On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, my mom’s side of the family came over to visit. After dinner and dessert, conversation turned to the goings-on in the family and my 22-year-old cousin Emily’s upcoming graduation was brought up. My aunt, her mother, said, "By the time I was 23 I was already engaged to be married!" I saw my cousin visibly cringe for what was sure to come next: my mother and aunt would insist that they’re in no hurry for grandkids while subtly dropping hints over which one of us would be the first to reproduce.
In order to stop the discussion from turning into a "what-is-she-going-to-do-next" talk about Emily’s life, I looked at my parents sitting across the long dining room table from me and announced that I did not believe in the institute of marriage and planned on finding someone I liked well enough and then "live in sin" for the rest of my life. My best friend who was sitting next to me, muttered, "why on earth would you say something like that?" My parents shook their heads at each other and my aunt proceeded to tell me that I could take lessons from my cousin Jimmy, who is currently living with his fiancée before their wedding.
I come from a large Italian family and tradition has always played a role in my life. I was raised Catholic and taught that skipping church on Sunday was a sin, going to confession was a necessity and believing in anything other than the Catholic Church was, quite frankly, not allowed. Deciding not to be confirmed when I was in middle school because I "didn’t believe enough" set off an awkward time in which my father and I were constantly butting heads. Tradition, and the break from it, isn’t often accepted when it has been ingrained for generations that this is the way things are done.
So what is tradition anyway? Is it practicing the same faith that your family has practiced since before your great-grandparents left Italy? Is it being married by a certain age because that’s the way it’s always been done? Is it decorating your front door the same way every holiday season?
Every Dec. 1, my mother places candles in the windows of our home. When I was younger, she told me it was so Jesus would know which houses welcomed him. My mother was raised Catholic and, until a few years ago, belonged to the Catholic Church. She and my younger brother became members of a Lutheran Church because she felt she wasn’t getting enough out of the Catholic parish that we belonged to. The decision was not an easy one for her to make because of the traditional mindset that being Catholic and being Italian is intertwined. She felt guilty. My father is still a Catholic. My aunt left the Catholic Church after my mother and became a Lutheran.
My mother no longer says that the candles are placed in the windows for Jesus, but she still puts them up every Dec. 1. The meaning behind the tradition has changed, but the action itself still remains the same. Does it make it less of a tradition because of it?
If my cousin Emily decides to wait until she’s 35 to have kids and adopt six orphans from Romania does that make her way of starting a family untraditional? Or what if I decide to ‘live in sin’ with someone I’m committed to as much as my parents are committed to each other in a traditional marriage?
Traditions adapt over time. They take on other forms of commitment, like becoming a Lutheran with the same passion that you wish you could feel for your Catholic upbringing. It’s not disrespectful to the past to change what’s always been done, if the feelings toward are a particular tradition are nonexistent. I doubt that my great-grandparents are spinning in their graves because I didn’t make my confirmation. They probably denounced part of their upbringing too.