America’s greatest tradition: inventing spurious traditions

From the State of the Union address to the marine’s salute as the president leaves his helicopter, we like nothing better than creating complicated little rituals

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM


Fredericksburg, Virginia

Americans crave traditions. The older they are the more we cherish them. Thanksgiving, which beats out Christmas, was invented by Abe Lincoln in 1863 but it is an outgrowth of the timeless harvest festival celebrated by the generations of mankind that formed the earliest agricultural communities. Much harder is inventing traditions from something new. In this we are unsurpassed. Take the president’s annual State of the Union address to congress. Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s time, a clerk from the House of Representatives read it in a rapid drone and then left. But in 1917, facing entry into Europe’s first world war, President Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver the address in person. Since then the speech has always been delivered by the president himself, in keeping with tradition.

From then on it was open season on any and every tradition we could invent. A Supreme Court clerk used to hold the Bible at Inauguration; now the first lady does. The president used to wear morning coat and top hat on this day, until 1953 when Eisenhower wore a business suit. In 1961 JFK revived the morning coat and top hat; Johnson and Nixon broke with the new old tradition and wore business suits in keeping with the old new tradition.

Nobody had any doubt what Jimmy Carter would wear, so at his inauguration in 1977 he started the tradition of getting out of the limousine and walking part of the way to the White House. After that they all started getting out and walking (and holding hands with the first lady), including Reagan, who honoured both the new former tradition and the former old tradition in a modified version of morning dress: striped trousers, black suit jacket, soft shirt, and four-in-hand tie. He looked like a man in a mismatched suit.

Very soon thereafter, a plane crashed into the icy Potomac river and a man named Lenny Skutnik who had been walking across the bridge dived in and saved some passengers. The State of the Union address was coming up, so Reagan invited Skutnik to sit in the VIP gallery and introduced him as an ‘American hero’.

That did it. Since then every president has stocked the gallery with heroes of one kind or another — whole groups of them. Any president who doesn’t get his heroes up there can count on being a one-termer, if not impeached.

Reagan did the most for neo-traditions. In the 1930s FDR made regular evening radio addresses called ‘fireside chats’ that held the whole country in thrall. Reagan knew better than to interrupt primetime television, so he gave Saturday morning radio chats. Another instant tradition took root. Since then, every president goes on the radio on Saturday mornings and they always will.

The helicopter salute is Reagan’s most noticeable contribution to tradition-building, as well as the riskiest, which is why everybody watches it to see what happens. The helicopter bringing the president back to the White House from the airport lands in the back yard. A marine in dress blues stands beside the door and salutes as the president gets off and walks down the short flight of steps.

Tradition reared its head when Reagan returned the marine’s salute. I don’t think George H.W. Bush or Clinton did it every time, but George W. made the salute his own and did it religiously. Now Obama is doing it, but matter-of-factly, almost like an afterthought, so that recently he forgot that he had a Big Gulp cup in his right hand and nearly poured its contents over his own head — or worse, over the marine.

If we wanted to get a tradition out of this we already had one: military etiquette says that an officer in civilian clothes does not return a salute, but Reagan did, so no president will ever risk not doing it. The neo–tradition is ours to keep, helped along by the suspense that one day, some president will poke himself in the eye or lose his balance and break his saluting arm in the fall. Bets are being made on how long the marine will hold his salute.

We are so starved for traditions that we can find them in the unlikeliest places. To America’s neo-traditionalists, just sounding traditional is enough, like the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret. The neo-traditionalist thinks that wearing these seductive unmentionables renders her charms timeless. A traditional traditionalist knows better, which is why I shop at Boudicea’s Retreat.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady and Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye.

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Show comments
  • Mc

    The president’s marine salute is due to the Americans’ deification of anything related to the military.

    • Carter Lee

      A military that hasn’t delivered a decisive strategic success since 1945 and in that case the Red Army did all the heavy lifting.

      • Mr TaxPayer

        Gulf War 1? I was there and don’t remeber it being a ‘close run thing’.

