Discovering the meaning within tradition

Last fall, my grandmother passed away. That Christmas, my family celebrated out of town, away from anything familiar. This year we had Thanksgiving brunch, sans turkey. Since my grandmother was the center of many of our holiday traditions, I’ve learned that loss suddenly leaves traditions strangely decentralized. They become confusing acts.

While some argue our social media society is quickly killing time-honored traditions, there are instances when tradition should be abandoned or re-evaluated.

Such traditions have a complicated reputation. There’s the famous folktale about a woman who always cut the ends off her roast due to tradition only to discover her grandmother did this simply because the pan was too small. That’s the trouble with habit: It can sever an action from its meaning.

As we wrap up the semester and head into the holidays, traditions can be comforting. Traditions are a few of the remaining links to my childhood, reminding me of days when Christmas requests weren't for money to prepare for the vast post-college unknown.

Since holidays are so consciously linked with the past, we find it instinctive to retreat into familiar territory as the rest of the year challenges us with uncertainty and instability. Traditions are a security blanket in a world of cold realities. They’re the perfect kind of nostalgia: not the manufactured, stylized cultural currency of retro glasses and saddle shoes, but the authentic familial haven of cookie-baking grandmas and “It’s a Wonderful Life”-esque idealism.

All of that can be wonderful: The genuine comfort of the past that comes with the season, contrasted with the empty referential retreat of retro culture. However, traditions can be their own form of retreat.

There’s a concept known as “semantic satiation,” which happens when you come across a word so often, it doesn’t look like a word anymore, just letters devoid of meaning due to overexposure. It has probably happened to you in reading this article’s repetition of “tradition.”

Saying something old in a new way can be more effective than using the same words over and over again.

Most of us aren’t so out of touch with our family traditions to perform them mindlessly. Many of us are too attuned to the past our traditions represent — a past that does, eventually, cease to be relevant. Rather than clinging to an action meant to symbolize meaning, focus on that meaning instead and transfer it to a new action.

Don’t allow your holidays, or your regular experiences, to result in a kind of “symbolic satiation.”

Consider when tradition becomes stalling, prohibiting healing. Indulging in grief can cause more pain than closure. Consider when tradition becomes an avoidance of meaning, rather than a preservation of it.

Our fear of the present and future, or of our severance from people or experiences that have held so much significance for us, should not compromise the deeper truths and symbols we value. If anything, these instances should cause us to experience and evaluate those truths and symbols in an honest and brutal way.

Use tradition to interact with truth.

Even when our traditions feel like they’ve been decentralized or devalued due to loss or change, their truths can still have impact.

Just reorder the words to form a new sentence.


Reach the columnist at or follow her at @EMDrown


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