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My fiancé and I have been discussing tradition at length. He kindly agreed to share some of his thoughts on the blog. Hope you’ll add yours in the Comments section.

 

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Tradition

 

If you haven’t noticed, tradition isn’t going to figure heavily in our wedding. Chloe’ doesn’t want the traditional dress, the traditional ceremony, or the traditional anything.

 

And, as a good modern liberal, I agree. Colored-only water fountains were a “tradition.” Marriage limited to a man and a woman is a “tradition.” Employer-provided but largely unregulated health insurance is a “tradition.” If the best argument you can give for doing something is that we’ve always (or even just lately) done it, it’s probably time to stop doing it.  “Tradition” might even be a dirty work.

 

Except…

 

I can think of two good reasons why a tradition should be respected simply because it is a tradition. Questioned, maybe, even abandoned, but at least considered.

 

The first is that traditions help to build connections across time and place. If every year, on your birthday, you go to a favorite restaurant, that helps to remind you of where you’ve come from and how you got where you are now. Every American family I know celebrates Thanksgiving a little differently, but there are enough common threads that we know we are connected to each other. It’s something we can share, even when we aren’t together.

 

From a social science perspective (which is what I usually take), this is the stuff that defines your group, defines your identity.  It is the stuff of culture. Of course, some elements of our culture are bad, and we should change them. We do that by picking and choosing, casting aside those that have little meaning to us, and gathering up those that are important.

 

But that’s a choice, and it should be made consciously. For example: The Rose Bowl used to be a game between the top Pac-10 and top Big Ten football teams. When Northwestern went in 1995, we knew our team was doing something that other, usually better teams had done. It was an accomplishment precisely because it was just like every other year. The BCS has undermined that (and not even gotten us a national championship, but that’s another issue), and something is lost.

 

Culturally, traditions like this help a couple create their identity. Having a “Jewish wedding” or a “Korean wedding” or a “Southern wedding” is a choice, and it connects to a cherished culture. Couples with a mixed heritage can choose elements from one tradition and another.

 

You protect the traditions that connect you to people and experiences you want to connect to. Chloe’ is not going to be “given away” at our wedding, because that’s a practice that we don’t think makes sense for us. She is not property, and I’m not prepared to take ownership.

 

We can also choose how to interpret our traditions. (For other couples, being “given away” may mean something else.) It seems sad to me when we follow a tradition without knowing why we are doing it. Then we are connecting to nothing. But we also can change the meaning to suit the modern world. The Jewish tradition of crushing a glass underfoot at the conclusion of the ceremony has multiple interpretations. Some say it represents the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Others say the breaking of the hymen. I heard one Rabbi say that the marriage should last as long as it would take to reassemble the glass, split into many shards. I’m inclined to believe the research that suggests the practice originated a way to trick evil spirits. If they saw that a glass was broken, they would decide that enough trouble had been caused at this wedding and move on to another.

 

We probably won’t be breaking any glasses, but we will be choosing our traditions, and thinking about what they mean. We may even adopt some traditions that no one in our families has ever practiced. What matters is that they mean something to us.

 

To that end, please share with us any and all traditions that you have seen or practiced. We’d love to hear about them.

 

Hans and Chloe' at Smith College 2007

 

Tomorrow: Traditions as equilibria, or ways of selecting from among multiple equilibria.

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