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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pulling the plug on tradition

It's all on the auction block: including 59 animated figurines meticulously dressed in 19th century winter garb. These melancholic mechanical actors saw it coming years ago, and today they are officially orphans up for sale to the highest bidder. Most likely these souls will be separated from one another - fabricated brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents - and scattered across the land, or in some cases, landfills.

It all began sometime in the 1940s, when the Jordan Marsh Department Store on Summer Street in Boston began a window display to drum up seasonal business. Over the years, droves of families made the trip annually downtown to see the display which relayed an idealized version of history about Xmas in America. It was an age-old Boston tradition, as were the yummy cakes sold at the Jordan Marsh Bakery (their Boston cream pie was to die for).

Times changed. Jordan Marsh decided to close the exhibit in 1972. The holiday display was brought back by popular demand in 1990 (I remember seeing it then). Following a corporate takeover, Macy's replaced Jordan Marsh in 1998 and axed it.

Enter Mayor Menino to save the day... The refugees of The Enchanted Village were relocated to a tent city on the grounds of City Hall. At first the public came, but it wasn't the quite the same. The enthusiastic crowds soon dwindled to a mere trickle, and the large diorama ultimately had to be warehoused in moth balls.

The display had not modernized, or changed with the times. It was the same every year and grew dusty, decrepit, and old. Children, staring at the creepy looking mechanical mannequins, began to question their parents and grandparents,"why are you bringing me here?" It was a question they ignored, and could not answer for themselves.

Tradition will only remain a tradition in the long-run if younger generations adapt it as their own. They need to take ownership. What we call tradition needs to innovate, evolve, and change if it is to survive the technological onslaught of mass-media and easy-access to information. The "content" of the Enchanted Village was not sustainable, in part because it was not relevant or politically correct. The whole concept did not evolve, and was about two centuries behind the times.

Of course I always view news items about societal change in the context of musical culture. Could it be that another long-standing local tradition - The Boston Symphony Orchestra - will be the next Enchanted Village? If General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and the newspapers are failing, are symphony orchestras not far behind? From what I can gather, these organizations are all under significant financial duress.

As long as tradition and culture are linked to the hard cash of economic viability, there will always be a risk that someday the bottom will fall out. Nothing is permanent, indispensable, or stays the same indefinitely. We can't assume that things will remain unchanged over the large arch of cultural evolution, even if it firmly establishes itself for a generation or two.

The instigators of cultural change are many. The dynamics include technological innovation, demographic shifts, the requisite of economic viability, and an incessant need for change itself.

Given the persistence and magnitude of these irreversible trends, there will be many traditions and cultural organizations forced to the brink of obsolescence or beyond. They must respond, adapt, and innovate quickly before it's too late.

Traditions survive because of public commitment, continued interest, and a willful infusion of discretionary funds from the household budget. The public is the driving force, and in effect votes for the traditions they want to keep. Mayor Thomas Menino can't save us.

But it's OK to be sentimental about the past, even though there is general consensus that the time has come to pull the plug on The Enchanted Village. Let's not loose sight of where we have come form, where we are going, and which traditions are worth preserving. I'd hate to see it all sold off the the highest bidder or end up in the landfill.