October 19th, 2017
Traditions. Tradition, and the importance placed on tradition differs from culture to culture as much as it does from person to person. Recently, in the United States, we have adopted Indigenous People’s Day as a replacement for Columbus Day. And given the recent “conversations” in the United States about confederate statues and monuments, the automatic response of “you can’t erase history”, and the reply of “yes but you don’t have to glorify it” traditions are fresh in the public consciousness. As John Oliver said recently, “Books are for history, statues are for glorification”.
I’m not one for knocking tradition. It’s fun! It can be something as simple as an inter-generational inside joke, or a family game, and its purpose, to unify and humble, is certainly a worthy cause. My problem is with tradition “for traditions sake.” The idea that we are honor bound to our traditions should be a relic of the past. We must remember our traditions but we must remember how they have always evolved. When we lose sight of why we honor our traditions, it loses its purpose, in other words, a tradition becomes a habit. And there are more examples than you might think. Which puts me in mind of a conversation with a friend from the Netherlands.
Always big fans of comparing cultures with light hearted razzing, we were having the recurring conversation our respective homelands and their history:
“Doesn’t your Santa have a slave?” I asked, already knowing the answer
“No, he has a helper,” Ralf replied defensively
“I see, and what is his helpers name?”
“Which translates to…?”
Looking down, “Black Peter”
He adds, “But I think he’s a former slave that Santa freed or something… and now he’s black because of all the soot in the chimney”
“Right… so all good now. Remind me though, how do you celebrate?”
A little excited for the nostalgia he replies “All the little kids dress-up and paint their faces black and…”
At which point his excitement fades a bit, “That’s blackface, isn’t it?”
I laughed “Yeah it’s ok though, we celebrate the betrayal and genocide of an entire race every Thanksgiving, so I don’t either of us are completely in the clear.”
Ralf is able to laugh at the Dutch tradition of Black Peter, and me at Thanksgiving for their absurdity and how far these traditions are removed from their origins. But really, while people around the US defend monuments to those who upheld slavery, the story of Zwatre Piet and the demise of Columbus Day are glimpses of hope; glimpses of evolution, perspective and progress. Of course, we shouldn’t forget our history. Just have a little humility.
Which is what concluded mine and Ralf’s discourse.
“Yeah Zwarte Piet might be racist but I mean… we had slaves man, that’s like, our national shame.”
“Yeah but who do you think sold you those slaves?”
“…..Yeah, both of us DEFINITELY not in the clear”
Alex Brenner – When he is not helping international students as ACEI’s Communications Officer, Alex puts his writing chops to work as a script doctor for Hollywood screenwriters and guest blogs for ACEI-Global. Alex has a BA in English from UCLA and has been fortunate to have travelled to many corners of the world as a child and an adult.