Written in stone? Who decides what’s tradition?

As someone who is passionately interested in history, myth, folklore and ritual, I sometimes find myself musing on tradition. (I’m referring to what the OED calls its mass noun usage) Its a much used and abused word, it can be used to justify a certain behaviour or practice “well its traditional” or in an attempt to prevent sometimes much-needed change. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way”

So in the way that I’m thinking about it here, a tradition is a custom or belief. Some customs/beliefs/behaviours do not survive terribly long in the whole of human history. Others persist and some that are generally perceived as being old and traditional are often a lot more recent than is widely thought. For example, roast turkey is widely considered to be the traditional Christmas dinner in England and Ireland (they are the only countries I’ve spent Christmas in so I don’t feel qualified to comment on others) but my readings tell me that it didn’t become commonplace until the eighteenth century, with goose or beef being the previously traditional dish.

The reasons why some traditions survive while others don’t are as varied as the traditions themselves but I feel that each generation should feel able to pick and choose from the assortment of traditions they have grown up with. Traditions can change and develop too and some elements of any given custom or practice may alter from how it was originally carried out. I’m thinking particularly this evening of an Irish tradition of Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas. Debates pop up each year around this time on various social media as to whether or not it was practiced throughout Ireland, and as to what form it took. Needless to say there is never agreement! My understanding of Nollaig na mBan is that it was a day when the men took over all the household chores to give women a rest after all they had done to make the Christmas festivities happen. Nollaig na mBan, for those who don’t know, is celebrated on January 6th – the feast of the Epiphany, Twelfth Night. In more recent times, the celebration has consisted of groups of women coming together to have a meal – usually in a restaurant from what I can make out – and have some of what we would now call downtime. I’ve read reminiscences of women talking about their mothers greatly looking forward to this one night in the year when they got to dress up and go out with other women. (These mostly date from the 1960’s and 1970’s).

In my community, a group of us are keeping this tradition alive. A very dear friend of mine throws her house open for Nollaig na mBan, invites loads of women friends with the proviso that we all bring something from our Christmas leftovers to eat and drink. Often things are made especially too. Its always a great night, good food, lots of music and plenty of laughs. Yes we have altered that tradition somewhat but it works for us and we’ll pass it on to the next generation. And they can make of it what they will, if its not for them, so be it. Traditions should be living things, not something preserved in aspic. If a tradition isn’t right for any given person or group of people then they shouldn’t feel compelled to maintain it. I like traditions, learning about them and in some instances trying to live them, but I like even more that they reflect the community who developed them. If they can’t be adapted or even discarded if need be, then what does that say about society? That we never want anything to change? Perish the thought.

I’m off now to get ready for tonight’s Nollaig na mBan party. Yes its Jan 4th not the 6th, but hey, traditions can change, right? Nollaig na mBan faoi mhaise dhaoibh!

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About museandchat

Busy woman, 45, feminist, married, one daughter, wannabe PhD, discovering new sides to myself all the time! Proud mum of a daughter with Dandy Walker Syndrome, community activist, passionate about history, love to read, write, cook, garden and craft.

Posted on January 4, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I love Nollaig na mBan and will mark it on the 6th in some small way. One year I invited all my female friends for brunch and it was a great success, must repeat some year! Great post hope you had a good celebration!

  2. I am all in favour of adapting traditions or creating new family ones, after all all traditions had to start somewhere. I have to admit to have never heard of Women’s Christmas until only the past couple of years. Which of course means that I have never celebrated it. A tradition I should really make my own! Glad you enjoyed 🙂

  3. I’ve been involved in Nollaig na mBan celebrations for a number of years thanks to a Cork friend who regularly gathers a small group of women friends together for dinner, which her husband and son cook and serve! It’s always lovely 🙂

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