restricted access 3. Tradition
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69 CHAPTER 3 Tradition In the approximately 150 years since the discipline began, folklore has been based on the study of tradition. To folklorists the concept of tradition has a much broader conceptual framework than the conventional idea of tradition. Mainstream definitions bring to mind something generations old, passed down from an elder to a youth, who then becomes an elder and passes the tradition down to a youth, who then passes it down, and so on. Certainly much folklore is shared in this way, but tradition for folklorists entails a cultural understanding of a process or text that is shared within the community, perhaps from generation to generation, but is more likely shared among those who are current members of a folk group. Traditions may perhaps even be invented within a group as a way to convey and express beliefs to other members of the group or other groups.The concept of tradition and the ways our understanding of it has evolved are central to the study of folklore. The term appears throughout this book as one of the signposts that guides how we see folklore expressing and building group identity. For introductory purposes, we will begin with the idea that tradition is simply the sharing of something of cultural significance from group member to group member.In the following sections,we consider some of the theoretical underpinnings of the concept of tradition and discuss what traditions are, how they come to be, and what they can mean to the groups who share them. What is Tradition? Whether we are studying a specific item of folklore or the way in which group members communicate and learn that text, tradition is a vital, dynamic LIVING FOLKLORE 70 feature of the culture of a folk group. In fact, tradition is often the first word to come to mind when people consider the definition of folklore itself. Age-old traditions are considered to be folklore by many. Because the idea of tradition is so familiar, there are often questions about how folklorists’ interpretation fits with a general understanding of the term. These questions show an interest in how traditions are passed along and a clear connection to the idea of learning and continuing traditions within a particular group. The way folklorists look at tradition often differs from familiar assumptions, so here we address a few concepts one by one, using them as a framework to develop a better understanding of the current approach to studying tradition. For folklorists, tradition • is both lore and process • helps to create and confirm a sense of identity • is identified as a tradition by the community. Tradition is Both Lore and Process The idea of tradition is essential to the process of folklore and investigations of folklore studies; however, as the discipline has grown and changed, the way in which folklorists perceive tradition has changed along with it. No longer does tradition suggest merely a relic passed down within a community, from generation to generation. This evolution has occurred, in part, because folklorists no longer see themselves as gathering the remnants of an illiterate or unsophisticated group in order to preserve the group’s cultural history. Instead, we foreground as elements of tradition those features that groups rely on to maintain their current sense of group identity. The term tradition, like folklore, refers to several related concepts. It indicates the lore of folk groups as well as the process of communicating that lore. The term also extends to everything that goes into the process of making a tradition a tradition. For example, a story, the act of storytelling, and the ways that stories and storytelling come to be meaningful within a group all matter when we talk about tradition. This definition of tradition implies a sense of continuity and of shared materials, customs, and verbal expressions that continue to be practiced within and among certain groups. The concept of continuity suggests the importance of time and repetition in the process of tradition,but it is also used to acknowledge that traditions do not always come to us from generations past. Traditions may be repeated through time, but as Toelken points out (1996), time may be a matter of “years” or of “moments.” Repetition is important in establishing continuity, since a group 71 Tradition repeats something because it matters to the group; if it isn’t meaningful,it won’t be repeated, and if it isn’t repeated, it won’t become a tradition. Continuity doesn’t mean...


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