Canterbury Cathedral reeks of tradition. The home of the Church of England and Anglicanism, it may have a 21st-century Twitter handle, @No1Cathedral, but behind that lies more than a thousand years of history. When I was asked to become chancellor of the University of Kent, based in Canterbury, I was, I admit, daunted by the weight of tradition. One tradition, dating from the university’s founding in 1965, is for the chancellor to wear a heavy green silk and gold-braided gown created for the first person to exercise that office, Princess Marina. I was worried about how I would control the awkwardly flapping cloth and matching headgear as I processed into No1 Cathedral for the first time in front of a congregation of a thousand people to present degrees to graduating students. ‘What if the mortar board slips off?’ I said to the vice-chancellor, Dame Julia Goodfellow, ‘or if I trip on the gown and fall flat on my face?’ ‘Don’t worry,’ she assured me. ‘Anything that goes wrong in the cathedral, you just say it’s a tradition.’
She was right, of course. Traditions are inventions. Sometimes, as with the wearing of the kilt in Scotland (a part of my childhood), they fade away, although now kilt-wearing is back in favour. In other cases – for instance, eating ‘traditional’ Italian pasta with tomato sauce – traditions said to be ‘authentic’ turn out to be anything but. Tomatoes did not exist in Europe until Europeans discovered tomato plants in the Americas after 1492. Pasta came to Italy from noodles, discovered in China. Tastes and traditions change.
In his highly entertaining Inventing American Tradition, the anthropologist Jack David Eller illuminates with gentle wit and scepticism the many myths, legends and traditions that have grown up in the United States. Beginning with Jean Cocteau’s observation that ‘legends are lies which become history in the end’, Eller