How Would You Define 'Tradition'?


I need your help. The dictionary failed me and debates with friends and family have raised more questions than answers. “Tradition” seems like a simple word to define, but two specific examples have been troubling me lately and I'd like to break down the arguments and then toss this one up to the PolicyMic readers.

Example One: Naguas

The nagua is a “traditional” dress worn by Ngäbe (indigenous Panamanians) women. For thousands of years, the Ngäbes were nomadic and wore almost nothing. In the 1960's, Christian missionaries introduced naguas in the name of humility and Ngäbe women have worn them ever since. Almost every Ngäbe will tell you that naguas are traditional. To me, their nomadic customs are traditional and the more recently introduced nagua contradicts their history.

Example Two: The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl is the most watched television broadcast in America, viewed by over 100 million people every year. It is 45 years old and was popular from the beginning, but didn't become the cultural force as we know it until the early 1970s. It is now undeniably popular and widely regarded a de-facto national holiday, but is it traditional?

Before we go elbow-deep in these questions, let me list a few undeniable examples of international traditions that I will be referencing: Japanese kimonos; Saudi burqas; Indian saris; Native American headfeathers; Mexican quinceñeras; and Jewish kippahs.

What is tradition?

We'll let Oxford English Dictionary define it for us first: “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.” Well said, Oxford, very clear and succinct, but alas, the definition is incomplete. What about China's One Child policy? That's been passed down from generation to generation, but would people say it's a tradition or just a law? Can it be both? What about Saudi burqas? Those are enforced by religious law but are widely referred to as “traditional dresses.” There are clearly other factors at work.


One such factor is age. Unofficially, if something is older, it’s more likely to be considered traditional. No one will argue that centuries old kimonos aren’t traditionally Japanese, or that yamakas aren't traditionally Jewish. Conversely, few would describe any smart phone as “traditional” – they have only become widely used in the past 10 years. Too young? Let's use Oxford's definition to set a minimum age cut off and separate generations by 20 years. Can we safely say that any practice under 20 years old is too new to be considered traditional? That begs more questions.

If there’s a minimum age (e.g. over 20 years), is there a maximum? Go back far enough and all humans came from Africa and wore tree bark loincloths. Do Russians call themselves “traditionally African” or wear tree bark banana hammocks at cultural festivals? Of course not – they wear silly hats and drink vodka. But stereotypes aside, societies have an unofficial 'tradition cut off age,' but I have no idea where to even unofficially put it. Have the Ngäbes cut off “traditional” at around 50 years, when they started wearing the naguas? What about their previously nomadic culture and near-nudity? Can both be “traditional,” despite being opposites?

The Superbowl passes our twenty year minimum test and doesn't contradict with any previous traditions, so the maximum age argument doesn't apply. We're still undecided on naguas, but let's move on.


Prevalence is an argument that would make both our main examples traditional, but exclude other obvious picks. The Super Bowl is undeniably prevalent in the U.S. and the vast majority of Ngäbe women wear naguas every day. But if prevalence is our main criteria, then we've suddenly lost kimonos and headfeathers – they’re widely accepted as traditional, but rarely worn outside of cultural demonstrations.

So neither age nor prevalence are perfect indicators, but I think we were on to something at the end there.


Ultimately, Oxford and some critical thinking have left me more confused than when I started. I'd like to simply say that if people in a society say something is traditional, then it is. Fans of the scientific method will poo-poo this statement, but I don't think a statistically significant survey is really necessary here – common sense will suffice. Would any Japanese really argue that kimonos aren't traditional? Would Indians argue against the sari? Probably not, even if they wear jeans instead.

Do Americans say the Super Bowl is traditional? Yes. Do Ngäbes say naguas are traditional? Yes. The problem is, that creates a contradiction with their much longer history as near-nude nomads. Additionally, Saudis accept burqas as traditional, despite being mandatory. And I still don't know what to do with the One Child policy in China.

So, help me, dear readers. Let's define this more completely. Perhaps there isn't a one size fits all definition, but I think we can do better than Oxford and better than I.

How do we define tradition?

Photo Credit: Jack Fischl