Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why I Am a Traditionalist (VI)

Anyone who's endured through my entire series on tradition so far will have noticed that I've been using the term in a secular sense, and that's very deliberate. Of course, 'Tradition' (usually capitalized in this context) means something very specific in Catholic doctrine.

This is how the Catechism defines it: "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority. "Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time." This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes." "The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer."

Obviously, this sense of the word 'Tradition' is quite distinct from the much fuzzier and more secular sense of the word that I am using in this series. To put it simply, Tradition is infinitely more important than tradition.

Of course, there are also religious traditions which are not necessarily a part of Catholic Tradition-- although, since 'the law of prayer is the law of faith", I would not presume to guess where exactly this applies. Probably to Friday fish fry-ups-- but even there, I don't want to presume....

So I've concentrated more on secular traditions in this series, and only occasionally mentioned religious traditions. My post about Christmas referred more or less entirely to Christmas as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a holy time. (Of course, even the crassest Christmas cash-in has some relation to the Christ child, though it may be a distant one.)

The thing is, I never want anyone to think that I was drawn to Catholicism by some kind of nostalgia. I am not a Catholic because I am a traditionalist. Nor am I a traditionalist because I am a Catholic. In fact, in terms of Catholicism, I am rather less traditional than many people who have the same kind of religious attitudes as me. I have never attended a Latin Mass. I am rather fond of modern churches (except the most hideous ones). I've never done the first Fridays or worn a scapular.


Furthermore, I am quite distrustful of 'Faith of our Fathers' sentimentality when it comes to religion. I am a sentimentalist and I am a nostalgist, but I try to keep my religious reasoning (so to speak) unclouded by either. The only reason to practice a religion is because you believe it's true. And the proper reason to oppose innovations in a religion (as I often do) is because you think they are heresies, or because you think they are counter-productive in some way. (I'm against the idea of married priests, for instance, because I think the witness of consecrated celibacy is hugely effective and important-- not because of unthinking traditionalism.)

None of this is to say that my traditionalism does not enter into my faith, as well. Of course it does. When saying the rosary, I am deeply moved to think of all the hundreds of millions of Catholics who have said it before me, down through the ages. But I do make a conscious effort not to let my traditionalism overstep its rightful bounds in sacred matters.

Having cleared that up, I wanted to turn from religious traditions to national traditions-- specifically, American traditions.


I'm married to an American woman, and I've spent a fair amount of time in America-- more time there than anywhere else in the world except in Ireland. Most of that time was spent in Richmond, Virginia, which is one of the oldest places in America, in the sense of European settlement.

I think the attitude of America to tradition is a fascinating subject. There has been a steady flow of tradition-hungry Americans to Europe for centuries now-- T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Henry James spring to mind. America is 'the New World', brash and callow, while Europe is the 'Old World', steeped in history and refinement. Americans follow the soap opera of the British royal family so avidly because they've been denied such splendour and heritage by their own avowed egalitarianism, and because they are starved of pageantry, ceremony and tradition.

Of course, few people would consciously subscribe to these stereotypes, but they do tend to inform our view of the two continents. The funny thing is, I think they are almost the reverse of the truth. Europe may be a continent of ancient traditions but they are mostly dead or moribund traditions. America may be lacking ancient traditions, but it seems to me to have much stronger and more vibrant traditions of its own-- even if they are more recent ones. Not only that, but I believe Americans actually preserve European traditions more respectfully than do Europeans themselves-- by which I mean the traditions of their ancestral countries. Irish-Americans seem to care a lot more about their Irishness than do the Irish who live in Ireland.

School and college traditions are a good example of America's fondness for tradition, as I see it. Going by cinema, TV and books, American education seems to be awash with cheerleaders, college songs, sororities, frat houses, 'most likely to succeed' votes, high school yearbooks, and other traditions which are pretty exotic to Europeans. We have college traditions here, but they are pretty low-key compared to America. As for school traditions, I've never encountered these outside the realm of fiction-- or, insofar as we have them, they are not a big deal. (In Ireland, the 'debs' is the equivalent of the high school 'prom', and that's a fairly big deal-- but I can't think of any other parallel.)

As for universities: I work in a university myself, and there are only a few bona fide traditions I can think of in University College Dublin; there is the 'Colours Debate' between UCD and the rather more prestigious Trinity College Dublin. This is an annual comedy debate. There is also the Maidens Mace, a debating competition held for new debaters by the Literary and Historical Society. The L&H itself is one of our few notable traditions; many prominent people came through its ranks. When I started working in University College Dublin, I was very excited to read that the academic terms bore the quaint names Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity; I have never once heard anyone use these terms. I don't even know if they exist officially anymore, thirteen years after I joined.

But Americans also seem to have more sporting traditions, more local traditions, more family traditions, more parades, more fraternal organisations, more festivals, more special foods for special occasions-- more of every kind of tradition, in fact.

I went to one baseball game in America-- it was only Minor League-- and I was delighted and fascinated with all the traditions, from the 'Take Me out to the Ball Game' song to the bizarre practice whereby the crowd shouts "Charge!" when a particular fanfare is played over the sound system. It's true I haven't attended many sporting events at home, but I've seen a fair amount on TV, and I don't think they are quite so steeped in tradition.

