‘…we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat... how to work... how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, "How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell you!
I don't know. But it's a tradition...’
Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof
Tradition... What exactly does that mean? And who decides what gets handed on and what gets shut down as inappropriate, unnecessary, outdated, irrelevant or just plain silly? What harm is done if someone chooses to break from tradition? And who determines whether a departure from the usual is a detour that will lead back to the old road, or a T-intersection from which there is no return?
In 1558, in a culture where white was the colour of mourning, that crazy wild child Mary, Queen of Scots, wore a white wedding gown because it was her favourite colour. And I don’t think it was the break with tradition that caused the marriage to be brief and childless. I reckon the fact that her husband was a sickly 14-year-old with undescended testes probably had more to do with that.
Traditionally, after a Korean couple married, the bride’s brothers and their friends played a happy game of Family Feud with the groom. They would take him outside, hang him upside down from a tree, then slap the bottom of his feet with dried fish and sticks while asking him tricky questions to test his wit and staying power. Only when their mother called them in for the wedding feast would they cut him down. Welcome to the family! Today, this unique version of the fish-slapping dance has been tainted by exposure to western life-styles and may form part of another traditional oddity, the Buck’s Night. Now, the groom’s mates tie his ankles together, remove his shoes and socks, and slap the bottom of his feet with a dead fish. Some say it’s to improve his virility. Really? It strikes me that it’s more like a warning to the poor girl that his stinky feet are part of the whole marriage deal. But it’s a tradition.
No, “..because we always have” just doesn’t cut it with me as a reason for something to continue. I get that traditions are links with the past and past generations, but I believe tradition is more than historical. It's cultural too. Not just ‘cultural’ meaning that it represents the attitudes of a group of people, ‘cultural’ as in relating to artistic and academic achievements. Surely traditions must have a reason, a significance that goes beyond mere repetition. The justification doesn’t even have to be logical; sometimes purely artistic, aesthetic or spiritual explanations make the most sense. But either way, shouldn’t a tradition be symbolic of something?
What started this little rant of mine was, not surprisingly, a relatively humble and completely honest request for a departure from a ‘family tradition’. A departure that would make life easier for many of the people involved, that would please several others, and would most definitely not be an imposition on anyone… except perhaps me. It was not a request for a permanent break from the tradition, neither a criticism of the norm, nor an attempt to start a new tradition. For a number of reasons, I was politely seeking permission from a family matriarch for a one-off departure from the usual.
Permission was denied.
My request was met with a bitter rudeness that stunned me. She certainly silenced me. I won’t ask again. But the situation led me to musing: when does failure to change morph into tradition? Can entrenched dullness ever be described as cultural? And is tradition truly passed down through the annals of history, or does it reach us via the anal retentiveness of the dominant?
Coz right now, a slap in the face with a wet fish has me in danger of falling off the roof.