The terms "custom" and "tradition" are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. The root cause for this common misunderstanding lies in the broad definitions of these closely related words. Listing Merriam-Webster's definitions for each word side by side can shed some light on these differences.
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According to Merriam-Webster, a custom is a practice common to many or to a particular place or class. Based on that definition, one example would be for motorcyclists to wave when they pass each other on the road. Even more common is the custom of shaking hands upon meeting someone for the first time or in a formal setting.
Merriam-Webster defines tradition as an inherited, established or customary pattern of thought, action or behaviour, such as a religious practice or a social custom. Traditions are representative of a person's culture. A tradition may be widely practised and is usually passed down through generations. For example, the practice of having alters in family homes is a widespread Japanese Buddhist tradition. Or a tradition may be passed down through a family -- the reading of a specific story, such as Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit," at a child's bedtime.
The Bottom Line
A clear-cut, objective definition of "custom" is elusive. Tradition is easier to define and to identify. "Custom" and "tradition' are not interchangeable, but they are mutually influential.
A number of books explore the customs and traditions of specific societies and can give you further insight into the differences between the two. A few titles to check out are: "101 American Customs" by Harry Collis and Joe Kohl; "Catholic Customs and Traditions: A Popular Guide" by Greg Dues; "Wish: Wishing Traditions Around the World" by Roseanne Thong and Elisa Kleven and "Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol 2" by Wm de Bary and Wm. Theodore de Bary.
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