“…the strength and adaptability of genuine traditions is not to be confused with the ‘invention of tradition’. Where the old ways are alive, traditions need be neither revived nor invented.”
Eric Hobsbawm died a few weeks back. I noticed at the time, because he, along with Terence Ranger, edited a history book called The Invention of Tradition, the significance of which I judge to be fairly high given the number of times it has been on the “recommended reading” lists for my history courses. I own an e-book version on my Kindle, and read Hobsbawm’s introduction over the summer, as well as Hugh Trevor-Roper’s amusing chapter on Highland traditions. I referenced Berhard S. Cohn’s essay on Victorian India for one of my papers last year, and browsed Terence Ranger’s article on Colonial Africa. I mean to read the other essays someday, but what is relevant right now is a quote from the introduction which, as someone who loves tradition, I found conciliatory to the volume’s premise:
When I first picked up Hobsbawm and Ranger’s book, I judged its contents by the title and was ready to write an essay defending the practice of tradition-inventing. All traditions are invented, and there’s no shame in it. My family has two invented holidays, one of which I cannot recall without regretting many years of non-attendance: the annual Jones-a-thon, in honor of Chuck Jones. The other is my brother Bob’s Tolkien Fest, which he put together last year, and which I understand he means to repeat. Such celebrations may be invented, but as invention rises of necessity, it is clear that they arose from a genuine gap in our social culture: a heart-felt desire to honor two men whose works have deeply influenced our childhood and upbringing, and whom we feel it is meet and just to honor each year with merry-making.
The Hobsbawm-Ranger premise does not dispute this. The articles instead indicate areas in cultures where an artificial link to the past has been created to bolster a weak or dying practice with a false claim to an attachment to antiquity. If my brother Bob, for instance, in a desperate attempt to round up supporters for his feast, were to claim that offering a toast to Tolkien on the eve of his birth began on the very day of the Great Author’s life, when his overjoyed father got drunk on a bottle of port, this would be an invented tradition. As it is, Bob’s celebration stands honestly on its own two feet, and its continued strength will last for as long as there is a demand to celebrate it.
Here rises a question to which I have no answer: to what extent is Thanksgiving an ‘invented tradition‘? I would claim that, as it has risen to widespread popularity in the United States on its own merit, it is genuine enough for the answer to that question to be irrelevant. I do not know how accurate the story about the pilgrims and Indians eating together is, nor do I know how consistent the celebration is over the years. What I do know is this: Thanksgiving is America’s most American holiday. Somehow, it has resisted exportation to every country save Canada, even though it is not a nationalist holiday, like July 4th. I think the reason why Thanksgiving has remained dominantly American is for two reasons: first, other countries may have smaller harvest-festivals which fill their need for a Thanksgiving celebration, and second, turkeys are hard to come by in the rest of the world.
This is now the fourth year, and third country, in which I have celebrated Thanksgiving abroad. Stay tuned to hear how Thanksgiving: Russia turned out.