At the beginning of “Fiddler On The Roof,” the Broadway musical set in a Jewish village in czarist Russia, the main character, a poor milkman named Tevye, compares the precarious position of the Jews in the village to a fiddler on a roof and asks the question, “And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word. Tradition!”
The traditions of Tevye’s age—arranged marriages, sons following in their father’s footsteps, daughters raised to become wives and mothers—are long gone, swept away by 150 years of emancipation, revolutions, wars, industrialism, and technology. Some cultures still hold to these traditions even today, but if you, as a Westerner, were to advocate arranged marriages (and surely some fathers look at their daughters and the boys they are dating, and wish this were a possibility), expect to find yourself savaged by a mob or at the least, to endure a lecture from your mother on the meaning of the word Neanderthal.
But does Tevye have a point? Do traditions help us keep our balance?
Some traditions come and go. When I was a kid, it was customary to lightly spank children on their birthday, one swat for each year of life and “one to grow on,” a ritual that never made any sense to me. In the Catholic Church, bishops once tapped teenage confirmandi on the cheek, a symbolic gesture reminding them that the practice of their faith may bring suffering. Was that the reason for the birthday spankings, to remind us that growing older brings more pain? Perhaps. At any rate, I am happy this practice has, at least in my own family, trotted off to the boneyard.
But what of other and more substantial lost traditions? Did they keep us from slipping from rooftops?
In rural America, it was once the custom for family members young and old to share a large midday meal on Sunday. A chicken was slaughtered, plucked, and roasted, and the women of the house cooked up all sorts of dishes: potatoes, green beans, steamed carrots, corn, gravy, biscuits, and pies made from whatever fruit was in season or preserved. Today, the enormous number of calories in that assembly of foods might appall us, but then most of us aren’t spending our days chopping wood, plowing fields, or walking five miles into town and back.
That tradition existed to strengthen the family and pay homage to a day of rest.
Entertainment also brought families together in those days. We have account after account from colonial times through the first part of the 20th century of families gathering in the evenings to sing or to enjoy music together, like Pa sawing away on his fiddle in the “Little House on the Prairie” books. Reading aloud was also popular, with the literary selections ranging from the Bible to the novels of Charles Dickens. Storytelling, too, was standard fare, with folks sitting on a front porch listening to Uncle Billy’s tales of his youth or Mamaw scaring the hoot out of the young ones with her tales of monsters and “haints.”
Though we may no longer gather around a piano and belt out “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” we have created other ways to share time as a family and as a culture.
Movie nights at home are popular among many parents and their children. Mom or Dad whips up a bowl of popcorn, the overhead lights are dimmed, and the whole crew watches a film together. That viewing may lack the intimacy of read-alouds and shared stories, but the event nonetheless brings them together.
Black Friday, the shopping day after Thanksgiving, has become a tradition in the United States. On this day, shoppers swarm malls and stores offering enormous discounts on goods ahead of the Christmas season. Though sometimes the buying mayhem leads to fights and stampedes, this holiday ritual has become for some Americans the time to look for that widescreen television or computer on sale for half-price.
Football has also allowed Americans to establish certain traditions. Tailgate parties find fans bringing their grills and beverages to the parking lots of stadiums hours before a game begins, where they visit and carouse while waiting to enjoy the game. Super Bowl Sunday brings together millions across the country, as football aficionados and people who never watch the sport gather together to eat wings and chips, and to enjoy both the sports contest and the advertisements accompanying it.
Many Jewish families commemorate Passover and Hanukkah with special prayers and meals, and Christians and non-Christians alike celebrate Christmas by exchanging presents and decorating evergreens. Many Americans observe Thanksgiving with turkey and dressing, Memorial Day with backyard barbecues, and the Fourth of July with grilled burgers and fireworks.
Some of us recognize the significance of those holidays. Our Jewish friends, for instance, know that Passover represents the liberation of the Jews from the tyranny of the ancient Egyptians, Christians celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Jesus, and patriots pause on Independence Day to acknowledge the Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration and the rights of all human beings to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But even for those who celebrate these events without understanding their meaning—the college student who has no clue as to why we’re filling the sky with lights and explosions on July 4th, the man who gives no thought to dead soldiers while enjoying a cold beer in his backyard on Memorial Day, the kids who have never set foot in a church but who scramble after plastic eggs filled with chocolates in a public park on a certain Sunday in the spring—these traditions matter. They act as links connecting generation to generation.
Traditions large and small help us keep our balance. They draw us together as families, as communities, and as Americans. We may misunderstand the origins of these customs, or ignore them even while practicing their rites, but we nonetheless observe them.
Let’s look, for example, at Valentine’s Day. That holiday, which began with the ancient Romans, remains in play today, as may be evidenced at 5 p.m. on Feb. 14 in any florist shop or grocery store when large numbers of men line up to purchase flowers and candies for the women they love—and yes, I have stood in that line. They may be late in their purchases, yet they still wish to acknowledge those they love with a Valentine Day’s gift.
Traditions are a glue holding our families and culture together. They bond us to the past, provide pleasure in the present, and act as ballast as we sail into an uncertain future.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
When we honor our traditions, we give votes to our ancestors and keep our balance on the rooftops of life.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.