Traditions: To keep or not to keep?

A non-traditionalist thinks about how to determine what traditions are worth continuing


Sarah Ashman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

Growing up, I struggled a bit with blind acceptance and — what I often wrongly or rightly deemed — performance of holiday traditions. I asked a lot of questions about our family activities, the most common of which being, “Why?”

In particular, I didn’t like sitting on Santa’s lap. By the time I could walk and talk, I realized that we were going through this whole emotional ordeal — since clearly I would cry — just for a picture of my sister and me with a complete stranger. I remember thinking, “Who is this for?!” Because it wasn’t for me. And if you loved going to see Santa as a little kid, then that’s wonderful, but I would have rather kept our relationship purely epistolary.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like holidays or traditions — I love, look forward to and deeply appreciate both. But I wanted to know why I was doing what I was doing. I wanted to know who started the tradition, how it functions and what it meant to be following in their footsteps. And I doubt that I’m the only one who’s ever felt this way.

Lemony Snicket once wrote, “Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” 

I think more and more, as young people entering the modern world in their roaring 20s, we are inheriting life less and creating life more. In 2018, we no longer have to do what was done before us simply because it’s all we know. We are exposed in our daily life — especially at the University — to people of different backgrounds, perspectives and passions expressed in a million different traditions of their own. All around us, there are other ways to celebrate, other ways to express joy and other ways to connect with the people that we love. We have choices. As a product of living in a technologically savvy era — to which I may or may not belong as I’m still trying to master AirDrop over here — that is uncovering answers to our questions left and right, we want to understand how things work. We want to make informed decisions.

So what, then, do we do about our traditions?

Some of them we carry on, rightfully and beautifully so. The traditions that you can trace, that you understand, that continually perpetuate love, hope, joy or even silliness, around the holidays, you should keep and continue. I love the tradition of Lighting of the Lawn and the visual symbol of bringing light and hope into dark and painful places. In my family, all of my siblings and I get new Christmas pajamas to wear on Christmas Eve every year and I love being brought together by warm and fuzzy flannel.

Some of them we can let go. These are the traditions that aren’t serving us any longer. They may have been sweet at their origin, but they no longer function to bring us together, give us hope or spread love. Perhaps we don’t know where they came from or why we’re doing them. Perhaps we do know where they came from, what they once meant and we no longer agree with what they stand for. When I was growing up and spending holidays with in a single-parent household with my mom, we didn’t wait around for a man to cut our turkey on holidays. We went ahead and kicked that to the curb, and we didn’t lose a wink of sleep. Maybe your family has a tradition of Christmas shopping that you find really stressful and fraught with conflict — what would it look like to sit out, not as a killjoy but as a way to preserve joy?

Some of them, we get to create anew. Traditions aren’t only to be observed, they are to be invented, reinvented, adjusted and maybe invented some more. If we are living, breathing, changing, growing and learning, then so too should our traditions. When I was in high school, my best friends and I started choosing a night to get dressed up for no reason, buy dessert from the fanciest French restaurant in Richmond, listen to Frank Sinatra on repeat and visit the beautiful holiday decorations in the Jefferson Hotel. After a few years, “Fancy Night,” was born, and we will continue to celebrate “Fancy Night” until its extravagance no longer brings us insane amounts of joy.

I think traditions can band people together in amazing ways, across far distances and through generations — this is not a column about throwing all tradition out the window. It is a column about thinking critically and honestly about whether we still know why we are participating in the tradition we’re perpetuating, and if it’s still functioning the way it was intended to function. It is a column about having the freedom and boldness to invent your own new traditions.

Whether your holiday is filled with activities you’ve done 1,000 times before or brand new attempts at celebrating, I hope that your holidays are warm, intentional, purposeful and full of hopeful acceptance.

Sarah Ashman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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