When I married my wife Heidi in 1970, her family had a Dutch background and celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6. We put our Dutch shoes out on December 5, and the next morning they were filled with fruit and candy and small gifts. I have continued that tradition for 47 years. -Gary
Responding to last week’s Sunday Evening Post (a letter I email to readers each weekend), reader Gary shined some light on this Dutch tradition. He maintains it with his family to this day–years since his wife Heidi’s passing. It serves as a gesture to keep the spirit of Gary’s late wife alive in their home; it serves as a way to add definition, character, and purpose to their holiday and life.
As Gary’s example demonstrates, culture and tradition needn’t be something we grow up with.
Reader Chris also replied last week:
I find these conversations about cultures and pride of culture to be interesting, because they are somewhat foreign to me. I don’t have much pride in my culture. To me, it was just the culture I was born into. The place I grew up, the traditions, music, holidays and values that I grew up in were not things I would have chosen. So I decided to go out and look for others, ones that fit my own set of values. I wanted to create my own culture in a sense, to pick and choose what fit rather than just accepting what I grew up in.
I realize that may not be popular to seemingly have so little loyalty to one’s culture, but…I believe every generation should go through every [tradition] passed on and decide individually which have value, which should be kept, and which should be dropped.
Chris’s approach to culture says a lot about what culture can be, how it can be formed and used, and the unique nature with which many Americans address this topic. For starters, the US is a diverse nation with typically at least some degree of “melting pot” going on between the cultures. But the US is also unique from most other nations in how young it is and in how its cultural foundation was laid by those who left their homelands (and often their old ways) behind.
Two Aprils back, I was part of a panel of speakers at a conference by the Global China Connections organization at the University of Minnesota. Our particular session was on global cultural norms, and when I looked down the table at my fellow panelists–a native Chinese woman, a native German man, a native Asian Indian woman, and a native Somalian woman–I realized how my perspective would stand out. It wasn’t just that I grew up in a different country with different language. It was that their cultures each went back centuries and even millennia, potentially encompassing all aspects of their lives.
Seeing this, I spoke up first as the session began in the lecture hall, declaring this distinction to the attendees. My mostly German-lineage family has dropped practically all signs of being German. As such, my American culture goes back only a few generations, I said. And even then, I’ve abandoned many of these lifestyle aspects–hunting and gardening and canning food, for example.
So minus any ancient practices, and minus many traditional American ones, where does that leave me and countless other Americans in determining our culture?
Part of this answer struck me a couple of years earlier when watching men carve out tree-trunk fishing boats on a lake shore in East Africa. Watching those boat carvers slowly chipping away at their creations–and then me learning the boats only last a couple of years–I thought, “Why not save up money for an aluminum boat?”
But continuing to watch, I considered how this boat-making is part of their culture–their purpose and definition of their life. As such, I realized they just simply may not want an aluminum boat.
Seeing how my mind went immediately to getting a stronger, lighter, more efficient boat, I realized the degree to which American culture IS to favor that which is “stronger, lighter, more efficient…” Tradition be damned. It’s easier to buy canned veggies, farm-raised meat, and factory-made clothes than to fashion these things ourselves.
The other panelists at the conference spoke up after me, a couple of them pushing back on my argument by pointing out popular US pastimes, music, food, and pace of life–all of which create a distinct culture. (Indeed. This is why we had a diverse panel. Sometimes it’s best to ask an outsider to define a culture.)
At the same time, that which they and I pointed out was just mainstream America. There are also countless other ways of life maintained within our country–as there are many within most others nowadays. In my particular neighborhood in the Twin Cities, there are some traditional Jewish families. And in my letter the week before, I shared about a powwow I had attended–thus starting this whole culture conversation. By distinguishing themselves from mainstream US culture, these groups balance their ways of life within a country whose culture differs from their own. This is a unique challenge that my American ancestors decided not to maintain–one that I assume brings the struggle of being different but also adds an adornment to one’s life not enjoyed by most others.
May your Labor Day weekend be filled with your unique definition, character, and purpose of come with your culture.
p.s. As I did in my email, I’ll ask for comments below sharing cultural traditions/practices that you either do yourself or have observed when immersed elsewhere. Let’s learn about the variations of life represented here in The Periphery community!
p.p.s. To receive The Sunday Evening Post weekly email, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org