I've been in America for quite a few holidays. Funnily enough, I was twice present on or around the fourth of July, and I twice heard the National Anthem sung as a recessional hymn at Sunday Mass. (I think it was the National Anthem. Maybe it was 'God Save America'.) I actually became quite emotional myself, while singing it.

I watched one Fourth of July fireworks display, from a hotel balcony. It was pretty spectacular and seemed to go on forever.

I've been in America for Thanksgiving, as I've mentioned several times before. Strangely enough, given the fact that Thanksgiving always seemed like a holiday for the sake of a holiday to me, this was actually the one that impressed me the most. We made a huge Thanksgiving feast (just for the two of us), watched Macy's Parade in New York on TV, and followed that by watching the (recorded) final of the National Dog Show, which is traditionally shown on this day. As I mentioned before, the fact that watching the final of a dog show is a national tradition pleases me no end. It seems so unusual.

Christmas in America is not all that different from Christmas in Ireland. They don't generally have Christmas crackers in America, but they are gaining in popularity now. (I'm not sure I like this, just as I'm not sure I like the increasing popularity of professional soccer in America-- both trends may have something to do with a current wave of anglophilia. I prefer national traditions remaining distinct.)

There is an American Christmas movie called A Christmas Story, first transmitted in 1983, which has become a Christmas classic and is often shown on TV (though I saw it on DVD, and never saw the whole thing). It's very gentle and nostalgic. There is another called Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer which is very popular, as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas (which I've never seen).

Richmond has an interesting and fun Christmas tradition of over-the-top Christmas lights. Homes actually compete with each other to go the furthest over the top (though I'm not sure if there is any kind of official winner). In Richmond, there is actually a guided tour which shows you the most over-decorated houses. One house had actually made their car a part of the Christmas lights display; it was entirely weighed down with lights, and an inflatable Santa sat in the driver's seat.

The most intriguing American Christmas tradition, for me, is the tradition of wearing an green-and-red elf's hat while exchanging gifts. The person giving the gift wears the hat, and then passes it to the next gift-giver, who puts it on. For all the American TV and movies I've seen, I'd never seen this. (In one US Office Christmas show, when they are giving out Secret Santa gifts, Dwight wears such a hat-- but I didn't realise its significance when I first saw it. Of course, Secret Santa is the American term for Kris Kindle. The colours green and red seem a bigger part of Christmas in America than they do in Ireland or (as far as I know) other European countries.

I also watched one Superbowl in America-- unfortunately, it was the worst Superbowl in living memory. The underdogs, the Seattle Seahawks, beat the favourites The Denver Broncos so comprehensively that it was all over before half-time. Before the game, the local supermarket was full of shoppers stocking up on snacks for the game. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Bruno Mars (I'd never heard of the latter) provided half-time entertainment; the Chilli Peppers seemed so pumped-up and energetic that it was more of an athletics display than a musical performance.

Of course, the Superbowl is famous for its ads-- the most celebrated ad of all time, Apple computer's 1984 ad (which doesn't seem at all extraordinary to me) was aired during the Superbowl. And there were lots of memorable and well-made ads during this Superbowl. One involved a young man being surprised by a 'best night ever', and featured Arnold Schwarzenegger (who played table tennis with him).

I used to worry a lot about how commercialized or media-driven a tradition was. I don't worry about that so much anymore. Commerce and the media are part of our lives, why should they not be a part of tradition? Of course, it's nice when traditions remain relatively uncommercialized, but I don't really have any beef with the opposite scenario, like I used to.

One particular Superbowl tradition involves the winning coach having a barrel of Gatorade (a sports drink) thrown over him. On this occasion, the Seahawks performed this tradition a little too early to be sportsmanlike.

I've twice seen (on TV, but while in America) the famous Times Square ball drop, whereby a ball is dropped down a kind of tube from the roof of The New York Times Building, coming to rest at exactly midnight. I'd never heard of this ceremony before; it's been going since 1907 and Times Square is packed out for it. Various celebrities turn up, either as entertainers or as spectators, and are interviewed. In general, New Year's in America is pretty similar to New Year's in Ireland-- bigger and glitzier, like most American things!

Richmond has the 'zombie walk' at Halloween, where participants dress up as zombies to raise money for charity. I've never seen this, though. I haven't been in America at Halloween. (I've never been to a Halloween party as an adult anywhere, which bothers me.)

Another American tradition worth mentioning is Saturday Night Live. I didn't realise what a big part of American culture this show was until I went there. I've sometimes been bemused at how poor many of the sketches are, but that's part of the appeal-- it's recorded very quickly and it has a hit-and-miss, improvised flavour which is part of fun. (The opening sketch always ends with one character saying to camera, out of the blue, "Live from New York City, it's Saturday Niiiiiiiiight...")

The various talk show at night-- Conan O'Brien, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon and such-- are also a big American tradition. Attempts to introduce an equivalent in Ireland have been invariably embarrassing.

So, on the whole, I don't think Americans have anything to apologise for in terms of tradition. And, being such an ardent traditionalist, this is another reason why I am such a fan of America and American culture.

Did you think the series would end here? Not a chance! In my next post, I'll look at Irish traditions and the Irish attitude to tradition.

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