What is tradition? And really, does it matter?

What is tradition? And really, does it matter?

With Christmas fast approaching, I thought I’d revisit a post I wrote earlier this year, in which I ask: what is tradition and why do I want a piece of it so badly?

I remember going to see Fiddler on the Roof with my grandparents in the 70s. It had an impact on me then and continues to do so every time I watch it. The highlight for me is Papa Tevye’s sometimes velvety, sometimes booming voice as he performs TraditionI’ll admit, as a husband and a father, Tavye could be a bit of a sexist ass but I love him anyway. Not just because of the sparkle in his eyes and his cheeky, gap-toothed grin (swoon), but because of his passion. What is tradition? This says it all:

“Because of our tradition, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years…”

WOW. Talk about nailing it. (Yes, I know Tavye didn’t come up with that line all by himself; the writer did. But I choose to give him full credit because I have a crush.)

Traditions help us keep our balance.

When traditions are practiced year in and year out, generation upon generation, they grow roots that entrench themselves in the ground and become a force to be reckoned with. You can huff and puff as much as you like, but there’s no blowing them down. What? You wanna skip the Christmas tree this year? Not happening! There they stand — tall, proud and unwavering — imparting a sense of balance on all who participate.

But the times, they are a-changing. What is tradition in the face of the modern-day family? Think about it. Families have taken on shapes that Tavye could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. People are marrying outside of their faith and within their gender. Children are being born to and raised by unwed and single parents. Divorce rates are high and blended families have become the norm.

And so, I wonder …

What is tradition and how on earth are we supposed to keep it alive?

For some, keeping tradition alive is driven more by the fear of disappointing others than it is from a love for the tradition itself. If this weren’t the case, why do so many people compromise their own sanity to host to host a spectacular Christmas dinner for the entire family, year after year, when they’re worn-out, bitter, and ready to pass the torch?

For others, like me, keeping tradition alive is actually next to impossible because family is being reinvented not just from generation to generation, but within generations themselves.

For example, I was born in Canada to two European Jews, both immigrants. It’s not hard to imagine how rich with culture their family gatherings would have been as they embarked on their new life together. (Imagine Moonstruck but with Jews.)

But then, Mom died, Dad moved us to England, and two years later he married an Australian redhead whose background was Christian. A score for us, to be sure, but could she have been any less Jewish? No.

So bang goes a big portion of our identity. Our home quickly became home to Santa and the Easter Bunny, while our paternal grandparents’ home became the destination for Jewish holidays and Hungarian goulash. What is tradition all about now?

Fast forward a few decades and I (now back in Canada) married a German, also of Christian descent. His parents had separated but not until he was about 18, so he had nearly two solid decades of German culture behind him. He positively oozed tradition, and he unpacked it every Christmas. From the decorating and holiday baking to the Christmas Eve smorgasbord, there was no questioning his roots. There was no competing. Not that I felt I needed to compete. His way had become our way and I was good with that.

And then he left.

That’s when I realized that his way had never really been my way. His traditions had been on loan and I couldn’t bring them to the surface without him. I was a single mom with a seven-year-old girl and I felt acutely aware that all of my efforts to materialize Christmas would seriously suck in comparison. But here’s the thing…

What we may lack in tradition, we can make up for in ritual.

what is tradition image 3

Tradition. Ritual. These two words are often used interchangeably but there is a difference.

What is tradition according to the Cambridge Dictionary?

A belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time…

What is tradition according to the Oxford Dictionary?

A long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another…

What is tradition according to dictionary.com?

The handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation…

Do you see the common element? Traditions are customs or beliefs that are handed down over the years. Rituals, on the other hand, are all yours. They may eventually become traditions or they may begin and end with you but why worry about something that’s so beyond your control?

As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now. What kicked it off? Easter and Passover overlapped this year and we celebrated neither. So I guess you could say I felt like twice the failure. After letting it brew and stew for a while, though, I’ve decided to let it go. Honestly, I can’t think of a single tradition that has made its way to me via two consecutive generations, so why all the pressure? My family is unique. Every family is unique. So we should be allowed to make up our own rules and that’s what I’m doing.

