What kind of society would ritually mix together a white powdery starch made of grains, with a crystal sweetener, churned milk, and ovoid shaped female cells laid by birds, infuse the mixture with a carbon dioxide releasing chemical and then cook the resulting mixture? Why would they do this? And why would they stick a lighted wax pole into this concoction?
For the last several days, we have been celebrating my mother’s milestone birthday. Reaching 80 and looking as she does and feeling as she reports would be considered a wonderful achievement for many, but given my mother’s recent illness and hospitalizations (which I wrote about here and here), this birthday feels particularly triumphant. The last year has seen Mum’s health steadily improve without one step backwards. And for most of that year she has been able to resume the life she had before illness – walking several times a week, living independently, and seeming to have more energy than I do.
So in collaboration with my siblings, I was delighted to get into a planning frenzy for an event to include fifty of her closest friends and some of our family. Since Mum loves the colors black and white, the color scheme was easy to decide on. The white plates adorned with pastel colored roses I found completed the color palette I would use: black and white with pink, yellow, and purple flowers.
After planning the event, buying the goods, and cooking most of the food, I was exhausted by the evening of the party. Afraid that in my exhaustion I would forget some important aspect of the evening’s proceedings, I asked a visiting relative to take over. What’s the big deal? After spending so much time and energy planning this party, I didn’t want to forget something like – say the birthday cake – or the order of some of the formalities. Why? Because just about everybody has been to a birthday party (notable exceptions would be someone raised and living as a Jehovah’s Witness) and we all know the rituals associated with birthday parties.
Ever think about the rituals we engage in when we celebrate birthdays? There is the cake. (Did you recognize the ingredients and yourself above? Flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and baking powder. All baked, and then just at the right moment, we add candles and light them.) The birthday person must blow the candles out while making a secret wish.
Weddings, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays are filled with rituals as well. Some are widely known and others are particular to our families. Notice that advertisers are keenly aware of the role of rituals in our lives and that many commercials are created to highlight the commercial aspect of various ritualistic times; Christmas is an extreme example with the gift-giving aspect heralded by advertisements of anything from cars to the year’s must have toy. As I mentioned in this post, it is the gift giving ritual of Christmas that gives some retailers as much of three-quarters of their annual profit.
Rituals reflect our social context and as such may highlight issues such as gender inequality. Weddings include many rituals for us to examine gender. Have you ever thought about some of those as you attended a wedding? Who is “given away” at a Christian or American secular wedding? Usually, a father—or other close male relative or friend—“gives” the bride to the groom as was done with arranged marriages in a transfer of property. This wedding ritual may be the one most changed in the last 30 or 40 years as couples deem it too patriarchal and come up with innovative changes such as having both parents walk the couple down the aisle (and in the Jewish tradition, it has always been customary for both parents to walk both the bride or groom down the isle). At our wedding, my groom and I walked down the aisle together. Others have infused this part of the wedding ceremony with fancy dance moves as seen on The Office.
Indeed, rituals change as we do. The traditional “first dance” of newlyweds at their weddings has been very staid and to a classic love song. Recently, many couples have been opting for a choreographed number to pop music such as seen in this video:
Why do we engage in rituals? In his book, Understanding Family Process: Basics of Family Systems Theory, one of my favorite sociology professors, the late Carlfred Broderick, describes rituals as mechanisms that all societies use to ensure that families share enough common ground. Rituals refer to ways that family members share values, celebrate their common identity, and regulate behavior; they have circular dynamics: the values that lead families to take part in a ceremony are reinforced by their participation in it. Rituals also help us mark transitions: married instead of single, and coming of age, for example. Less happy transitions are also marked by ritual—funerals are filled with many rituals and some people now have divorce parties/showers to mark their new status.
As you participate in and observe rituals think about what they mean and how various symbols are used to express those meanings.