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Celebrate the Old and New

January 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Some members in my family celebrate New Year’s Eve with lutefisk or sauerkraut. Some people celebrate with both. I, however, draw the line at lutefisk. I just cannot stomach it. What seems to me to be a petty difference of taste really bothers others, though. They fear bad karma (or something) when I disrespect the tradition. We turn this into a joke at the dinner table, but in reality, traditions run much of our lives and so I thought it might be worthwhile to better understand what they are and how they function in society.

While tradition is not in the Great Books anthologies per se, Custom and Convention is listed as one of the great ideas. In it, Mortimer Adler offers the following definition convention. He explains:

“In the tradition of the great books, the word ‘convention’ has at least two meanings, in only one of which is it synonomous with ‘custom.’ When ‘convention’ is used to signify habitual social practices, it is, for the most part, interchangeable with ‘custom.’ In this significance, the notion of convention, like that of custom, is an extension of the idea of habit. What habit is in the behavior of the individual, customary or conventional conduct is in the behavior of the social group.

“The other meaning of ‘convention does not connote the habitual social behavior but stresses rather the voluntary as opposed to the instinctive origin of social institutions, arrangements, or practices. … Whatever is conventional about social institutions might have been otherwise, if men had seen fit to invent and adopt different schemes for the organization of their social life. This indicates the connection between the two senses of the word ‘convention,’ for all customs are conventional in origin, and all conventions become customary when perpetuated.”

Obviously, this relates to the idea of New Year’s Eve lutefisk (and all traditions) – in that we celebrate what we find worthwhile in our lives and cultures. What we find worthwhile, however, may arrive through instruction, precedent, example, practice, or law. During the transition into a new year, many lists are compiled such as the greatest music, literature, or entertainment from the previous year. Do these lists merely reflect person opinion, or is it more complicated than that? Adler continues:

“The most familiar of all of the sophistic sayings – the remark attributed to Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’ - is interpreted by both Plato and Aristotle to mean that what men wish to think or do determines for them what is true or right. Man’s will governs his reason, and convention, or the agreement of individual wills, decides what is acceptable to the group.”

In other words, convention drives personal opinion, perhaps even in undetected ways. It may be through trends and media that we receive hints about the health of our daily habits. These sources, though, represent, according to Adler, “an agreement of individual wills.” The line between individual and group, however, is extremely difficult to determine. How large does the group have to be before it becomes a group? What constitutes a fad? Is the mainstream synonymous with either the popular or traditional? Claude Lévi-Strauss adds that:

“Among the most primitive peoples it is not very difficult to obtain a moral justification or a rational explanation for any custom or institution … Even in our own society, table manners, social etiquette, fashions of dress, and many of our moral, political, and religious attitudes are scrupulously observed by everyone, although their real origin and function are not often critically examined.”

Many would argue that traditions arrive from nature or necessity, such as in the form of cleanliness, or human morality, or social preservation. Convention and tradition make for interesting discussions, but as for lutefisk, I am still not sold. In an effort to incorporate new traditions (aka my own) with old, I compromise with rice pudding. However, since it is an attempt to honor the idea of tradition, but is not actually traditional, perhaps I do more harm than good.

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Ringing in the New Year

December 29, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

"Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow; The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true."  - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Music for today's post provided by Trio Mediaeval

I have heard of ringing in the new year. I have also heard of bringing in the new year. I was not sure if they are synonymous, or two separate phrases, but it turns out that both are used and useful.

Bells can signify joy and success, as demonstrated by John Adams in a letter to his wife. He writes, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.” In other words, the bells give voice to celebration, joy and excitement, the voice of a hard-won fight.

This sentiment is also carried by Walt Whitman in “O Captain, My Captain” which reads, “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting.” Whitman too seems to combine two sentiments into one. While alluding to the danger of the past, fearful trip, Whitman also embraces the hope of the new. In other words, in this stanza, the bells celebrate a loss while also rejoicing over the future.

The phrase “ringing in the new year” hints at the idea of loss. Long ago, people thought that the sound of bells scared away evil spirits and so they often rang for funerals as well as religious traditions. Long, dark nights of winter encouraged bell ringing, which then ran into holiday celebrations. Finally, the bell ringing merged cultural anxiety with holiday celebration and bells became synonymous with joy and hope. Churches began to ring bells and then the bell became both warning and celebration, a noise that made one take note of life's events.

It turns out that “ringing in the new year” is often confused with “bringing in the new year”. While they both celebrate the new year, they actually refer to different traditions. The phrase “to bring”, according to Merriam-Webster, most likely corresponds to “to disclose or reveal”. In this sense, the new year literally delivers something new, whereas ringing in the new year simply notes the passing of a year. To me, ringing carries more of a physical presence with it – as if the year expired in terms of space and time – whereas bringing introduces something new into the old, like a gift under the tree. Honestly, I can see why both of these analogies fit so well. The passage of time is complicated. It involves space, time, culture and tradition. No matter the phrase you choose, it seems important to take a moment to note that the first minute of 2018 is very different from the last minute of 2017. Therefore, let this be a toast to the new year! Whether you are ringing, bringing or both, may you be blessed with great literature and wonderful conversation.

“The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.” - Maya Angelou

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