This is probably the answer that could be expected if such a street survey was conducted among our compatriots, both in Poland and here among the Polish American community. We Poles are extremely proud of our traditions. Not only Christmas ones. On many levels we declare our attachment to them, and we are ready to defend them almost limitlessly. Especially in recent years, when countries of Europe and the United States are struggling with the emigration crisis at their borders, the frequent references to the defending of tradition have been one of the most important points to this global crisis. Our national traditions, which in some way determine who we really are as Poles, are especially present among those of us who, for various reasons, were forced to live outside the homeland. The Polish traditions certainly define our place and uniqueness among the great family of nations.
Christmas with its rich traditions, so important for all Poles, should give us a great opportunity to reflect on this important topic: what exactly is “tradition”? My educational background always prompts me to start with a definition for clarity’s sake. This should give us a starting point for reflection.
Wikipedia defines a tradition as “a system of beliefs or behaviors (folk custom) passed down within a group of people or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. A component of cultural expressions and 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, behaviors such as greetings etc. Traditions can persist and evolve for thousands of years—the word tradition itself derives from the Latin word trado, -ere literally meaning ‘to transmit,’ ‘to hand over,’ ‘to give for safekeeping.’ While it is reportedly assumed that traditions have an ancient history, many traditions have been invented on purpose, whether it be political or cultural, over short periods of time.”
The PWN (Polish Scientific Publishers) Encyclopedia, the very noble and well known encyclopedia in Poland defines “tradition” as follows: [Latin traditio, -onis (f) – ‘giving,’ ‘giving back’], cultural content passed down from generation to generation (customs, views, beliefs, ways of thinking and behaving, norms of conduct, etc.) distinguished by a given community, on the basis of a specific hierarchy of values, from the entire cultural heritage as socially important for the present and the future; also the process of transmitting these cultural contents taking place in a given community.” And then a very apt comment is added: “Tradition is one of the main ways of incorporating the past and its cultural content into the current social awareness and is an essential element of the mindful processes through which history influences and co-shapes the fate of societies; referring to specific traditions is an important factor in the self-definition of groups, classes and social layers, nations, and societies. In every historical era there is a canon of cultural tradition in which national tradition plays a special role; through national tradition nations—as historical communities—express their attitude towards the national past, transform and incorporate the heritage of the past into national consciousness. National tradition is the basis for the historical continuity of the nation, and at the same time it significantly influences its future fate. From the entire ‘existing’ tradition, individual social groups select the ‘living’ tradition, interpreting the history of the nation according to their aspirations and emphasizing specific elements of its experiences as particularly important. Epochs of great social changes are usually full of ideological disputes around the problem of the canon of the ‘living’ national tradition.”
I think our reflection on holiday traditions (including obviously Christmas) very clearly presents the complexity of the problem. We willingly share our family traditions and are very much surprised to notice how different the Christmas traditions are even within one, seemingly almost uniform Polish culture. We can easily notice that completely different traditions exist in different parts of Poland. At the same time, we recognize unquestionable pillars of this holiday. Those are the Christmas tree and opłatek (the Christmas wafer). However, we don’t realize that those are… not Polish traditions in their origins. My intention here is not to engage in discussions about which of our Christmas traditions are really Polish. We do not comprehend how many of our traditions, which we consider to be so Polish, have their origins taken from our neighbors, other national minorities living in Poland, or some of them derive from completely opposite customs to Christian sources (e.g. the date of Christmas itself).
We must also recognize very clearly that tradition is not something static, unchanging, given once and for all. On the contrary. It is something extremely dynamic and “living”—as is described by PWN encyclopedia. First, every tradition has its historically based beginnings, which are often very ordinary. Anecdotes on this subject are all too many: someone once did something for completely practical reasons and had done it all his/her life, and the next generation took over this practice completely thoughtlessly. How often do we encounter this when preparing for the holidays? Not only culinary recipes, but also the methods of preparation of Christmas Eve dishes are subject to an almost sacramental procedure that is repeated extremely faithfully, although today these are often only empty, incomprehensible gestures. For example, most of Polish Christmas traditions are rooted in a rural environment that today most of us have no familiarity with anymore. Sometimes a reflection only comes to us when the younger generation has the courage to ask: “Why is it done this way?” Being very much surprised by such a question we casually answer, “Because it has always been like that!” We cut off such uncomfortable questions as quickly as possible. Although we know very well that it was not “always” like that.
Tradition is something very dynamic. It is not something immutable and given once and for all. It is created on an ongoing basis, here and now, even if it is rooted in the past. Christmas traditions, which are an example of our analysis here, are created in new families: most often, at least two traditions meet, and the synthesis of them create a new tradition. This new tradition is then passed on to the new generation, which will be brought and mingled in new families. And so on. We don’t realize that almost in each generation those traditions are changed, even if they keep some elements of the previous traditions. And some of those preserved elements from past traditions are not very well-known to us. We often do not realize where certain traditions come from, what their purpose was when they had been introduced.
Very often our Polish traditions are deeply connected with religion. And a very large percentage of Poles are still Roman Catholics. Because of this we very often wrongly presume that such traditions are therefore eternal and should be kept unchanged. First, although Catholicism is the dominant religion in Polish society, many other traditions are rooted in those Polish, Catholic traditions. I have already mentioned the Christmas tree as an example. Secondly, even those religious roots of Polish traditions are also not very well known to most people. Therefore, referring to their “timelessness” only reaches abstract references. Thirdly, we often do not realize that many such Catholic/religious traditions originally were very secular, and sometimes their roots are very far from the any religious aspect. Their religious character only acquired much later. And the lack of historical reflection gives us wrong impression of unchangingness of them.
Every tradition is dynamic, which allows the rich values of the past to enter the present, and finally to be oriented towards the future. The cultural development of any society must always draw from the past, from the wealth of many generations living before us. However, blindly defending these values should not hamper present and future development. Here in the U.S., we know very well some religious groups that are very deeply rooted in their past traditions and defend them against any changes at all costs. I think about the Amish communities (we also have them here in Michigan). They still live as in 17th century! Looking at them most of us recognize that it is too far.
Therefore, we should always be aware of the need for a rational acceptance of traditional values and have a critical ability to transform them to the needs of people living here and now. Let’s look at all our traditions, as Saint Pope John XXIII once said. Traditions are like a garden that requires constant care and development. It is not just a beautiful museum with a collection of very nicely arranged monuments that can only be passively viewed. Tradition keeps its value only if it remains alive.