A few weeks ago, I had the wonderful, life-changing experience of being a bride. The positive (and stressful) aspects of the wedding are obvious, but I was surprised by the constant presence of the past – my own, my family’s, and that of those around me – throughout the planning process. It seemed as though the wedding and associated events almost ran themselves. I discovered that much of what weddings are about is set, if not by law then by the dictates of formality and tradition. From the timing, content, and participants in the ceremony to the many, many superstitions about the day (such as the irritatingly ubiquitous “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”), weddings are almost like pre-determined packages, complete with expected players who must attend, observe, or otherwise provide their input.
Being a happily modern woman, I had (and exercised) the option of picking and choosing to suit my taste — no three-tiered fruit cake or garter, but large bunches of flowers and the fancy white dress were okay — but I felt throughout the process that unless I protested something and deliberately carved a new and different path, it was considered to be included by default.
It was a powerful reminder of the role that tradition plays in our lives, especially at those times considered particularly significant. Traditions are things to fall back on. They are the unspoken way things are, promoting a shared understanding among their followers. They provide comfort and consistency across generations and cultures, which is reassuring to all those they impact.
We seem always to return to tradition in times of joy and sadness. Christmas is a time for families, gifts, singing and overeating. Weddings have ritualistic music, clothes, speeches and symbols. Nations use traditions also, such as the ritualistic cannon fire, naval hymn and wreath-laying of Remembrance Day. Traditions are like language without words. They allow many to act as one and feel part of a collective greater than themselves.
It is thus easy to forget that traditions are often deliberate actions and not merely serendipitous continuations of old customs. In a landmark book on the subject, famed British historian Eric Hobsbawm and several essayists argued that many of the traditions we hold closely as representations of the past are in fact rather recent inventions. Clan tartans, one argues, were in reality an English invention of the mid-nineteenth century to showcase local pride, and not at all an ancient Scottish custom. Similarly, what we now consider to be the traditional “pomp and circumstance” of the British monarchy dates in large part to the attempts of aristocrats in British India to legitimize their power in the high imperial period of the nineteenth century. Even the “traditional” white dress of weddings dates only to 1840, after photos emerged of Queen Victoria’s own white wedding dress. (She had wanted to incorporate some of her own lace in her marriage gown. Before this time, blue was often the colour of choice to denote purity – think of the colour the Virgin Mary is usually clothed in.) What we often see as widespread and customary is many times the invention or custom of only a specific powerful class or social group intended to promote an agenda or specific end.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with respecting tradition, invented or otherwise – so long as we recognize that it is less a quaint old ritual than a more modern calculated one. Hobsbawm suggests that it is most often the case that traditions are invented not because old ways are no longer appropriate or available but as a conscious choice to carve out a new and different path. Consider the adoption of a new flag or name for a nation that has previously existed only as a colony, or the creation of a new ceremony to recognize the veterans of a recent war. Such symbols and practices are distinct by design. And as savvy twenty-first-century spectators, we can all pick and choose traditions that suit our needs, depending on the agendas they contain.
However, it seems that in doing so, we have largely eliminated their use. Our modern lives in the western world are almost entirely stripped of them. Weddings, kilts and national flags aside, it seems today that we live prosaic lives marked by little tradition that is not personal or familial. We exist day-to-day very differently from how our grandparents or even parents did. Women have more say in their lives than ever before, from career choice to domestic situations, and everyone is more mobile, more connected, and more aware of the alternatives to his or her family or national mores. As technology breaks down cultural barriers, national and temporal insularity become less commonplace. Writing in 1992, Hobsbawm noted that:
In spite of much invention, new traditions have not filled more than a small part of the space left by the secular decline of both old tradition and custom; as might indeed be expected in societies in which the past becomes increasingly less relevant as a model or precedent for most forms of human behaviour.
What is the result? Certainly, an erosion of the daily rituals of the past, such as tea time, having a weekend rest day free of commerce or activity, or watching a favourite television program as a family. With the decline of religion and superstition came also less of a focus on art or nature or history in favour of constant change and newness. And no doubt also what many see as today’s disconnected, “broken society,” less knit by real social bonds than by large states that are doing a poor job at aggregating interests of the people. When David Cameron gave a campaign speech centred on this phrase earlier this year, the problems he identified (violence, crime, disconnectedness) are symptoms of a decline in social bonds due to a lack of traditions. And, notably, the “progressive-conservative” solution he proposed relied on “historic values of conservatism, discipline, responsibility, a deep faith in mankind and womankind, [and] a respect for traditional institutions, such as family, church, community and country [italics mine].” It would seem that traditions are still seen as important by the ruling members of society, even though the agenda is now (in theory) more transparent.
Yet despite their powerful advocates, it is unclear how traditions are created. While preparing this post, I thought long and hard about new traditions being invented today, and could think of few that were not corporate or familial. Widespread cultural traditions, and the social fabric they strengthen, are harder to come by than ever. Perhaps this is why Christmas get-togethers, weddings, and patriotism are eternally popular, despite the recessions, cynicism, and declining church attendance numbers of our era: having something to celebrate – together – is a kind of comfort we still feel we need.
MARGINALIA: Hubs and I celebrating traditions old and new!