409. "Flirting and Flag-Waving: the Revealing Study of Holidays and Rituals." Chronicle of Higher Education (December 11, 2002) p. 16B.


My colleagues in the social sciences may wish to bring along their laptops, or at least their notebooks, as they join family and friends during the winter holiday season. The ways in which holidays and rituals like weddings and funerals, confirmations and birthdays, are celebrated reveal volumes about cultures and how they change.

The merit of using holidays and rituals as a research tool was driven home to me recently when I traveled to Iran as a guest of a group of reformers. I had long been deeply impressed by the religious fervor of hundreds of thousands of Iranians whom newsreels in the 1980s showed marching in the streets, flagellating themselves with heavy-duty, Hydra-headed whips, drawing blood to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 683 CE. When I found myself in Shiraz on the memorial day Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day after the martyr's death, I heard that self-flagellations were about to take place down the road, and I rushed there with my camera and notebook. What I found was a well-stylized dance. Young men were eagerly stepping in a circle to the tune of pleasant, if repetitive, music, gently waving slight whips, with which they symbolically touched their well-covered backsides. They did not even work up a sweat, much less draw blood.

It was my eighth day in Iran. The gentle self-flagellation reminded me that I had heard fewer calls to prayer in Tehran than in any other Muslim city I had visited. During set prayer times, several of the mosques were nearly empty, and some were being converted for other uses. Indeed, one of the mosques in Tehran is now used as a political party's election headquarters. My Iranian colleagues explained, and the rituals demonstrated, that the overwhelming majority of young Iranians (two-thirds of the population is under age 30) neither fast during Ramadan nor pray at the five daily required times. It might not be practical to collect mosque-attendance statistics or conduct public-opinion polls, but there is strong evidence that the power of religion over the people of Iran seems to be attenuating.

The reason that holidays and rituals are so revealing is that they have a very special place in the architecture of society. To put it succinctly, many sociologists hold that newborns are little savages who become socialized by being introduced to the values of their society. However, those values need constant reinforcement as our daily routines distance us from them. Holidays and rituals are the occasions on which our commitment to the values is shored up. Weekends, including, perhaps, religious services, are times set apart from our weekly business. Holidays, a tier removed from the whole weekly routine, serve as supra-weekends.

Looking at holidays that way leads one to ask which values a given society, in a given historical period, seeks to reinforce. Thus, if we could find out to what extent Christmas, in a given culture, is centered on the love of God for his children, on relationships (especially family ones), or on giving gifts and sending cards, that information would cast light on the culture's values. It is common to observe that Christmas and other holidays have become excessively commercial, but as far as I can find out, nobody has shown that people's values have changed along with their retail spending.

The same types of question might be asked about any other holiday. Is the Fourth of July a day of patriotism, or just another day at the beach? Is Memorial Day dedicated to remembering those we lost and what they stood for, or just an excuse for a long weekend? Comparing the findings of his 1976-79 study of Muncie, Ind., to data from 1890 and 1929, the renowned University of Virginia sociologist Theodore Caplow found that, over the past few generations, the focus of holidays has shifted away from rituals emphasizing civic loyalty, and toward family-centered celebrations. There have been few similar studies, however, beyond a scattering of dissertations on very select aspects of Memorial Day celebrations.

Tell an experienced researcher what is being celebrated and how, and that observer will be able to derive some insight into the values a society seeks to uphold. You might object that while people sometimes say a given holiday exists to honor this or that value, their behavior belies what they tell you. Well, that, too, of course, is helpful information. If one concludes that they are merely paying lip service to values they no longer cherish, then it's natural to seek to find out when that happened, why, whether some new ritual has come to take the place of the waning one, whether it is deteriorating for overtly political reasons or more-mundane ones, and so on.

In highly homogeneous societies, most people celebrate holidays in more or less the same way. In such societies, holidays and rituals often serve to assimilate people from different subcultures into the values of the prevailing culture. But other holidays may serve to mark the rise of pluralism and even opposing values.

Kwanzaa, for instance, was originally a protest holiday of sorts, invented in 1966, in the wake of the Watts riots, by the black nationalist Maulana Karenga, a professor of sociology at California State University at Long Beach. He devised it to be an alternative to Christmas for African-Americans. He wanted to shield celebrants from what he saw as Christmas's dominant white values -- its European roots and traditions, its contemporary focus on shopping and gift giving -- and to help them reconnect with their African ancestry. An attempt to "reaffirm African culture" (in Karenga's words), Kwanzaa melds the traditions of several African harvest festivals with new rituals meant to embody unity, self-determination, struggle, and other values.

However, over time, Kwanzaa has become more mainstream, commercialized by greeting-card companies and gift giving, and celebrated in addition to (rather than instead of) Christmas. If a team of researchers looked deeper, who knows what ambivalence and variants they'd find?

A study of May Day celebrations will reveal a lot about the status of a nation's workers. Do they march to promote their own values in opposition to the dominant culture, to seek a fair share in that culture, or to mark the day as sort of a nostalgic historical homage to workers' movements? Social-democratic Europe always took May Day more seriously than did the United States, but less seriously than the Soviet Union. What will May Day look like in the budding, quirky, capitalistic greenhouse of Russia and its formerly or partially socialist neighbors? How will it play out in the Americas as new, wider trade pacts are proposed, and information-age technologies threaten to displace worker hours?

