The changing nature of ritual

Alina Tugend has a must-read essay in yesterday’s New York Times that discusses the importance of ritual in our lives and the difficulty of balancing tradition with consumerism. She begins by noting the changing nature of even our most cherished traditions:

But while most of us think of rituals as time-honored, they are constantly changing.

Professor Pleck, author of “Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture and Family Rituals,” (Harvard University Press, 2000), noted that even a tradition that seems as standardized as a Thanksgiving dinner really isn’t.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, celebrations often consisted primarily of shooting off guns and athletic competitions. I don’t know about your family, but our Thanksgiving tradition does not involve firearms.

In the 1700s, “there may or may not have been an important family feast,” Professor Pleck said. “Until the 19th century, it certainly did not have the element of homecoming that we have now” — that is, of families coming together for a holiday meal.

In fact, in the 19th-century South, she said, Thanksgiving became associated with New England and abolitionism, and many Southerners chose not to celebrate it.

. . .

And while many of us bemoan the loss of the old-fashioned Christmas, that may be more myth than reality. Until the 1820s, said Stephen Nissenbaum, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, Christmas “took the form of relations between classes rather than between generations.” The rich, he said, “were obliged to give to the poor rather than take from them. It involved the entire community rather than an insular family.”

. . .

But after one particularly raucous Christmas season street parade in 1827 — which helped lead to the creation of a professionalized New York City police force — and with the increased geographical divide between rich and poor, Christmas became a much more family-oriented affair behind closed doors, said Professor Nissenbaum. He is the author of “The Battle for Christmas” (Knopf, 1996).

Read it all here.

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