        • Dodgy Geezer

          Gulf War 1?

          Strategic success?

          Of course you cannot blame the ‘grunts’ for the failures of the politicians, but the military DO advise the politicians strategically, and the issues of ‘what the peace will be like’ should be foremost in the minds of the best generals…

          • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

            How very rude, referring to heoes as “grunts”

  • Brimstone52

    As a former commissioned officers Reagan and Bush Snr were entitled to a salute and knew how to return it.

    None of the people elected to the job of Commander in Chief has served in uniform.

    • Heroic Hal

      You mean, they didn’t know NOT to return it. Did you catch the part about “military etiquette says that an officer in civilian clothes does not return a salute”?

      Every president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, so they are entitled to be saluted ex officio.

      • Brimstone52

        “You mean, they didn’t know NOT to return it.”

        “How” is different to “when”.

        It’s a bit late to ask, but I’d hazard a guess that Reagan forgot himself for a moment when he was saluted and returned it. If US forces didn’t have this strange idea of saluting when only partly dressed such confusion would be less likely to arise.

        • Helen of Troy

          Reagan did not ‘forget’ himself. He was a patriot and a very important American, whom none has forgotten and many of us miss.

          • mumble

            You say patriot, I say grandstanding demagogue.

            He started the ludicrous trend we see today where failure to wear a lapel flag is taken as proof of lack of patriotism. Such nonsense.

          • Helen of Troy

            grandstanding demagogue No, that would have been Ross Perot. And Obama.

    • little islander

      You don’t say. One of my favourite photos is of Bush Jnr in mitilary dress………m i l i t a r y u n i f o r m.

      • Brimstone52

        National Guard, allegedly to avoid service overseas.

        • Ed  

          Jet pilot. Not a job you get without just a bit of skill and determination.

          • Brimstone52

            It also take skill and determination to find a sinecure to avoid serving overseas.

          • Ed  

            ……. while learning to fly a jet.

          • Brimstone52

            Learning to fly an aircraft is no big deal. Millions of people have done it.

          • Ed  

            Military wings. Just a bit different. An F-102 wasn’t no Piper Cub.

          • Brimstone52

            And there are millions of people who have flown jets. But, as is so often the case, what Bush did whilst in the National Guard is irrelevant. Why didn’t he join the USAF?

          • Ed  

            I don’t know why he picked one service over another. The fact remains, and you can bluster about it all you want, becoming a military pilot (in any service) is tough, and GWB did it. Sorry if you don’t like that, but there it is.

          • Dodgy Geezer

            …The fact remains, and you can bluster about it all you want, becoming a
            military pilot (in any service) is tough, and GWB did it. …

            I don’t know anything about the detail of this episode, but I rather think that a large part of the difficulty in becoming a military pilot is passing the entrance tests. I understand that there is a lot of competition.

            And I suspect that the complaint is that Bush junior found it rather easy to pass this hurdle because of his connections…

          • Ed  

            That sounds awfully dangerous. I just don’t see a major military organization giving the keys to a powerful jet fighter to an unqualified person, even if he’s the Prince of Wales. I just don’t quite see it. Remember how Prince Edward flunked out of the Royal Marines boot camp?

          • mackinlay

            “Prince Edward flunked out”
            Sorry, but he did not flunk out, after 14 weeks training, he made the decision that he did not want to go and kill people. That took a lot of moral courage. Yours, Mackinlay

          • Ed  

            Whoops. Missed it by that much. I’ll give you an E for effort, though.

          • mackinlay

            What a stupid remark, from whom I presume is an American.

            On my youngest son’s commissioning course some five years later, some 70% signed their discharge for similar reasons, with the average over the years being 30-40% leaving the Corps.

            With Other Ranks the figure of those taking discharge from the Corps average 40-50% from each Recruit Squad.

            The realisation that you may have to kill people, is to people in a First World civilised society a extreme experience and quite rightly so they make an informed decision not to do so.

