i-bd270ae2df5d82618e27c3a480cd153e-290px-Kyle-cassidy-steampunk.jpgTradition. Not just a song from Fiddler on the Roof.

You know the refrain: “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.” It’s a great play but it is firmly rooted in the patriarchy, as “tradition” often is.

There are many ways to define “tradition” and we can look it up somewhere and have a flameware over dictionary meanings if you want. But instead I’ll tell you what I think the word means, roughly, generally, and subject to revision.

First, “tradition” is a feature of culture that simply refers to practices that are habitual. A subset of “traditions” are formalized or regularized, like holidays in many cultures (not all cultures have holidays or annual traditions). “Tradition” also refers to some sort of time depth … something can be thought of as traditional if it is something that has “always” been done a certain way. More to the point, however, is that the way something IS done (or is planned) is a certain way by reference to prior practice. We will put the Christmas Tree in that corner of the room because we’ve always put it in that corner of the room. And in this context, some traditions are quite labile while others are not. You can actually move the Christmas Tree around all you want in most Tree-using households, but perhaps you would have a much harder time not putting one up at all. Or, perhaps you can change up the exact way you cook the food for the annual feast, but the Papa still gets to decide whom his daughter marries. “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.”

The time depth aspect of “tradition” is well understood in the context of archaeology. Many archaeologists use words like “horizon” for a thing they see across a large space but not with a lot of time depth. Things that are maintained through long periods of time … certain pottery decorative motifs, certain kinds of stone tools … may be called “traditions.”

I have three small personal observations to make about traditions that serve to expose some important aspects of them.

When I was planning to work with the Efe (Pygmies) in the Ituri Forest some years back, I read everything written about them (there is actually not that much compared to, say, The Maya or Justin Beiber or something). One of the things that was recorded by several different ethnographic observers (anthropologists, missionaries, etc.) was how they bury their dead. In many societies, including many (more or less) Western societies, how you bury your dead is pretty strictly determined, and highly “traditional” as you know. And, if you ask any group of Efe, you might infer that their “tradition” is also fairly strict, and you might assume that they have been burying their dead the same way for a long time.

However, among the half dozen or so historical accounts and the three or four modern accounts (including my own) of how an Efe Pygmy is buried, in three different areas of the Ituri Forest covering almost a century of time, no two accounts were the same. At all. It would appear that Efe burial practices vary considerably across time and space, while in other cultures, burial is quite “traditional” in the sense of prescribed, determined, and time-deep.

Conclusion: The KINDS of things one may think of as typically traditional (marriage, burial, life-stage transitions, etc. etc.) may actually not be across cultures. It is not safe to extend one’s own view of how things are done outside one’s own culture without actually looking at other cultures.

(As an aside, I’ll mention that attention to the dead in both severity and regularity among Native American groups in the US shifted to be much more homogeneous when cultural patrimony became a powerful political tool. I believe something similar happened in Australia as well. I suspect those two cases are not isolated in the history of humanity.)

My second observation is less about cross cultural aspects of tradition, but rather, on how the heck traditions emerge to begin with. When I graduated with my PhD from a small eastern college, I noticed that the people up on the stage … the official people, like the President and the major Deans … were decked out in Edwardian Garb including top hats and so on. The college itself was over 300 years old, so this was not the dress of the earliest days of the school (though the graduate school’s graduation suit was Renaissance style). I wondered … did they decide during the Edwaradian period to update the stage dress, then forget to keep it updated? Or did they decide during the 1960s or some other later time period to go retro, and happen to like top hats in a foreshadowing of Steampunk Fashion? The point is that this was an obvious case, because of the time-trip nature of it all, of manufactured tradition rather than tradition just happening because you do something long enough.

Which leads to my third observation: With a new child in the house, Amanda and I are staring to talk about “traditions” we’d like to start. I’ve always thought that the best, most ancient, and reliable traditions are the ones you just thought up and pretend you’ve always been doing. Easier to keep the story straight, at least in the beginning. When Julia was little, she did not like cake (still doesn’t) so the tradition emerged to have pie instead for her birthday. With Huxley, we are hoping to completely eliminate both pie and cake and have him enjoy something healthier, such as a pineapple. You can stick a candle in a pineapple, right? The interesting thing about this is the push back we may (or may not) receive from others. If we are really going to have birthday-cake free parties for him on his birthday, we’re basically going to have to not ever invite anyone (except Julia) in order to avoid all the crap we’ll have to take for not providing Huxley with an opportunity to smear frosting all over his head.

