Bound by Tradition?

There’s an old story I once heard that goes something like this:

One day a husband and wife were preparing Christmas dinner together. The man watched his wife cut the end off the ham,creating a flat spot on one side, before placing it in a large baking dish and then into the oven.

Curious, he asked, “Honey, why do you always cut the end off the ham like that before you cook it?
She replied, “Well, that’s the way my mother always did it.”

“OK, but why did your mother do it?”

“I don’t know. I never asked. We can ask her when she comes over.”

When the mother arrived for Christmas dinner, they asked her together, “You know how every time you cook a ham, you cut the end off of it so it’s flat on one side – why do you do it that way?”

The mother thought for a moment, and finally, replied, “Hmmm. I guess I never thought about it, but that’s the way my mother always did it, so I do it too.”

One day, the young couple went to visit Grandma and they asked her, “Mom says whenever you cook a ham you cut one of the ends off, but she couldn’t tell us why. Why do you do that, Grandma?”

Grandma smiled, “Well, you see, sweetheart, one day Grandma dropped her large baking dish and broke it. The ham    didn’t fit into the smaller dish, so I cut the end off of it so it would fit. I never got around to getting a new large baking dish, so I always had to cut the end off the ham.”

I wanted to share that story now, because it applies to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

That time of year is almost upon us, with nearly two months steeped in tradition, and with the season comes those who will always feel threatened by any challenge, any questioning of tradition — any attempt at all to adjust the old ways to our modern times, make them more inclusive, and to be more considerate of the diverse peoples of our communities.

Our nation — indeed, the world — has a long history of doing the wrong thing in the name of tradition. Tradition has been, and often still is, used as a tool to preserve the status quo. “Traditional family values” has become code for an ideology that’s hostile to the rights of women, young people, gays and people possessing other-than-Christian beliefs. It was, primarily, tradition that kept women in the home and subservient to men. The recent passing of our dear Rosa Parks reminds us that we hesitate to change our traditions when we should, and when do, we do so much too slowly.

But we do make progress: We are learning to overcome racism, gender roles are being questioned, and minority religions are now beginning to receive some respect and consideration. These endeavors were, and still are in many areas of the country, thought of as going against tradition — things that shouldn’t be changed because that’s the way things have always been. Progress, when it comes, always comes at the expense of tradition.

I know that it sometimes it feels like we’re not making any progress at all. Michael Newdow, the man who challenged the idea of forcing our nation’s children to declare daily that they live in a nation “Under God”,  receives death threats on his answering machine and in letters with no return address, but just 50 years ago, he would have been strung up by the neck from a tree in the town square by an angry mob in the night while the local sheriff looked the other way.  This is, at least, a sign of progress.

Progressives are winning. Other traditions will fall, as they must, for other good causes. And they will each begin at the chagrin of those whom tradition favors most.

Let us not be hostile toward tradition just for the sake of hostility. There should always be a reason. But when we do have a reason, a good reason, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask those questions — to raise our voices over and above the din of protest. Why do we cut the end off the ham? Why must we throw that piece away? Is it fair to the ham? And, isn’t this pan big enough for the whole damn ham?

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