Linda Neale's Blog

What's the difference between customs, traditions, rituals, and ceremonies?

Linda Neale - Monday, August 15, 2011

Joe Paul emailed me the other day, asking what the difference is between customs, traditions, rituals, and ceremonies.  It's a good question. We tend to confuse these various terms and sometimes use them interchangeably.  Basically, there's a lot of similarity between traditions and customs. The difference has to do with how long they've persisted.  Customs are probably the most common and short-lived practice. One of the origins of the term "custom" has to do with "habit". So, you can think of custom as any frequent or common repetition of a social convention. For example, I have a custom of singing a certain song almost every morning as I begin my day (some of you have heard that song).


Customs become traditions when they are passed on to succeeding generations. The word "tradition" comes from "traditus", which means "to deliver", so a tradition is a custom that is delivered and accepted by subsequent generations. My custom of singing my song hasn't been passed on to my daughter, so I don't think I could call it a tradition (yet).

The words "ritual" and "ceremony" go a little deeper, and are sometimes used interchangeably, even by anthropologists. However, if you look at the origin of the words, there is a significant difference between them. The word "ritual" is related to rites (a formal solemn act observance, or procedure in accordance with prescribed rule or custom).

The word "ceremony" comes from from "caeremonia" which means "sacredness". Unlike ritual, ceremony includes the sacred -- it's a total experience, involving our bodies, minds, emotions, and our spirits. Intention is also very important in ceremony, just as it is in business. When intention is lost—which can sometimes happen— the ceremony can feel empty and becomes a “meaningless ritual.” I'm sure we've all felt that in various events that we've attended.

The primary events we call ceremonies today in the United States and western Europe include graduations, weddings, inaugurations, and funerals. They usually last no more than a few hours, and are functions that many attend out of social obligation. Particular relig­ious traditions may have ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs or confirmations that can be very meaningful and do have a spiritual fo­cus. However, most of the so-called ceremonies in today’s modern cul­ture have no spiritual intention whatsoever. For example, a couple can be married by a justice of the peace at a wedding whose primary pur­pose is legal, not spiritual. Graduations from all public and most pri­vate high schools and colleges are usually devoid of spirituality of any kind because of our government’s emphasis on the separation of church and state. And funerals, the most likely of our ceremonies to have religious or spiritual overtones, are often used as ministerial platforms for conversion speeches. Although we still call them “wed­ding ceremonies” or “graduation ceremonies,” children raised in mod­ern culture can grow up and live their lives never having experienced a real ceremony.

Native American ceremonies always have a spiritual focus and a specific intention -- not a religious focus, a SPIRITUAL focus. However, tradition is different than ceremony.  It's not always clear where a particular tradition originates, or why.  Some people think their way is the "most correct", or the "most traditional".  

Here's one of my favorite stories about a ritual/tradition/custom. It's called "The Easter Ham".

"As a little girl watches her mom prepare the Easter ham, she wonders why her mother cuts off both ends of the ham before putting it in the pot. So, she asks why, and her mom realizes that she doesn't know. That's the way her mother prepared the Easter ham.

So they call grandmother and pose the question about cutting off the ends of the Easter ham. Grandmother admits to not knowing either. She just prepared the ham the way her mom did it.

Their next call is to great-grandmother. When they ask her about her method of preparing the Easter ham, she laughs. Then she says, "It was the only way I could get the Easter ham to fit the small pot I had!"

I welcome your comments.

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