Sunday , 17 November 2019
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How do you create a living tradition?

by Wendy Royston & Heidi Marttila-Losure

When the celebration of a history or heritage is done well, it takes on a life of its own.

“If you can find a way to really integrate those celebrations and festivals into your communities, and bring that there, you’re going to attract people from the outside,” said Brenna Gerhardt, executive director of the North Dakota Humanities Council. “That brings more ideas, that brings more excitement, that makes your community alive, and it makes it interesting, and it sparks a curiosity.” And the same ethnicity can be celebrated effectively and flourish in more than one community, “because one town does German Days one way, and the way another town does German Days is going to be different, because it’s a big country, and there are a lot of things happening there and a lot of traditions.”

Here are some suggestions for keeping a community’s history alive and vibrant.

  1. Bring the culture to life more than once a year. Many communities are good at putting on a great festival for a weekend in the summer. But that often limits the cultural learning—what happens in that culture over winter holidays, for example? Celebrations at different times of year may not have the crowds of summer gatherings, but they have the advantage of creating a more intimate experience for locals, which can foster a deeper understanding that can make summer festivals more successful.
  2. Consider art and architecture. The town center of Leavenworth, Wash., is modeled after a Bavarian village and draws thousands of tourists each year (and interestingly, the town had no Bavarian history until a small group of women decided to start celebrating that culture). The ambiance of a place can share a certain culture even when no event is going on—and cultural architecture becomes a valuable asset when a festival is happening. If designing whole buildings isn’t in the cards now, consider smaller touches, like a maypole or ethnic art.
  3. Engage the old. Knowledge of a community’s culture resides in their memories; talking to them can enrich cultural sharing for everyone. Celebrating that culture can also become a way of honoring those elders and what they still contribute to the community.
  4. Engage the young. “Once kids see their parents and their families engaged in those things, they realize it’s important and (they) should be interested in it,” Gerhardt said. The more young people know about their heritage, the more they realize it’s a part of who they are, not just an entertainment opportunity at a festival each year. Younger generations should be invited to not just attend, but also to plan events—and their ideas should be embraced. Invite young people to take leadership roles, rather than making them earn their rank.
  5. Engage everyone. “Make sure that the vision doesn’t belong to one person—that the vision is shared by the community, and that all members are invited to participate in whatever manner they wish,” Gerhardt said.
  6. Keep teaching. When surrounded by a different culture, languages and cuisines need a focused effort to be kept alive. Consider offering classes in cultural skills to community members.
  7. Keep learning. Now, more than ever, Gerhardt said, the opportunity exists to actively engage in cultural exploration. “We live in an era when you can travel broadly,” she said. “That living tradition that we’re still connected to this other country that you can still visit … brings it back into the present.”
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