A tradition is a belief or behaviour (folk custom) passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. A component of folklore, common examples include holidays or impractical but socially meaningful clothes (like lawyers’ wigs or military officers’ spurs), but the idea has also been applied to social norms such as greetings. Traditions can persist and evolve for thousands of years—the word tradition itself derives from the Latin tradere literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping. While it is commonly assumed that traditions have an ancient history, many traditions have been invented on purpose, whether that be political or cultural, over short periods of time. Various academic disciplines also use the word in a variety of ways.
The phrase “according to tradition”, or “by tradition”, usually means that whatever information follows is known only by oral tradition, but is not supported (and perhaps maybe refuted) by physical documentation, by a physical artefact, or other quality evidence. Tradition is used to indicate the quality of a piece of information being discussed. For example, “According to tradition, Homer was born on Chios, but many other locales have historically claimed him as theirs.” This tradition may never be proven or disproven. In another example, “King Arthur, by tradition a true British king, has inspired many well-loved stories.” Whether they are documented fact or not does not decrease their value as cultural history and literature.
The English word tradition comes from the Latin traditio via French, the noun from the verb tradere (to transmit, to hand over, to give for safekeeping); it was originally used in Roman law to refer to the concept of legal transfers and inheritance. According to Anthony Giddens and others, the modern meaning of tradition evolved during the Enlightenment period, in opposition to modernity and progress.
As with many other generic terms, there are many definitions of tradition. The concept includes a number of interrelated ideas; the unifying one is that tradition refers to beliefs, objects or customs performed or believed in the past, originating in it, transmitted through time by being taught by one generation to the next, and are performed or believed in the present.
Tradition can also refer to beliefs or customs that are Prehistoric, with lost or arcane origins, existing from time immemorial. Originally, traditions were passed orally, without the need for a writing system. Tools to aid this process include poetic devices such as rhyme and alliteration. The stories thus preserved are also referred to as tradition, or as part of an oral tradition. Even such traditions, however, are presumed to have originated (been “invented” by humans) at some point. Traditions are often presumed to be ancient, unalterable, and deeply important, though they may sometimes be much less “natural” than is presumed. It is presumed that at least two transmissions over three generations are required for a practice, belief or object to be seen as traditional. Some traditions were deliberately invented for one reason or another, often to highlight or enhance the importance of a certain institution. Traditions may also be adapted to suit the needs of the day, and the changes can become accepted as a part of the ancient tradition.
Tradition changes slowly, with changes from one generation to the next being seen as significant. Thus, those carrying out the traditions will not be consciously aware of the change, and even if a tradition undergoes major changes over many generations, it will be seen as unchanged.
There are various origins and fields of tradition; they can refer to:
- the forms of the artistic heritage of a particular culture.
- beliefs or customs instituted and maintained by societies and governments, such as national anthems and national holidays, such as Federal holidays in the United States.
- beliefs or customs maintained by religious denominations and church bodies that share history, customs, culture, and, to some extent, the body of teachings. For example, one can speak of Islam’s tradition or Christianity’s tradition.
Many objects, beliefs and customs can be traditional. Rituals of social interaction can be traditional, with phrases and gestures such as saying “thank you”, sending birth announcements, greeting cards, etc. Tradition can also refer to larger concepts practised by groups (family traditions at Christmas), organizations (company’s picnic) or societies, such as the practice of national and public holidays. Some of the oldest traditions include monotheism (three millennia) and citizenship (two millennia). It can also include material objects, such as buildings, works of art or tools.
Tradition is often used as an adjective, in contexts such as traditional music, traditional medicine, traditional values and others. In such constructions tradition refers to specific values and materials particular to the discussed context, passed through generations.