What values can we find in celebrations of Halloween, Oktoberfest, Purim, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras? Some scholars view them as occasions on which people suspend the norms of behavior and blow off steam. After that release, established theories suggest, we're able to return to the grind a little refreshed. Many of those holidays involve costumes, so revelers can briefly step outside their identities: A gay man can be a nun; a Jew can be a Persian king.

However, I am unaware of any data showing that after those events, people actually return to work with new vigor. It wouldn't surprise me if research determined, in fact, that violating workaday norms during those holidays serves to increase tension at work and at home rather than vent it. Bosses, on January 2, are more likely to feel disgusted by employees who drunkenly teased them on New Year's Eve than to feel a human bond with them. Spouses who flirted -- much less those who, in their merriment, were unfaithful -- are unlikely to be soon forgiven. Here is fertile ground for studies in social psychology and its sister sciences.

If one compares holidays and rituals characterized by "tension management," to borrow a phrase from Talcott Parsons, with those that reinforce values, one gains an important tool for determining whether a given culture is holding firm or unraveling. It is also informative to see which type of holiday is more common in a society.

In Israel's pioneering days, when the commitment to hard work and the common good was paramount, as well as in earlier, more-religious periods in the Diaspora, value-reinforcement holidays were much celebrated, while the tension-management ones were given short shrift. Fifty years ago, Passover, with its heavy educational agenda, was emphasized, and Purim, which features a fair amount of drinking, costumes, role playing, and games, was played down. In contemporary Israel, it seems to me, Passover is still a major holiday, but not as central as it used to be, and Purim has moved up at least a notch or two. Scholars studying the changing importance of any two holidays could probably learn much about the condition of the society they are examining.

Holidays and rituals are so revealing that it is hard to imagine an aspect of society that they don't illuminate. Say you want to find out whether a given culture is moving away from tradition, seeking to restore it, or attempting to find some kind of synthesis between the more-distant past and the period since the 1960s counterculture. A study of weddings would be a mighty good place to start. Weddings are the subject of a few dissertations and articles in narrow journals, and some literature explores the wedding industry as a business, but we don't have nearly enough in-depth research on the subject.

If I had to guess, synthesis is winning out. Fewer weddings are tradition-free; there's less Mozart next to a brook followed by vows composed by the couple. But at the same time, few weddings strictly follow the traditional seven bridesmaids, seven grooms. Couples are combining old forms with personal twists -- weddings held in a church but with vows composed partially by the couple, or Jewish weddings of couples who commission the traditional ketubah (marriage contract), but adjust the document with personalized words, symbols, and artwork. If we could establish that these are, indeed, trends, what would we make of them?

An enormous amount of data shows that intermarriage is becoming more common. About 45 percent of third-generation Asian-Americans and Latin Americans intermarry, and the rate is on the increase, though more slowly, for African-Americans, too. A 1997 study showed that in 1990, 84 percent of married African-Americans over age 65 were married to other African-Americans, while only 53 percent of those under age 25 were married to other African-Americans. But such information comes from census studies and public-opinion surveys. Dig deeper, as only academics have the inclination and competence to do, and we can explore whether intermarriage reflects, or spurs, shifts in the couples' thinking about other matters, too.

Other occasions as well can illuminate the changing relations between men and women. On one hand, you will find some indications that gender inequality is decreasing. For instance, some bachelorette parties have become bawdy enough to make men blush, while some bachelor parties have became tamer. On the other hand, holidays seem to be what sociologists call a lagging sector, one that changes after others have been recast. Thus, even in relatively liberated families -- in which the husbands do a fair share of the household duties, including cooking and cleaning during ordinary days -- men watch football on Thanksgiving while their wives slave in the kitchen, or at least fuss at the takeout counter.

As a communitarian, I am particularly interested in what is happening in public spaces, because it is there that communities are created and reinforced. The more people withdraw into their homes and cars -- say, because of fear of crime or terrorists -- the harder it is to nurture a sense of community.

The Fourth of July used to be a communal event. As the social historian Diana Karter Appelbaum shows, during the late 18th century the holiday parade would end in a church, where the members of the community would have dinner together. By the 1970s and '80s, there seems to have been considerable movement toward celebrating the Fourth as a picnic in one's backyard or in a space reserved for a group in a park.

However, it appears that after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Fourth has again become a rather public and community-building holiday. Shanksville, Pa., the site of the crash of United Flight 93, held its first-ever formal Independence Day celebration, which drew visitors from around the country. Shanksville has become a shrine to American heroism, and its Fourth of July observances emphasized its role in the national tragedy.

Generations ago, holidays and rituals intrigued some of the social-science giants, like Émile Durkheim. More recently, a number of anthropologists have studied rituals and holidays in far-off societies. And a few scholars have turned their skills to American rituals. Elihu Katz, of the University of Pennsylvania, has looked at such practices as reflected in media culture; John Bodnar, of Indiana University at Bloomington, at commemoration and patriotism; Leigh Eric Schmidt, of Princeton University, at holidays and consumer culture; and Penne Restad, of the University of Texas at Austin, at Americans' celebration of Christmas.

Young social scientists choosing their areas of specialization should think seriously about joining in this rich vein of inquiry. Rituals, like streetlights, lull us with their repetition and regularity. But the sometimes subtle shifts in light change both our world and how we see it.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor at George Washington University. His recent books include The Monochrome Society (Princeton University Press, 2001). He is organizing a conference on "The Ways We Celebrate," to take place at the university in April.

 

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