Democracy of the Dead - Snow Traditions

Winter is over and it's time to pack away the shovels, down jackets, insulated boots and mittens until next year. The changing seasons teach different lessons and, this winter, I was reminded of a great truth about life. It goes something like this: There is a right way and a wrong way to shovel snow.

Perhaps you saw the headlines about the massive storms that hit the nation's capital, this past winter. Right after everyone calmed down from the Y2K scare, we were reminded that there are other ways to bring an entire region to a screeching halt.

Or, perhaps you had to dig your way out of record-breaking drifts in some other corner of the country, this year. Or perhaps you live someplace where it's normal to see several feet of snow. Perhaps you're a pro.

I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, which is hardly a great place to learn how to handle snow. We were masters of mosquito control.

But, after college, I found myself in the frozen Midwest, where shoveling snow is an art -- right up there with boiling corn and planning tailgate parties. The snow started about Thanksgiving and, before long, I realized that it wasn't going away on its own.

Several weeks, and several backaches later, I started watching the local talent. This is when it hit me: I was not the first person in the history of the world to shovel snow. I didn't have to reinvent the wheel. There I was, a youngster, slumping to the side of the path in exhaustion while gray- haired neighbors soldiered on.

What did they know that I didn't know? Well, yes, there were different kinds of shovels and different kinds of techniques and some folks were more doctrinaire than others. But there were common themes, such as bending your knees, not getting the shovel TOO full and never flinging the snow into the wind. There was a right way and wrong way to face this challenge and, I decided, only a fool would go it alone.

Eventually, I humbled myself and started asking questions. The elders took me in, showed me the ropes and handed down what they had learned -- a kind of oral snow-shoveling Tradition.

Now, I realize that Tradition is not a word that gets a lot of attention, in the age of the mall, cable television and laptops. But I'm convinced there are whole areas of life in which the past has as much, or more, to teach as does the World Wide Web. For starters, there's marriage and parenting, temptation and ambition, greed and grace, fear and forgiveness, life and death, heaven and hell.

St. Paul knew this and passed on what he had learned. Already, the early Christians were gathering the lessons of the past and applying them to the present. "Therefore, brethren," he told the Thessalonians, "stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle."

The witty Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton put it this way: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

This is what I learned, once again, this past winter as I faced the aftermath of a blizzard with my young son. Shovels in hand, we hit the sidewalk.

"Look at me, Dad! This is how I shovel snow," he shouted.

I watched while I worked. He was determined to do it his way and, as a result, he was soon worn out. He kept getting his little shovel too full of the thick, wet snow. He started a snow wall in the wrong place and, sure enough, it fell over and he had to do that work all over again. One shovel full of snow blew right in his face.

"Hey," I told him, "let me show you what somebody showed me a long time ago."