What’s the Difference Between a Ritual and a Tradition?

Vampire family portrait (illustration)

Today marks my stepson’s final exam of his high school career. This morning, he announced his plans to treat himself to a particular type of hamburger at a particular fast food restaurant near his school once his exam was over. He explained that this was his tradition—he always goes for this burger after he finishes writing his exams.

Word nerd that I am, something about his use of tradition niggled at me. Long after he’d left for school, I found myself wondering if what he was describing was a ritual rather than a tradition. Of course, I had to look it up. So I thought I would share what I found out with all of you.


The word ritual, used as a noun, first appeared in English sometime in the 1640s. It came from the adjective of the same spelling, which, in turn, came from the Latin word ritualis, used to described things pertaining to religious rites.

Ritual can refer to a religious or solemn ceremony involving of a series of actions performed in a prescribed order. It can also refer to a series of actions or behaviours habitually and consistently followed by someone.

  • Sally’s pre-vampire hunting ritual involved eating three cloves of garlic, polishing her stakes, and spritzing herself with holy water while listening to Professor van Helsing’s audiobook.


The word tradition appeared in English in the late 1300s. It came from the Old French word tradicion, which referred to a presentation or a handing over. Tradicion, in turn, came from the Latin word traditionem, which referred to a surrender, a handing down, or a giving up. It was formed by adding the word dare, meaning to give, to the stem trans-, meaning over.

Tradition can refer to the passing down of customs or beliefs from generation to generation. It can also refer to the custom or belief that has been passed down. And it can sometimes refer to an artistic or literary style, established by a particular artist or writer, which is then followed by others.

  • No matter how hungry they were, before eating a human, the Dracula family joined hands and said words of thanks to the Dark Lord, as had been the tradition for hundreds of years.

So, let’s go back to the case of my stepson and his hamburger. If students at his school have been going to the same restaurant and ordering the same hamburger for several years, it could be considered a tradition. But, if it is something that he does on his own every semester, once his exams are finished, then it’s a ritual.


Etymological information and definitions come from a combination of the Oxford Dictionary of Etymological English, the Oxford Dictionaries Online, and the Online Etymology Dictionary.


Image credit: MabaProduct @ deviantART


22 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Ritual and a Tradition?

  1. I loved reading the stories behind each word.
    A lovely ritual indeed. (Happy Graduation to your step son and hoping that the burger was delicious.)

  2. I like how you dug in and researched the words. They eye-rolling that would follow, should you decide to advise him of his word error, might be a tradition… I think kids have been doing that to parents for generations 🙂

    1. He’s actually pretty good about hearing that stuff – in fact, he won the writing award at his graduation ceremony yesterday! However, I’m sure eye-rolling is a long tradition among teenagers around the world. 😀

  3. I hadn’t thought to compare those two words before, but your explanation makes so much sense. Also, I hope Sally waits to stake the vampires till after they finish their prayer. Interrupting would be rude. 🙂

    1. It would be very rude. I’m sure Sally will respect their family tradition. Also, I’m glad my OCD about language has benefits for other people! 😉

    1. No, he’s going into Film Production – he wants to make movies. But he seems to appreciate my advice. Most of the time. 🙂

      Not yet – but it’s on my list for the summer, once I finish season 2 of Hannibal.

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