            In a society of daily deadly violence such as the USofA this is not so much a ethical decision, as we have seen in the sheer brutality and murder of innocents in Iraq and AFGHAN by the US military and their private contractors. Yours, Mackinlay

          • Ed  

            Your presumtion, among a number of other things, is off base. What a surprise.

          • Helen of Troy

            I’m waiting to hear from Dan Rather about the memo that was supposed to show Dubya up. Remember that? …. Ha ha ha ha ha!

        • Helen of Troy

          Alleged by whom? National Guard is honourable service, and needed, too. My father-in-law served in the Coast Guard. Are you going to call him a coward because he didn’t die in Korea instead?

    • Helen of Troy

      Rubbish. George W. Bush was a pilot in the National Guard.

  • Hamburger

    Most countries invent traditions. The UK is renowned for it. The coronation ceremony is a good one.

    • Yvonne & Barry Stuart-Hargreav

      Morris men, kilts ,the Eistedfodd, Christmas carols, The Boat race , the FA cup, clan tartans, pantomime, the Queens speech, Remembrance Day , Stonehenge Solstices, Chocolate Easter eggs, Fox Hunting, Grouse shooting ,Firework night, Children in Need day, Up Helyar Burns night………all made up in the last 170 years.

      • IainRMuir

        And the most popular tradition of all – sneering self-deprecation.

        • runningdog

          Hang on. How can you sneeringly self-deprecate? Is this another way of describing self-loathing?

          • Rocksy

            I hate myself for reading this stuff.

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          Sneering indeed. I am the proudest Englishman there is .I just hate to see it misrepresented by the ill informed.

      • Dodgy Geezer

        …all made up in the last 170 years….

        A little research will inform you that ‘Morris dancing’ is mentioned in the 1450s, the ‘Great Kilt’ in the 1500s, with a more modern version available in the 1720s, Eistedfods are mentioned in the 1100s (though there was a revival in the 1820s), the first known Christmas hymns may be traced to fourth century Rome, and the Boat Race is 186 years old.

        The FA cup is only 144 years old, Tartans stretch back to around 700 BC, and particular patterns were associated with Scottish areas by 1700. The pantomime was a popular form of entertainment in ancient Greece, and if by the ‘Queen’s Speech’ you mean the Christmas Broadcast, that has only been going since 1932. Remembrance Day, unsurprisingly, has only been going since 1919, while Stonehenge Solstices (though probably celebrated at various times since 8000 BC) seem to be a 1950s/1960s ‘New Age’ habit. Eggs have been associated with the ‘Easter’ spring period since antiquity, and gathered up into early Christian tradition – the first ones made out of chocolate match the rise of chocolate as a comestible, at around 1800.

        Fox Hunting with horses and hounds traces its origin to an incident in 1534, while the history of grouse shooting is the history of the ‘fowling-piece’ – guns of this type being available in the 1500s! Firework Night (Guy Fawkes Night) was mandated as an official festival by the Observance of 5th November Act 1605, seems to have been one of the biggest official festivals in the UK for hundreds of years, and involved fire and fireworks from its inception.

        I have not got the slightest idea what ‘Children in Need Day’ is, but Up Helyar (sic) probably refers to Up Helly Aa; the Shetland fire festival. This is an old winter fire festival which was actually suppressed around 1880 since the practice of ‘tar barreling’ was considered too dangerous – so you might say that the current rather sedate version dates from then. Burns Night suppers are memorials to Robert Burns, who died in 1796 which was the date of the first one.

