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Why tradition matters, and how to start your own

Local customs promote a sense of belonging. When times are hard, and you don’t know your neighbors — it may be time to invent a tradition

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

The word “tradition” can mean many things to many people. It carries connotations of rich ancestral practices, national holidays and that song from “Fiddler on the Roof.” 

January is the perfect time to reflect on the traditions in your own life, from the Christmas rush you’re still recovering from to the New Year’s resolutions that are destined to die in February (also a tradition).

In my own experience, co-workers and friends have a wide array of responses when asked about the traditions in their families. Some excitedly tell me of annual activities that work to reconnect them with their heritage. Others freeze, wondering if they have anything unique to bring to the table.

I can’t help but identify with the latter, feeling I am missing out on something that should have been there, but wasn’t. Upon further reflection, I’ve begun to realize my traditions rarely involve interactions with people outside my immediate family and friends. This realization began a deep dive into the traditions that others have — their purposes, what makes them meaningful, and how to start my own.

Many practices were invented to manufacture a sense of national identity. You might not know that May 1 is “Loyalty Day;” I can only guess it is celebrated by whispering the pledge of allegiance to a picture of Mount Rushmore. For Independence Day, some Kentuckians celebrate by shooting obsolete electronics out in the woods. A man at the airport informed me that the community of Bar Harbor, Maine, bets on lobster races (I don’t think the lobsters know they’re racing).

And while traditions can be fun and lighthearted, there is a dark side. Dueling in powdered wigs and Mariah Carey at Christmas do not promote a community’s well-being.

Traditions are a reflection of society, and the importance of these activities cannot be overstated. They are some of the most effective mechanisms for developing a sense of belonging and are a catalyst for communal gatherings. But I grew up with a small number of traditions, and the ones I did have, my parents worked hard to get started. Driving around to see Christmas lights on houses, flushing ice cubes down the toilet to assure a snow day, and New Year’s Eve at my grandmother’s (the parents needed some alone time). These events rarely involved anyone outside our nuclear family and close friends.

According to Cambridge University scholars, in the past 200 years or so, our society has changed so fast that we have lost many of the traditions that used to tie communities together while failing to replace them.

Patriotic and religious traditions certainly have a place in society, but there is another form of tradition that makes a community feel like a living thing instead of a cookie-cutter dystopia.

Local traditions, like mountain hollerin’ in Appalachia or the hot air balloon festivals of New Mexico, are key to a sense of place and belonging. Many of these center around common elements, so I dug into the cold hard facts about the ways people have been brought together.

Food traditions

Many of the most successful, culture-building activities revolve around food. Coney Island is famous for its hot dog guzzling contest, and the town of Zenica in Bosnia-Herzogovina is famous for its springtime Festival of Scrambled Eggs. According to resident Faruk Kadric, “Egg frying is in fact a symbol of a new beginning, a new life.”

This year, a Philadelphia man bravely ate a rotisserie chicken every day for 40 days. On the last day, hundreds showed up to watch the culmination of his senseless act of heroism. He had his “Rudy” moment, and maybe next year, another will take up the gauntlet. 

One popular recipe for a catchy food tradition starts with identifying local produce. It has to be something people are only mildly interested in, like lutefisk or pickled eggs. Wear said produce as a blouse or a hat, Lady Gaga style. Build it a shrine, write it a song. Involve the mayor for some reason.

We like sports!

I think every locale needs shared passions. And shared passions bring shared traditions. When working in a factory, I was forced to learn how disappointing the Broncos were, so I’d have something to chat about in the lunchroom. “Boy those teams were at it again last night huh?” I’d say. They would nod approvingly.

Most of their football traditions involved unsanctioned gambling, but it’s the thought that counts.

I’ve also found that watching adult recreational soccer was a great way to fill the void of tradition in my life. Families pack up the same cooler of oranges, blue Gatorade and cheese crackers. They carefully lay out camping chairs in a perfect half circle. Each middle-aged athlete brings out their lucky socks, kisses their lucky phone case and jogs out on the field like they are breaking up the ice in their joints.

Often in the second half, these adults have the tradition of poor sportsmanship — they forget the children are watching, physically assault each other over red cards, and limp off the field muttering obscenities. An ice cream truck drives by.

Feats of strength, feats of skill

Maybe it’s the foamy beds we lay on, or the wide availability of silicon spatulas, but the convenience of modern life drives some to masochism. They begin participating in activities that feel terrible, just to know they are alive. Just to know that deep down we are all wild animals.

If you live near a large body of water, you likely are aware of the polar plunge tradition, where members of the community baptize their temperature-sensitive bodies in ice water for the thrill of not having to do it again until next year. If you live near dirt you’ve probably borne witness to your local gym rats crawling through mud and scaling pallets in a ceremony called the “mud run.”

Similarly, you might have seen videos of English crowds chasing a round of cheese down a steep slope, tumbling and twisting, in order to be crowned the cheesiest member of the village.

Nothing brings locals together better than a contest. In my research, it’s best to lean into the unique history of a town. Is the ground full of heavy metals from mining? That’s unique! Does it smell like waste from your industrial slaughterhouse? Do you have way more roundabouts than everyone else?

It takes a sensitive eye to know what makes your place of residence special. If I was to start a contest in my hometown, it would probably involve prickly pear cactus, rabid coyotes and frisbee golfing, but I’m still brainstorming.

From the meat raffles of Minnesota to the ostrich riding of Arizona, citizens across the country are recognizing an unmet need for communal events. Life is more complicated, more uncomfortable, but richer when we know our neighbors.

Culture is not built on its own, it takes creative locals to stand up and say, “I want to eat so many hard-boiled eggs that my family will have no choice but to finally respect me.”