Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Our sense of normality has been damaged by unemployment, chaos in the streets, being cooped up indoors, and the closures of churches, schools and so-called “non-essential” businesses. When there are all-too-real problems, it is no wonder that people have often retreated into the internet trend called “cottagecore” that depicts an idealized version of rural life. “Cottagecore” also shows the pitfalls of nostalgia and idealization.
“Cottagecore” is an idyllic version of a long-ago agricultural life. In a chaotic and stressful time, it is no wonder that trends like Frog Bread, Dalgona whipped coffee, pancake cereal and “focaccia gardens” are popular. Alison Roman, of #TheStew, was deemed the “prom queen of quarantine” with her culinary creations.
“Cottagecore” envisions a redefined Paradise and family. Like “Instagrammable” food, it embodies the ephemeral nature of computer culture. Nature is reduced to an aesthetic, a lifestyle, when it becomes something onscreen that can be “Liked.”
“Shelter-in-place” and “stay-at-home” advisories left people indoors, especially in urban areas. Stuck inside, relegated to screens, people fantasized about natural gardens of Eden. Therapist Caroline Givens, LCSW, said in a May 2020 Bustle blog post that “cottagecore” TikTok videos are soothing because they give a sense of power, control and confidence.
“Cottagecore” embodies a longing for tradition, even if it is simply a caricature. But the Church offers Tradition, which transcends the pitfalls of nostalgia and idealization.
“Cottagecore” mimics tradition without its substance. It relies on a nostalgic view of the past, with knitting, bread baking, making lavender syrup, without the rough edges. It is an idealization of rural life, without the challenges, drudgery and anxieties.
Idealization is bound to disappoint. Nostalgia for the past is a longing for a Golden Age that never really was, a purely imaginative creation. It strips the past of its ugliness and problems. Nostalgia is a form of denial.
Tradition in the Church offers a counterpoint to both picturesque nostalgia and unrealistic idealization. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the role of Tradition complements Sacred Scripture (CCC 74-100). In the early days of the Church, St. Paul wrote of the importance of Tradition, saying (2 Thessalonians 2:15), “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” As the Catechism states (CCC 83), “The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.”
Tradition does not mean a static, frozen view of the past like a museum diorama.
In the Church, Tradition is alive. As the Catechism says (CCC 83), “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium.” The Holy Spirit, poured out on the Church at Pentecost, guides the magisterium.
One can see this in the evolution of the Traditional Latin Mass, that started with Pope St. Gregory the Great. During the Council of Trent, Pope Pius V allowed only rites that were at least two centuries old. The Ambrosian rite of Milan survived, while the Braga rite of Portugal did not. Popes Clement VIII, Urban VIII, Leo XIII and St. Pius X also revised the Missal over time between 1604 and 1911. Pope Benedict XV also made changes to the Roman Missal in 1920.
Sacred Scripture cannot be treated as a standalone; Tradition enriches it. As the Catechism states (CCC 80), “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with His own ‘always, to the close of the age.’”
Another example is the Rosary, which celebrates the Assumption of Our Lady, long rooted in Church tradition. Standing on Scripture alone leads to division, since interpretations and opinions naturally differ.
Without Scripture, Tradition becomes merely “the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). Our Lord warned the Pharisees (Mark 7:12-13), “Then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on.” Jesus warned against “traditions of men” that are contrary to God’s word.
The artificial “traditions” of “cottagecore,” like many internet phenomena, are transient and manmade. While The New York Times in March 2020 extolled the trend as “a vision of domestic bliss without servitude in the binary framework”, the Church’s Tradition is (CCC 78), “living transmission.” It is about (CCC 77), “The full and living Gospel.”
Instead of nostalgia for the Edenic life of Adam and Eve, or a false nostalgia of a pair of Adams or Eves, Tradition, paired with Scripture, calls us to new life with the New Adam, Christ, and the New Eve, Mary.
In an April 2006 audience on Tradition, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said:
Tradition is the practical continuity of the Church, the holy Temple of God the Father, built on the foundation of the Apostles and held together by the cornerstone, Christ, through the life-giving action of the Spirit. ... Tradition is the permanent presence of the Savior who comes to meet us, to redeem us, and sanctify us in the Spirit, through the ministry of His Church, to the glory of the Father.
The living Tradition of the Church is built on family, beginning with the Most Holy Trinity, the prototype of all families. The Holy Family of Our Lord, Our Lady, and St. Joseph restored what Adam and Eve lost through their disobedience.
It contrasts with the artificiality of “cottagecore,” to quote a February 2020 article in VICE on the subject, “What does all this pastoral yearning mean today? Broadly speaking, it means running away from capitalism to live on a farm with your lesbian wife. Obviously.”
“Cottagecore” is the campy version of tradition, rooted in the current passions of the moment.
The appeal of “cottagecore” comes from idealization and nostalgia, as Mary Retta wrote in the April 2020 edition of the online magazine Medium, “My Perfect Impossible Cottagecore Dream.” Retta praises “cottagecore” for how it “destroys typical notions of land ownership and heteronormative family structure through its rejection of individual property or resources.” It dreams of an Eden that never really was.
In contrast, God creates the so-called “heteronormative” family (Genesis 1:26-28, 2:18-25). The “typical notion of land ownership” comes into being in Genesis, with God giving dominion of the land to man (Genesis 1:28-30, 2:15-17).
Tradition calls us to a more profound return to Eden, better than the first Paradise. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said in an April 2006 general audience, “Tradition is not the transmission of things or words, a collection of dead things. Tradition is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity.”