Role of Tradition
Communities are defined by their traditions. It is the fact that a community has shared traditions that make it able to be defined as the community. To be considered a community, it is generally recognized that a group of people must share some basic characteristics, which enables people to say that they share a lifestyle. These characteristics include a shared language, shared morals, and other traditions. In fact, language may be the most basic idea of a tradition, because language involves a community’s consensus about expression. The traditional aspect of language can be understood by looking at smaller communities speaking the same broader language, because the connotation of words can differ from group to group, though the denotation remains consistent. Language is not the only traditional aspect of community that can vary in importance and meaning depending on the smaller group involved; any tradition can exhibit that characteristic.
For example, marriage is another of most cultures and communities, but feelings about marriage differ from culture to culture. For communities that view women as commodities, marriage is a way of legalizing the transfer of rights in a woman from a father to a husband. However, for communities that place great importance on the nuclear family and raising children, marriage is viewed as a way of ensuring that children have a two-parent home. For other communities, marriage serves as a means of formalizing fidelity and its requirements. Finally, in some communities marriage serves dual purposes. Therefore, while some communities may share traditions, it is important to realize that traditions can have different meaning depending on the context of the surrounding community.
Because traditions and their meaning vary from community to community, it is fair to say that traditions can define their communities. For many subgroups, traditions help define cultural, ethnic, and religious identity. These traditions can be serious and life-defining, such as gender role expectations and community repercussions for defying those expectations. However, traditions can also be relatively unimportant to outsiders, such as decorations for holidays or traditional foods. Traditions define and determine how cultures celebrate important social milestones, like attaining adulthood, marrying, having children, aging, and death. Furthermore, when a society’s traditions begin to change, that frequently precedes a major change in the culture’s underlying values and beliefs.
At first blush, it appears that traditions would promote unity, because traditions arise from a community’s shared experiences. Certainly, some traditions have the historical role of promoting such unity. Marriage is such a tradition, because it unifies two families and begins a family unit. However, marriage is a good example of a tradition that can actually promote alienation as well. For example, modern society is faced with the issue of whether or not to legalized homosexual marriages. Those opposed to the concept cite the fact that marriage has traditionally represented the union between a man and a woman and their belief that allowing homosexuals to marry one another threatens the idea of marriage. Therefore, the concept of a traditional Western marriage can be used as a tool for making those who are different from the norm, such as homosexuals, feel alienated and distant from society. On the other hand, advocates of gay marriage suggest that allowing homosexuals to share in the rites and responsibilities of traditional marriage can be a way of recognizing their personhood, and can lead to unification between among the larger Western culture. As the above example demonstrates, there is no easy answer to the question of whether traditions promote unity; some traditions promote unity, while some promote divisiveness, and even the same tradition can have different meanings in different communities.
Furthermore, though traditions develop from a community’s shared experiences, it is important to differentiate between a tradition’s appearance and the underlying reality. For example, in American weddings, the bride has traditionally worn white to signify virginity and innocence. However, premarital sex has been a reality for a fairly substantial portion of the population since colonial times. Certainly, at this time, premarital sex is the cultural norm, but the vast majority of brides continue to wear white, even though they are aware of the symbolic significance of the color. In this way, the cultural tradition does not portray a past or present reality; instead, it portrays a past societal ideal, which is not even idealized by modern society.
Weddings are not the only tradition that portrays an idealized version of society. The Christmas holiday is a very good example of an idealized tradition. Many Americans strive for a Currier and Ives – type holiday, replete with good food, beautiful decorations, peaceful family members, and having the for a child on Christmas morning. The harsh reality is that Christmas is a time of great depression, financial turmoil, stress, and substance abuse for many Americans. However, despite the to shine a more realistic light on Christmas, the fact remains that the Christmas tradition is much idealized.
In fact, many traditions do not represent a reality, but a societal ideal. White wedding gowns and Christmas celebrations are only two examples of traditions that do not coincide with reality. It may be the case that traditions establish the goals of a society, and that the real tradition lies in striving to meet those goals. Whatever their exact role, it is clear that traditions play a significant role in the establishment and definition of a community, and that whether the role is helpful or harmful depends on the underlying values of the community in question.