My husband and I are currently navigating our way through our first holiday season as a married couple. Many life lessons learned, many tears of frustration shed, and I’m sure there will be more. There have also been many moments of joy, laughter, and peace, and I know there will be more of those as well.
The fact is, that as much as one tries, meshing two families and all of their traditions into a new entity is a tough undertaking, and yet we do so. We refused to abandon our families’ traditions even though it would be easier to do so and start afresh with our own. The question of whether or not tradition will be kept is never asked. It will be, we will find a way to mesh these families, and we’ll pass on these traditions to our kids.
Why we will do so, however, has been an interesting meditation for me. Partly, we are Catholic, and Catholics value tradition like no one else. So in a way, we have no choice.
But in all seriousness, why? What makes tradition so important?
People Find Unity Through Tradition
We live in a world solely focused on the individual, his wants, needs, desires, whims, and decisions. In a world that so highly emphasizes the individual, we often find ourselves disconnected, lacking in any sort of meaningful unity, because by becoming unified we threaten loss of our individuality.
In an attempt to overcome this, we facilitate false senses of unity through artificial connections made through artificial social groups, online sites, Facebook connections or other mediums. Inevitably, these fail to give us fulfillment in our desires for unity because these modes do not have any deeper or true meaning. They thus leave us often feeling lonelier than before.
Tradition, on the other hand, gives one unity in a way which lasts because it has meaning. When a group of people with a common aim – family, mainly, but also friends or those of the same faith – come together to do X and they do X the way they have always done X, and they teach their children how to do X, they find unification with one another. They find this connection, in part, because practicing the tradition of X then places them at the service of something greater than themselves, something which serves a larger purpose than simply their own aims, and thus gives them unity around a specific thing which is served by their relationship with one another.
Moreover, when we find unity with a particular group, our family for example, then we also strengthen those family bonds which support us through this thing we call “life.” Tradition then not only lends itself to the formation of fun events and better familial ties, it also lends itself toward the fostering of healthy relationships which then support and carry you when things get rough.
People Find Identity in Tradition
By partaking in steadfast tradition year after year and generation after generation, we not only develop that community which is so fundamental to the human existence, we also find our identity within those practices. Participating in tradition demonstrates that there is something greater than those involved, it gets us over ourselves and develops a proper perspective of importance and humility: we inherited this practice, and if we do not pass it down, it then faces extinction.
This inheritance and passing down puts us at the service of something timeless. The tradition becomes something which connects us to times past and future. It allows us to participate with people we will never know, previous generations and future ones, which we are not present for, but with whom we can have a relationship.
Tradition gives unity to those people as a group, allowing us to take part in something larger than us, thus giving meaningful identity as a member of that group which shares a common interest and a common understanding of the world, as seen in its practice of tradition X. This relationship with the past and consequent way of seeing the world then leads to a greater knowledge of oneself. If we know from whence we come, then we better understand who we are and why we are that way. This knowledge we gain through a relationship with the past, we then pass down, and develop from student into teacher.
People Find Stability in Tradition
When many generations partake in the same tradition year after year, the children of that family find a new level of stability. They not only have knowledge of what to expect (we do X at Y time of the year), it connects the family in a way that keeps things together when they would otherwise fall apart.
If a family loses a member to death, yet maintains its traditions, the family finds solace in those known practices, something which gives them stability in the hard parts of life. They can fall back on these practices and allow the comfortable familiarity to carry them through.
Just as new generations find connections to previous ones through these practices, so too can a hurting family find connections to their lost loved ones. By continuing these practices, families know they have a tangible connection to the one lost because they are partaking in something he did as well. Tradition then provides structure when things may otherwise fall apart, and gives solace to a grieving family in something shared.
Indeed, psychological studies show that families who maintain traditions despite familial hardship due to sickness, death, divorce, etc., are both happier and healthier than families who either abandon tradition or do not have any.
It is because of these important factors that we have expended such energy and time struggling with tradition in the beginning of our marriage. We want to provide a framework of stability, fun, joy, love, and rich history within which to bring children into the world.
Through this framework, they will learn to embrace themselves, understand their family, and even come to a deeper understanding of the faith.
If children see tradition passed down through our family as something which gives our family identity, unity, solace, and stability, so too will they (hopefully) learn to see the teachings of the Church passed down through the years, as that which gives our faith identity, unity, solace, and stability.
If our children learn the importance of tradition at home, so too will they know the importance of doctrine passed down from Christ through generations to them. They learn that they have a relationship with the rest of the universal Church, not merely historically, but also the Church of today. This relationship spans countries, age, and gender because they are unified by belief and are a part of something greater than themselves.
Those previous generations passed down these teachings and practices so that we may grow in holiness and wisdom from their practice. If children can understand that, then they can learn that they too have a roll to play in this history of the Church. Additionally, someday, generations from now, our children will still have had an important roll to play in the living, vibrant Church of the future because they did not allow tradition to die, but instead passed it on along with all of the beauty, joy, and heartache that comes from doing so.