whole. It connects us to our past and helps us feel like we belong, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Typically, specific traditions have persisted because we find something of value in them. They give us something to anticipate. It can be comforting and orienting to know what to expect. There is a known script for everyone to follow. At Christmas, I know my family will open gifts one at a time, starting with the youngest and working up to the oldest member, while the members of my husband's family will tear into the gifts simultaneously.

As I have progressed through this reevaluation of my faith, I've given much thought to the role of tradition in religion. I come from a denomination (church of Christ) that tends to devalue tradition. We were taught in church that we needed the Bible alone and we rejected formal creeds as they were human creations, as opposed to the Bible, which was the inerrant word of God. We fancied ourselves a perfect replica of 1st century Christianity. No modern cultural influence here. Unlike everyone else, we cut through nearly 2000 years of misguided human interference and interpreted scripture just as God intended. In so doing, we created some traditions and informal creeds of our own, though we'd never call them that. But try questioning or changing them, and see where that gets you. This naive approach to the Bible prevents us from seeing the way our world view impacts our interpretation. Like an adolescent, we are blinded to the wisdom of others who've gone before us as we arrogantly declare our superior understanding. We unwittingly draw on our humanity in the development of our religion, just as people have done since the time of the apostles.

The truth is, we really can't get by in life without traditions. We are human. We will develop them. In fact, that is part of what makes us human, our ability to develop culture. I think the more mature approach is to continually reappraise our collective religious traditions, honoring and holding on to what is still valuable and creating our own traditions over time as we see a need.

So, I hope you all have lovely traditions to celebrate this Thanksgiving. And I would certainly enjoy hearing what they might be.


  1. My family flew up to visit up this year...and my mom loves to cook so she will be making the turkey:). Thanksgiving is unique for us since my parents are immigrants. Black beans and rice is served alongside sweet potato casserole!

    Back to your post, southern baptists are similar to coc in their disdain of tradition. I think one of the reasons i've been drawn to the anglican church is due to its focus on liturgy and tradition. So i agree with you...tradition is often a positive.

  2. Hi,
    I think it's interesting what you said about "that is part of what makes us human, our ability to develop culture." This is something someone I am close to struggles with, coming from a similar background to you- the question "Does culture have a place/ or can it have a place, in the practice of Christianity?" In Orthodoxy, for example, culture becomes such a huge part of the church's lower-case "t" tradition it can't be ignored. Having said that, to me it seems like that cultural influence can serve to enhance the church. I think we can forget pretty readily that in Jewish culture (from where Jesus came) there's a large emphasis on culture and the traditions that go with it- the tradition he railed against ostensibly got in the way of true service to God. Hmm...

  3. Like A Child,
    Yes, I've become more appreciative of "high church" now as well.

    Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving. My mom made the turkey too. I was definitely the sous chef in the kitchen.

    I'll try to post later today on the Crosson book I just read about Jesus. It addresses the counter-cultural message Jesus brought, which absolutely flew in the face of religious tradition.