Traditions, Habits and Adaptation
by Jan Baughman

"Tradition" is defined as the handing down of statements, beliefs, customs, etc. from generation to generation. However, it seems that often it is the customs and rituals that are handed down, and not the beliefs - or the reasoning - behind them. As with any behavior that is repeated, a physiological or social adaptation can occur and the motive behind it is diminished.

When President Clinton officially declared that Thursday be Thanksgiving, I secretly hoped that he would cancel the holiday this year in deference to the devastated Hondurans and Nicaraguans, the Russian citizens facing a hungry winter, and the faceless and nameless millions who could survive a year on the amount a typical American family spends (both dollar-wise and calorie-wise) on Thanksgiving gluttony. Somehow I find it difficult to justify the overindulgence for the sake of thanking God that we landed here in this place of abundance and became the most overweight and consumptive nation on earth. A day of fasting would be a more interesting observance, indeed.

At my house, we're neither interested in, nor capable of, consuming an 18-pound turkey. Instead, we ate the traditional quiche and cassoulet and thanked God (or at least Silicon Valley) for the abundance of imported foods available to us if we're willing to pay the price. As for me, I was thankful for the two extra days off. In between football games, I pondered past traditions and rituals that have punctuated my life and whose meaning was rather vague. For example, the monthly "duck and cover" exercises we performed throughout elementary school, which I thought were all about earthquake preparedness. I don't recall even once hearing the word "bomb" - I'm pretty sure such threat would have made a lasting impression. It was merely an exercise, a ritual. It wasn't until the height of the Reagan era and its associated doomsday movies about Mutually Assured Destruction that I made the link to hiding under my school desk. As if it would have helped.

I thought about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and looked it up in a book (my trusted "Dictionary of Cultural Literacy", I confess!). What I remember seemed too short - I must have forgotten some of the words. Yet I was correct, and it's that simple: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all". One sentence, another ritual, recited first thing in class every morning. Stand; face the flag, right hand over heart, no joking allowed. Did I have any idea what I was saying? How many adults, let alone kids, can define "liberty" or "justice"? And who decided that children should start their days this way? They aren't even old enough to vote or to be in the military. Was it a form of brainwashing? Of ensuring a future generation of good, loyal citizens? It didn't work on me. (Nor did the weekly recital of prayers whose words made no sense and whose concepts I never grasped.)

This four-day weekend of the fourth week in November has basically come to symbolize four things:

1) Turkey
2) Macy's parade
3) Football
4) Christmas shopping.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not lobbying for a movement to recapture the original meaning of Thanksgiving. I simply think it is a good idea that we stop ourselves from time to time and think about the meaning behind what we do. Just a little reality check, to make sure we're consistent between our beliefs and our actions, and that our routines and rituals still make sense. At minimum, that we understand their origin, and how it relates to the way we live our life today.

Published November 28, 1998
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