Reflections on Traditions
Habits, customs, traditions – these words are often used interchangeably but have unique meanings.
- A habit is something we do over and over again such as brushing our teeth at least twice a day, but I doubt many of us would call that a tradition!
- A custom is something that we may do frequently but it is more light-hearted and without the emotional attachment that we give a tradition.
- A tradition is something that has a depth and meaning beyond the action itself. Many traditions can become habits or customs as we repeat it over and over but has a deeper purpose than other habits or customs.
We see many traditions built into the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Traditions were often designed as opportunities for God’s people to remember what God had done for them, to honor God, and to hear the story of His salvation. Many of these traditions often call for a time of celebration within the tradition.
As Christians, we are called to help shepherd children and to share God with them. Our traditions are one of the ways that we can accomplish this task. One of the items that distinguishes something as a tradition is that it is repeated – this means we have to be careful that what we repeat is actually tuning hearts towards God. Are we, often unintentionally, repeating something and creating a tradition that points children away from God? Creating purposeful traditions often requires an intentionality that is not natural – we have to plan for a tradition to be a good thing done in a manner that ultimately makes it a habit.
Noel Piper wrote three definitions of a tradition that I view as building upon each other and which I have attempted to summarize in one long sentence:
A tradition is a planned habit with significance that includes the handing down of information, beliefs, and worldview from one generation to another, by regular repetition of example, ceremony, and celebration; for a Christian, tradition is laying up God’s words in our own hearts and passing His words to the next generation.
As a school, we seek to develop traditions that align with the above definition. Chapel follows the same pattern each week, morning meetings in grades K-2 establish a traditional start to the day, our Service of Lessons and Carols is a tradition, etc. The challenge with a school is separating custom from traditions and knowing when a tradition (or custom) may need adjusting, based upon enrollment, etc. We strive to allow all of our traditions and habits to point our students towards the Gospel.
For more reflection on traditions, I recommend Treasuring God in Our Traditions by Noel Piper. After providing an overview of traditions and their function, she shares some ideas on traditions for Christmas, Easter, special days such as birthdays, and “everyday” traditions. While I do not endorse adopting every idea or tradition she highlights, it is definitely helpful to think through the concepts and consider potential traditions for your family.
For in-depth reflection on the subtle way that traditions can impact us, James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love is an excellent read. Dr. Smith looks at how what we repeat and do again and again shapes our hearts, often in ways that we fail to recognize.