On making (and breaking) tradition

As a brand new family unit, my husband and I now face the strange and interesting task of managing tradition—embracing some of the traditions that have been passed down to us from our families and communities, casting others aside, and creating new ones. I’ve always been interested in tradition. I’ve loved learning about ritual practices and mythologies and uncovering the origins of our often deeply-held beliefs about why we do things the way we do them.

But engagement and wedding planning were a bit like being tossed into the deep end on the tradition front. I can’t count the number of times I received advice in the past several months—often from perfect strangers—that began with the loaded word “traditionally.” Let’s try out a few basic examples to get the “tradition” juices flowing.

“Traditionally, a bride wears a white dress.”

“Traditionally, a bride is escorted down the aisle by her father.”

“Traditionally, Americans eat turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.”

Why do brides “traditionally” wear white dresses? In which cultures is this true? Who started this trend? What if a bride hates white? What if a bride does not have a father? What if there is no bride, but rather two grooms? What if an American is also a vegetarian?

Ouf. As (I hope) you can see, even the simplest statements about tradition require a bit of unpacking and may be more useful in statistical reports than as practical advice for individuals.

This is not to say that all traditions are bad or wrong. Traditions can offer guidelines for interpersonal conduct that help us connect with and show respect for others. Traditions can help us make meaning of important life cycle events. But many traditions also have the frustrating characteristic of seeming natural and obvious to insiders, while appearing completely foreign and unnatural to outsiders. Many traditions do not account for difference.

So as we continue in the process of “tradition management” together, I hope that we will be able to practice a bit of what we’ve learned thus far—that tradition is best handled with equal parts critical thinking and creativity, research and respect, humor and sensitivity.