Time and Tradition
During the holiday season we hear a lot of talk about tradition. Traditions matter, not just at this time of year, but always. Traditions give us our sense of identity. They can give us a sense of unity within our families and our communities. Traditions can help us remember our history, our symbols and our myths. Traditions mark the passage of time. Traditions give us a sense of uniqueness and a sense of belonging.
Sometimes traditions are used to hurt and oppress people. Sometimes tradition is what keeps people from doing what they want to do. Some people use the concept of tradition as an excuse to continue practices that exclude people, or that honor one group of people over another.
Today I am thinking about tradition because it is the second day of Kwanzaa. I feel a bit of kinship with those who celebrate Kwanzaa because I see a similarity between the traditions that came out of the Black Nationalist Movement of the 1960s and traditions of Wicca which all grew out of a book published by Gerald Gardner in England in 1954.
Each of these movements is very young in comparison with Christian traditions that are at least a thousand years old and Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist traditions that have been practiced for thousands of years.
Often younger traditions are ridiculed as non-traditions, or as things that a single person or small group of people "just made up."
Wicca and the Black National Movement have something else in common in that both have tried to reclaim and reconstruct traditions that are lost in time. In doing so sometimes the history is not quite accurate. Once again comes the accusation; "You just made that up!"
My answer to that accusation is this. When traditions are lost due to violence, oppression and fear one hasn't got much choice. Why is it wrong to build on what you know and imagine the rest? And, is that any different from medieval artists imagining what Jesus might have looked like and painting pictures that to this day define for us our image of Jesus?
Many families create their own traditions that may or may not be passed to the next generation. Perhaps a tradition is simply what works for a group for a period of time - no matter how long or short.
On the other hand, a practice that is thousands of years old can have power simply because of its age. Can we say that the lighting of the Hanukah Menorah is more powerful than the lighting of the Kwanzaa candles or the God and Goddess candles simply because Hanukah has been celebrated for at least two thousand years longer than Kwanzaa or the Neo-Pagan Wheel of the Year?
Sometimes religious ceremonies require creativity. When that happens new traditions are born. Who is to say that the creativity that inspires new traditions is not the same creativity that inspired traditions that began thousands of years ago? Everything needs to start somewhere. The Spirit that inspires us, whatever we may call it, is just as present now as it was in the ancient past.
To reclaim, reconstruct and reinvent that which has been ripped away helps us heal ourselves and strengthen our communities. To celebrate a tradition, no matter how young it may be, brings power to the present and hope for the future. From this perspective the celebration of Kwanzaa and the Wheel of the Year is just as valid, powerful and important as traditions with an ancient history.