        So, taking your assertion of traditions starting in 1845, we find that the FA Cup, the Queen’s Speech, and Remembrance Day all fall within your date. Unsurprisingly, since they could not have occurred earlier by definition. Several of these ‘traditions’ exhibited a ‘revival’ during the Victorian period, but they existed well before this date. The only ‘revival’ you might consider to be so drastic that it involved making up a new tradition is probably the Stonehenge Solstice – but I would match that against Pantomime and Guy Fawkes Day, both of which are showing a marked diminution. Britain, and Europe, of course, are still places of tradition…

        • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

          Wikipedia been busy has it? I said clan tartans, not tartan. Read R R McIans book written around 1835. No clan at Culloden wore clan tartan, that was invented for the Royal visit to Scotland by George IV. Clans were disrnguished by tokens worn in their bonnets. Also they wore plaids wrapped around the body …not kilts. Kilts as such are Greek.
          Moorish dancing has nothing to do with the modern invention that graces May day fetes and pub beer gardens.
          We had no Fireworks in 1605.Bonfire night was held on November 12th to commemerate Elizabeth I’s birthday until well into the 18th C.
          I said chocolate eggs , not eggs, for Easter.
          My point is most things we think of as tradition, if not invented from scratch are based on tenuous guesses about a fictionalised past. Remembrance day in this respect is a classic, the assumption it must be an annually recurring event comes from most other invented traditions.
          As for Uphellya , Vikings didnt even wear horned helmets until Wagner and die Waulkyrie decided they did. Still we embrace traditions very easily, Diwali in primary schools, Chinese New Year and Ramadan too.

        • Louis E.

          I THINK that “Queen’s Speech” relates to the address to a State Opening of Parliament.

        • Kennie

          Thank you.

          • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

            Thank you for what? Trying to justify invented tradition !

          • Kennie

            I wasn’t thanking you, with your pompous made-up double-barrelled name. I was thanking Dodgy Geezer for taking the effort to give us some info. and facts. You should try it instead of just trying to criticise everybody else.

          • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

            My name is not pompous It is an humorous homage to the balroom dancers in Hi-Di-Hi. When you speak of facts, you mean those you prefer to hearhear. For instance the wikipedia story about some folk hunting with dogs in Norfolk in 1534. This is not sufficient to suggest riding to Hounds in ridiculous red blazers had a 480 year vintage when next to no Hunts go back beyond 1830.
            You must try harder to understandunderstand and not accept glib superficiality at face value. Disagreement is not rude, but for the thin skinned it csn annoy.

    • cbayley

      If you believe Eric Hobsbawm, who had his own agenda.

      Some things are too simple for a one-liner, but that’s the internet isn’t it?

      • Hamburger

        I suggest that you do some research. You will find out that I am right, Hobsbawm too, if you say so. I never cared for his writing.

  • tjamesjones

    other than Thanksgiving, these barely qualify as traditions. It’s traditional in some parts of Asia to remove your shoes before entering a house, or in Germany to celebrate Christmas with a tree and mulled wine. What the president does is better described as protocol.

    • Helen of Troy

      And many Thanksgivings later, I can tell you that they bore me to death….

      • Kennie

        I thought that ‘Thanksgiving’ in the UK should be celebrated on 4th July.

  • Ed  

    Ahhh, love of tradition and ceremony. Going to show again, that America began as a British colony.

    Have you been to see the redcoats in Ottawa?

  • Ivan Ewan

    Keeping up with the Joneses, presidential style.

  • Helen of Troy

    I’ve often enjoyed Florence King — innocently! — but her Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady was an exercise in pornographic writing, or ‘er-tic’ for those that prefer the term, though frankly I don’t think there’s much difference. It’s showing what ought to be between the two undigusted by passion to those that can look from a distance and say ‘eeeeuuuuhhhhhh’.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    Ever since the 1960s we have been avidly getting rid of all of our traditions.

    If we had a bit more commercial nous, we would have sold them on to the US…

  • mumble

    All persons of taste and decency are always delighted to hear from the great Miss King, of whom we cannot have enough.

  • Abie Vee

    That’s rich coming from the UK… aka Ruritanian or The Duchy of Grand Fenwick. This is a country held together by the bullshjt of invented traditions.

  • HJ777

    The US is a relatively young country with a disparate population.

    It seems to me entirely understandable that they tend to invent new traditions that are shared by all Americans – and a good thing.

    In fact, it would be a good thing if we took better care of our traditions.