I have phrases from “Fiddler on the Roof” running through my head as I write this. It happens whenever I think about the traditions of my life, of American life, or of my characters’ lives. “Tradition” is the answer we give when we’ve forgotten why we do something. Why do we eat turkey for Thanksgiving? Tradition. Why do we bring a tree into the house and cover it with baubles? Tradition. It’s more than that though.
Traditions get started because something has meaning. They are continued because that meaning recurs and reminds us of the first time. We try to explain it to the children and other new members of our social circles, but they never get quite the same emotional response. Soon it becomes habit so deeply ingrained that you just can’t have that moment without it. We have turkey at Thanksgiving because it’s just not Thanksgiving without the turkey. Some people go so far as to shape tofu like a turkey so they can have the cultural connection without compromising their vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Tradition is not just for Thanksgiving either.
Today, July 4th, for example is another day of tradition. Most of America will spend this evening watching fireworks displays with hundreds or perhaps thousands of their closest neighbors. They will “ooh” and “ahh” to explosions timed to music. Before the fireworks there will be festivals where kids will eat cotton candy, clowns will shape balloon animals and parades will close mains streets all across the country. Why? Tradition of course. That and it’s as good of a reason as any to take the day off work and just party. The fireworks are meant to remind us of the war for independence and the struggle our young nation had to face just to become a nation. That’s not what I feel when I find my spot for watching the displays of color and light. Nor do I think of armies marching off to war when I watch the parade go by. Despite the best efforts of teachers, kids don’t think of the 4th of July as a historical event – it’s a party and they get to stay up after dark.
Someday in the not too distant future, September 11th is going to start taking on the mantle of Tradition. The annual memorials are going to start taking on a festival atmosphere as more and more children have lived their whole lives in the aftermath. More and more adults are going to want to get past the pain without giving up the respect. Before long, those of us who knew life before that tragic event, will begin to forget the horrible impact it had on our lives as more recent events take up time in our thoughts. The story of 9/11 will be remembered, but the emotions will fade. Then it will become just one more national holiday that is an excuse to take a day off and party.
This process is both sad and inspiring. Sad because we do forget, but inspiring because we go on. Our traditions are the scars of our history.
When creating a new culture, create the traditions as well. The celebrations that people only barely remember why they are celebrating. The things they do because they’ve always done them that way. Alternatively, if you are trying for an Alien feel – make a point of having no traditions. Tradition is in a lot of ways where culture happens. It’s also where stories happen. Think of the people you are going to rub elbows with tonight when you go to stake our your place to watch the fireworks – what a wonderful way to get people together who might not otherwise have crossed paths.