January 12, 2012

A Durkheimian Christmas

clip_image001By Janis Prince Inniss

As I set off to the mall a couple nights before Christmas, I was thinking about how I might apply sociological concepts to holiday rituals. My husband had just introduced my Mum to Festivus (you know, "for the rest of us") from the TV show Seinfeld. She had never seen that episode and because my husband sounded fairly convincing, she had no way of knowing that Festivus does not include washing cars, watering the garden or opening a gift - all of the things we had done earlier in the day.

We stopped for some ice-cream and then headed to the mall. I remembered a friend mentioning that her church was doing gift wrapping at the mall; with no plans to shop, it seemed like a fine time to investigate that service because I found the idea intriguing. I decided to look for their operation and spotted it close to where we parked. As my mother and husband ogled a three wheeled motor cycle, I paid close attention to the gift wrapping station.

Under three tents, side-by-side, there were several volunteers taking care of shoppers. Several people had multiple bags of already wrapped packages but the volunteers continued wrapping until every item offered was perfectly wrapped. This was no small operation: there were several paper choices (and the paper looked rather high quality), bows, boxes, and gift tags. All free!

I watched for a while and when I noticed that one volunteer was without a "customer", I walked over to learn more. Her response to my question about why they doing this was that they were "demonstrating God's love in a practical manner." My heart skipped a beat as she said that as it seemed so simple, so right, so exemplary of the Christian faith and of Christmas.

According to Emile Durkheim, religion separates the world into the sacred and the profane. In this context, the sacred refers to those things that are awe-inspiring. In contrast, the profane refers to things that are part of our everyday life and things that are in opposition to the sacred.

Think about the gift wrapping scenario I described; how would you make sense of this spirit of selfless giving if there were no religion? It would be hard to do so image because in our everyday lives, just about everything costs something and just about everything can be bought and sold somewhere, including sexual favors and even human beings. Surely, you have heard the expression that nothing in life is free. The service of gift wrapping (especially a few days before Christmas) is a valuable one, which means that it is one for which we would expect a charge. Therefore, in not charging for their work, this church was demonstrating the sacred nature of God's love. (In conversing with the volunteer I learned that the group had performed this service for five hours daily, for a week leading up to Christmas.)

The sacred inspires us to be reverential and can be found in acts such as this one, but also in objects such as wine or a imagechalice, in places such as a church and on special days and special ceremonies. Note that according to Durkheim, things are sacred not because they have an intrinsic sacred property but because of the symbolic meaning we attach to that place, object, day, or ceremony.

With regard to the gift wrapping service, there is nothing necessarily sacred about that act, but by offering a service for free, the church calls attention to what is special or sacred about religion. Interestingly, the sacred is usually seen as  sacred; that is, the sacred is not sometimes profane and vice versa: a cross has one meaning for Christians and cows have a sacred meaning to Hindus and cows (although for non-Christians and non-Hindus these symbols are not necessarily sacred). With gift wrapping, a profane or everyday activity was being used to demonstrate the sacred.

Typically, the sacred is embodied in rituals; an example that you may be familiar with is communion. Communion is a ritual in which Christians symbolically partake of the body and blood of Jesus. But such rituals tend to be shared among people with the same religious beliefs. By offering free gift wrapping on the sidewalk of a busy mall, this church was able to share the sacred in a public space. What are some examples of the sacred that you have noted this past holiday season?


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Hi Janis, can you elaborate a little more on "...how would you make sense of this spirit of selfless giving if there were no religion?"

I'm not a religious person but I do volunteer work for various charitable organizations. I don't do it because I believe a god wants me to; I do it because we're all people and I think we should help each other out.

While I don't think any act can be 100% selfless (I feel great about myself while volunteering, and your gift wrappers may feel they're securing a place in heaven) I know charity is definitely not limited to the religious.

Mmmm, how can an activity that celebrates consumption be considered sacred? Are you talking about the sacred religion of capitalism? Or perhaps that the volunteers had decided that instead of helping the homeless and hungry (for example), they would selflessly enable those who were burdended by wealth and heavily laden shopping bags. This may well be an example of charitable giving - the good feeling that comes from helping others being an end in itself - but as an example of the sacred, I'm not so sure.

Emphasis was placed on the interconnectedness of all its elements in the context of society. According to Durkheim, society was larger than its share. Durham called society's sectarian beliefs, morals, and attitudes a collective conscience. Durkheim believed that society had placed a powerful force on individuals. People's principles, beliefs, and values form a collective consciousness, or common way of understanding and behaving in the world.

I really like your blog post. You really shared an informative and interesting blog post with people. Christmas is coming and I want to buy decorations including nutcrackers which I personally love. This is the best example of stability and recycling useless things into something useful.

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