The reason I point out this observation is that it is a fairly mild but still instructive example of the conflict that can occur around tradition. We will be starting, any day now, The War on Christmas, during which Atheists such as myself are accused of being Nazis because we prefer to say “happy holidays” … thus being more inclusive … over some other greeting. There will be conflict over this. I will have to decide in a couple of weeks if I’d like to go on the local FOX news station and debate this as I’ve done before (I’m thinking of suggesting someone else to do this … I’m growing tired of manufactured arguments like this one.) Large and seemingly influential non-profit churchy groups have held major corporations hostage over this issue. Fights over tradition can get quite nasty.

Tradition is probably a good thing when it tells you what to do and how to do it in a good way. Tradition tells us to not eat the paint, but instead, the pancakes. It reminds us of certain obligations that are probably important. And so on. But tradition can also be uncritical and misleading, facilitating some rather dumb behavior. But at its worst, it can be, and often is, a tool of those in power used to keep control over important aspects of life: which person, or which kind of person, to love or marry; whom to treat as a superior; who gets to kneel on a carpet and who does not while being beheaded. Well, maybe not that last one so much anymore (except metaphorically, of course).

Tradition. “The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.”

The next edition of Skeptically Speaking will consist of a panel of individuals led by Desiree Schell talking about tradition. I hope you can join us! And if you missed it, you can certainly catch the podcast.


  1. #1 MikeMa
    November 19, 2011

    The tradition thing you are planning for Huxley (good luck with that) is more akin to programming or an experiment. I applaud the effort but expect mixed results at best. Many shifts in tradition would certainly result from changes in external conditions. Like burning bodies rather than burial if conditions got too wet or firewood became scarce.

    The war on christmas is a joke so I understand the inertia WRT yet another debate. I laugh at the ‘Reason for the Season’ campaigns. The reason for the season is a retail one, not a religious one. Happy holidays is respectful, inclusive, and celebratory. Perfect.

    I believe I know where the picture you included at the top of the post was taken. It appears to be the train room at the Franklin Institute. We used to have sleepovers there with the cub scouts.

  2. #2 jrkrideau
    November 19, 2011


    “The reason for the season is a retail one, not a religious one.”

    Perhaps the cry of “Happy shopping!” or “Happy Xmas shopping” should replace “Happy Holidays”?

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    November 19, 2011

    MikeMa: It is the Franklin Institute.

    I guess I disagree with you somewhat. What I’m saying here, in part, is that a) the strength of some traditions is actually much lower than we might expect, and others at a higher level than we might expect. (Or sometimes, what we expect/know, but the point is, variable.)

    I’m pretty sure, for instance, that some of my inlawas will be much more annoyed that there will not be a cake at the 2yr old’s birthday than they would be if, say, I refused to wear a Yamaka at a sader (sp?).

    In the case of the burial practices, the Pygmies a) have a practice and b) could care less. That’s fairly counter-intuitive for a Westerner. It would’t not take much of a change in conditions.

  4. #4 MikeMa
    November 19, 2011

    My experience is that the strength of the tradition is in almost direct proportion to the amount of their life a person experienced it and it matters much less what happened before they were aware of it (ancient history). So if you make a tradition for your family, they will accept is as such without much reference to its age. We had many such traditions and modified them frequently to meet circumstances so, yes they are easily changed to meet many conditions, mostly convenience. Saying, “That’s how we always did it” in my work (IT) is usually a warning that means it is time to look for a new tradition.

    I think it is spelled Seder and yarmulke. At least according to my memory and the spellchecker isn’t arguing:)

    I have heard “Happy shopping” often. Pragmatism prevails!

  5. #5 Daniel J. Andrews
    November 19, 2011

    Good on you for changing cake to something healthier (you do realize you could pull a Congress move though and proclaim cake is a vegetable). It is interesting to see the kind of push-back you get from changing relatively unimportant traditions–it is a litmus test that reveals what kind of person you are dealing with.

    I constantly not only break with traditions, but in many cases just don’t have any. I would get all sorts of flak from my wife for not having a Christmas evening tradition, an opening presents tradition, a visiting relatives tradition, etc. Why? If I want to give presents, I’ll give them during the year. If I want a present, I’ll buy it for myself (that way I get what I want and don’t have a bunch of crap given to me that I give away to the local Thrift Shop or SallyAnn).

    If I want to visit relatives, I’ll visit them then. Why wait till one select day to give presents, go visiting–how you going to feel if you’re holding out for a couple of months and they die on you? You’ll have a closet of presents and you’ll wish you’d gone to visit.

    To me, it makes perfect sense. I explain this and the only consistent response is, “It makes sense to you, but you’re you’re not like other people” (if I’d have been born in the 90s, I’d have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder–or sociopathic tendencies according to some disgruntled relatives).

