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The Value of Camp Traditions

I learn a lot from campers every year. Sometimes it’s a simple thing like a song, the latest TikTok dance move (never to be performed in public), or a new slang term. A couple of years ago it was “bussin.” (I don’t even hear it used anymore.) What I learned this past summer came as a bit of a surprise.

It happened during our first campfire, and we were singing a favorite song, “The Circle Game.” I didn’t realize what was going on, but I saw the faces of the CITs (our oldest campers, Counselors in Training), and I knew something was wrong. Actually, they were looking at the line of counselors standing in front, and if I had been one of them, I would’ve been unnerved. (You know,”if looks could kill.”) One of our new staff had worked at a different camp, and there they sang that particular song with movements making it light and funny, not at all like we sing it. The song lyrics talk about growing up and the things we leave behind. I think the CIT’s feel particularly sentimental about it. They were not happy.

I met with CITs later that evening and they let me know in no uncertain terms that they really didn’t like how some counselors were singing the song. Don’t get me wrong. We sing plenty of silly songs, but we save the sentimental ones for the final campfires. The active “Circle Game” didn’t reflect the respectful nature of those campfires. I was honored by the opportunity to listen to these young women. They were adamant that we keep our campfires just as they’d always been. To them, it was a tradition, something that came before them, and something they wanted to last long after this, their final summer as campers.

The CITs lead many of the activities that are camp traditions. They facilitate “Tap Out” (see the photo on the top of this page), and they lead singing during afternoon signup. In doing so, they see themselves as people who can uphold these traditions, but they also see that by upholding these traditions, they are also perpetuating the culture of Camp Mishawaka. The traditions are part of our identity, and when you experience/follow the traditions, you belong to something that is bigger than yourself. It’s hard to know what came first, the traditions or the culture. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, but the CIT‘s want to make sure that the traditions and culture of Camp Mishawaka are sustained. They want all the campers, and all campers to come, to belong to this culture and respect the traditions that help form it.

On the surface, it sounds like a tradition could just be “the way we do something”. But underneath, these young women taught me that the traditions were a way to uphold a culture of belonging. They allow us to return year after year to a place we belong, a place where “hearts are tuned as one”, as our closing song aspires.

-Mary Jane