Traditions Change Over Time

Can you think of any ethnic traditions in your family? Perhaps you can't think of any right now. If you can't, you're not alone. Traditions do not remain the same. They very often change.

Why would traditions change? How do they change? Who changes them? To answer these questions you can look at your own neighborhood, and talk to your family and friends.

New Homes

When immigrants came to the United States (and Iowa) they often tried to settle with people from their own country. Some towns in Iowa were settled by ethnic groups like Pella, settled by Dutch immigrants; Elk Horn, settled by Danish people, and Schleswig settled by Germans. Living together helped them to continue their traditions from the old country. In Davenport, a German family could read Der Demokrat, a German-language newspaper, and belong to the Turnverein Society, a social club. An Irish couple might attend St. Mary's Catholic Church. In Des Moines Italian children might eat bread purchased from an Italian bakery.

However, as they became more familiar with their new homes, they began to assimilate (take part in or absorb) into the larger community. Immigrants no longer belonged to ethnic organizations. A family might have shopped at a larger grocer more often than at the nearby bakery. Churches served people from many ethnic groups instead of just one. People ate at restaurants or with friends instead of eating traditional food at home.

Spring Rolls for Dinner

Most Iowans are exposed to traditions from other ethnic groups. What ethnic restaurants have you eaten at? What ethnic holidays or celebrations do you take part in? This influence reflects the diverse cultures in Iowa. These traditions can be borrowed, and therefore often become part of our own family traditions. Do you decorate a Christmas tree? This idea comes from Germany. Do you like to eat egg or spring rolls for dinner? This tradition comes from China.

Changing to Fit In

Sometimes traditions change because they are difficult to maintain in a new country or as the new society changes. Recipes are adapted because some ingredients are not available. A German grandmother may have made her own saurkraut, but today it takes too much time to make it from scratch. It is much easier to buy it at a grocery store. Ethnic clothing is put away. "American" clothing is worn so people can feel like they "fit in" with the crowd.

People may also lose interest in their ethnic background. A German child in Davenport did not like to eat plum dumplings, a traditional recipe. So she does not make these for her own children. Some people do not feel that their ethnic roots have importance in their lives so they don’t continue ethnic traditions.

Finally, some people wished to begin their new lives in the United States by leaving behind old traditions. What is your last name? Is it the same name that your ancestors brought from their country? Changing names is one way people leave behind tradition. Koch might be changed to Cook. Smith might have been Schmidt. First names are also changed. A father might be named Josef, but the son could be named Joseph.

Discover Old Traditions

Take some time to investigate your own changing family traditions. Talk to older family members to learn about traditions that the family no longer celebrates. Why were they stopped? What new traditions took the place of old ones? You may even find some traditions that you wish to start again!


  • Elise Dawson, “Changes Over Time,” The Goldfinch 12, no. 4 (April 1991): 10-12.