Your family, your rules, your rituals

While pondering this post, I sat down with my 17-year-old daughter and asked her how she felt about our lack of tradition. “But we have lots of traditions,” she said, meaning rituals but I wasn’t about to get all writer on her. And then she rhymed a few off.

  • Playing Spit together — to clarify, it’s a card game; we’re not animals, you know
  • Hosting annual Hanukkah parties — potato latkes, egg salad, chopped liver, jelly donuts — we put out all the Jew food we can get our hands on
  • Oscar nights — two rituals in one: 1) we all wager $5, and 2) if my husband wins, he spends the following 12 months insisting that he hasn’t been paid
  • Pillow fluffing — because apparently, I have the magic touch
  • Getting soaked — those few times we’ve left the grocery store together mid-downpour and thought, f***-it, and then ambled our way slowly to the car, getting soaked to the skin and laughing all the way home

Hearing this made my heart happy. It also made me realize that this whole conversation is less about wanting to keep tradition alive; it’s about wanting to keep me alive, in my daughter’s heart and eventually in her memory. While I still love the notion of tradition and wish there was more I could pass on to my one and only daughter, it is comforting to know that I’m not a failure after all.

Viv for today xo

(Originally published in April 2018)

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By |2018-11-29T16:54:21+00:00November 14th, 2018|16 Comments


  1. Cathy Tubb April 23, 2018 at 10:25 pm - Reply

    Viv! I loved this post! My growing up was rich with both tradition and ritual. Last year when I lost my Dad I lost many of my traditions. I felt lost without them, especially at Christmas. Thank you for reminding me that the real reason of why they were important to me was because the people involved, the relationships, were what was really important to me. That is what I hold onto the hardest and what I want to pass on to my own sons the most – the love ❤️

    • Viv April 24, 2018 at 10:49 am - Reply

      Aw, Cathy, thank you so much for sharing this with me. I’m glad you were able to take away something special from this. And you’re right — it’s all about love, which was abundant in every bowl of chicken soup my grandmother served me and is now abundant in every fluff of the pillow when my daughter goes to sleep ❤️

  2. Alexandra December 14, 2018 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed reading this post so much. You are so right about the difference between traditions and rituals. This is beautifully written.

    • Viv December 15, 2018 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Alexandra. I’m glad you enjoyed!

  3. Tara Pittman December 14, 2018 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    I like making new traditions with my family as we had none growing up. My tradition is making cookies for santa.

    • Viv December 15, 2018 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      Sweet (in more ways than one!)

  4. Heather December 14, 2018 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    I think there is nothing more important than tradition. It’s how we keep our ancestors memory alive in our family.

    • Viv December 15, 2018 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      For sure. Eventually, though, WE will become the ancestors, which is why I think it’s equally valuable to create new traditions.

  5. Keshia Richmond December 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    Traditions help us keep our balance….hmmm. Something to truly think about and reflect on.

    • Viv December 15, 2018 at 4:14 pm - Reply

      Yes, I see truth in that notion.

  6. Joanna December 15, 2018 at 8:01 am - Reply

    I never thought about this before and your post did make me think about what are my traditions. When my grandmother died, I tried to prove to myself that I can make Christmas without her as well, but it didn’t work. So I abandoned all the things we used to do together. I don’t think I follow any traditions these days, sadly.

    • Viv December 15, 2018 at 4:14 pm - Reply

      I hear you. Many of our family traditions died with my grandparents, which is why I’m trying to create new ones.

  7. Samantha Immer December 15, 2018 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    Traditions that come from a place of love are so beautiful. They can really keep a family connected throughout generations. We’ve let some things slip through the years and I really miss some of the things we used to do. You have inspired me to bring them back!

    • Viv December 15, 2018 at 4:12 pm - Reply

      Bring them back … or create new ones!

  8. Katie Beck December 16, 2018 at 11:53 am - Reply

    I love this post! And I hope my kids love our traditions as much as I do, and that when they have their own families they have traditions as well.

    • Viv December 19, 2018 at 1:05 pm - Reply

      I like your thinking, Katie. It acknowledges that they need not feel necessarily obliged to keep yours going, but that they are free to start their own.

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