    So for me, a war on Christmas isn’t about what greeting to give to people–I just don’t care about that. The war is why do we have Christmas in the first place? Peace on earth, goodwill to man, give out presents, receive presents, visit family, laugh–those all sound like worthwhile things to pursue all year. Besides, the crass commercialism and naked greed of the season turns me right off, and I feel tainted participating in it.

    Just my two cents…but I’m “special” (so one of my morbidly obese diabetic neurotic relatives tells people behind my back). Hmm, maybe I’m more annoyed that I’m expected to visit some in-laws than I am about the other traditions of Christmas. Who wants to be around a person who has lifestyle-induced diabetes and other health problems and still eats far too much–like watching a slow suicide, and I ache for my nephews who are going to lose a parent far too early. And she has fed my once very athletic brother this crap too and he’s now teetering between being overweight and obese (so the kids may be orphans before they get married).

    I think this year I’m going to ask them both why they want to die, and why are they so selfish* (then I’ll rub salt into the wound and tell them the earth is older than 6000 years and dinosaurs actually existed).

    *I did tell my brother once he wasn’t thinking about his family and that he was selfish by not taking care of himself. His response was, “I am not selfish, how dare you suggest that, and it doesn’t matter if I die because I know where I’m going”. sigh. Not a trace of irony. Who cares about what happens to those left behind when I die because I know where I’m going. Like I said, selfish, so much so he’s completely unaware of it.

    Sorry for ranting on your blog. It’s that time of year.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    November 19, 2011


    My involvement in Jewish culture is broad and deep via marriage, association, school, etc. (though almost entirely atheistic Jews) and in New York the term was generally Yamaka, though I now see that Wikipedia prefers Kippah, which is how we pronounce that particular fish in Boston. It is also Kippa or Kipa, or Yarmulke according to Teh Wiki.

    If you look up Yamaka in Wikipeda you don’t get the hat, and Yamaka is not mentioned in the Kippa entry at all. I wonder why that is the case. There isn’t even a disambiguation. According to sources outside of Wikipedia, and therefore not part of our modern tradition of knowledge, “Yamaka” is a mispronounciation of “yarmulke” Yarmulke is, probably, also derived, possibly from Polih (jarmulka, or “hat”).

    I’ll try saying “pass the kippah” next holiday and see if I get a hat or a fish!

    It was “sader” I was checking the spelling on and I think I got that right. You never know if there is an extra “h” floating around

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    November 19, 2011


    you could pull a Congress move though and proclaim cake is a vegetable

    Actually, we may take that idea and revise it slightly, and declare that a pineapple on a plate with a bunch of other fruit is a cake!

    In fact, now that I think about it, I may just go and make a thing that looks exactly like a cake but has no cake in it.

    “It makes sense to you, but you’re you’re not like other people”

    Hmmmm… possible facebook status. Possible bumper sticker. Maybe even a coffee cup slogan…

  8. #8 MikeMa
    November 19, 2011

    Translations or, more precisely, transliterations from Yiddish do tend to be less rigid in both spelling and pronunciation. Regional effects are highly pronounced and conserved as well. You might get fish if you ask for kippa or you might not. I ask for kippered salmon so that there are no mistakes in something so delicious.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    November 19, 2011

    Memories of a cafe in Paris; My friend ordered a “Croque-monsieur” (a form of ham sandwich) from the waiter, and got a “Coke” becuase the waiter thought she said “A Coke, Monsieur”

    Several soda’s later and a shift change, and we finally got our grilled cheese and ham sandwiches.

  10. #10 Whomever1
    November 19, 2011

    Our tradition for Christmas for the last 5 years is to start playing all the H P Lovecraft Historical Society solstice carols: Tentacles!

  11. #11 Katharine
    November 20, 2011

    The axial tilt is the reason for the season!

    More generally, I am an avid breaker of traditions. I find tradition offensive because often it flies in the face of logic.

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    November 21, 2011

    Here is another example of a changing tradition: Chinese weddings. It used to be standard for the bride to wear a red dress, since red symbolizes happiness in Chinese culture. But in recent years many Chinese brides (even in China, not just expats) have adopted the Western custom of wearing white. I encountered a wedding party when I was in Beijing a few years ago (the reception was at the hotel where I was staying), and not only was the bride wearing white, but the signs in the lobby indicated the way to the reception by showing a couple in Western wedding garb.

    I am flexible with traditions: I will go along when it is convenient to do so and break them when it is more convenient for me to do so. I do Christmas because I get holiday/vacation time around then anyway whether or not I try to get together with family. But I have not had Thanksgiving with my family in many years: I have no immediate family close to where I live, and it is an inconvenient time of year for me to travel. (I generally see the family at Christmas anyway, which is only a month later.)