Wanderings – On traditions and why we do the things we do

I recently saw a saying that resonated with me. Author and Ottawa Citizen columnist Brigitte Pellerin shared this on their social media. “Tradition is peer pressure from dead people.”

The author of the saying is unknown and a cursory search on Google found multiple credits for variations of the phrase. Nonetheless it hit me like a light bulb going off (no comments on the wattage of said light bulb please.)

There are a lot of traditions we’re locked into, ones that we begrudge having to follow, or we can’t pinpoint a great reason for following.

My immediate family is not overly religious, at least in the traditional confines of established Christian sects. We observe the religious holidays like Easter and Christmas, but with a dose of commercialism added in. Many families have this with younger kids. Now that we’re getting close to the empty-nest phase of life, I notice in myself a wish to change things up.

Take turkey dinner at Christmas and Thanksgiving as examples. When I was a kid, I thought it was really weird that a friend of mine – whose parents worked crazy shifts at the dashboard factory – always had Chinese take out for Christmas dinner. I grew up with Anglo-UEL-Scottish traditions around that holiday.

Rule one of Christmas is you must have turkey with stuffing (or dressing depending on what part of Eastern Ontario you live in.) While I enjoy the classic Mr. Bean Christmas show when he has a turkey on his head, there is only so much turkey one can stand. I think my childhood friend’s idea of Chinese take-out is a great idea for Christmas Dinner. Maybe I’ll do a trial run at Thanksgiving this year.

I am not Irish, although a 23-and-Me test may say otherwise. I don’t partake in St. Patrick’s Day festivities – and I always wonder, why do others who are not Irish take part. The answer is probably beer, or McDonald’s Shamrock Milkshakes. Some may say because “it’s fun” and I get that. But it also seems to me that we follow a lot of traditions because of programming.

We name a lot of things after people of significance. Maybe that person is or was a key political figure, or donated a lot of money to a cause or even towards a building being constructed. There is a problem with this tradition of naming things after people, it does not discount said named person’s bad acts. Those bad acts may not be known right now, but give it time.

Look at the National Capital Commission, which renamed the Ottawa River Parkway after Sir John A. Macdonald in August 2012. Since then, Macdonald’s name has been rightly associated with his policies involving the creation of the Indian Residential School system.

Ties to our British and French colonial pasts and the wrongdoings of years ago – the telling of the full history of Canada – has led to a re-examination of all things Sir JAM and other figures (read dead white guys). This fall, the NCC will announce a new name for the parkway. Having commuted on that roadway years ago, I didn’t see anything wrong with the original name. It is a parkway along the Ottawa River.

There are many places where a tradition has been followed that should be re-examined. Our country is becoming more multicultural, and communities are more inclusive (mostly.)

Following traditions has consequences. There is a fear of offending others if choosing not to follow a tradition – genuine peer pressure. Not just from dead people, but from family and community.

I believe there is some valuable things that could be accomplished if we re-examined our traditions, on a regular basis. Our statutory holidays are based on the British calendar, yet we have significantly large minority groups whose culture has nothing to do with Anglo-traditions. Why shouldn’t someone with a different culture have a stat-holiday based on that culture? That could lead to flexible statutory holidays – what an idea!

Some workplaces are adopting a four-day work week. Forget the 9-to-5 work day. Work four 10 hour days and have a three day weekend – without burning though your sick days. Algonquin Highlands Township, and Zorra Township are two municipalities that have adopted this recently in Ontario.

The good thing about re-examining our traditions on a regular basis, whether that is how we name a place, what our work schedule is, or serve General Tao Chicken instead of Jello Salad, is it leaves us less anchored in the past. Changing a tradition, or skipping it altogether doesn’t diminish what’s happened before. It gives us the ability to move forward. Many of us could use that. I know I could. That, and I dislike green Jello.

Column originally published in the March 15, 2023 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.