January 17, 2013

Thinking Sociologically About Holidays

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Did you or anyone you know find this last holiday season stressful? Sociology can help us understand some of the reasons why holiday celebrations might be difficult—and why people keep doing things the same way each year nonetheless.

As you begin to get back in your non-holiday routine, now is a great time to use our sociological imaginations to think about the many sociological concepts that help us understand end-of-the year routines.

1.       Rituals

Sociologist Emile Durkheim saw rituals as a form of social glue, holding societies together. Shared experiences, like religious and secular celebrations may help create a feeling of commonality. As sociologist Diana Kendall discusses in her book Framing Class, during the holidays media coverage tends to highlight giving to the less fortunate more than other times of year. She found that news stories tend to be more sympathetic and less critical of the poor, highlighting their humanity and stressing our common bonds.

Whether the rituals are gift giving, religious worship, or other cultural practices, they serve to unite us with the people we celebrate them with. Wishing strangers “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy New Year,” extends these bonds beyond our immediate social group.

Asking acquaintances “did you get all your shopping done yet?” is another way of sharing in the ritual. When people ask me this question, it often sounds like shopping and decorating are chores to get through rather than something they enjoy. I once asked someone who had been complaining why she didn’t just skip it if it was so stressful. “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” she told me. “My family enjoys it too much.” Part of the experience of rituals is that they are not just shared but familiar practices, helping usher in the end of the year. And maybe she and others who stress out feel a sense of connection with others who are stressed out about the holidays.

2.       Families

Holidays often reinforce family connections—through visits or exchanging cards or gifts. People who lost loved ones in the past year often experience their loss more profoundly during the holiday season. Holidays are also a way of welcoming new members into a family by including them in rituals and family photos. Parents might view a baby’s first celebration as a special milestone too.

Of course, family conflicts can arise more acutely during the holidays, particularly in blended families where tension exists between ex-spouses or rituals are different from past celebrations as families merge. At one celebration I attended, a divorced single mother had a difficult time because her daughter was spending the holiday away with her father for the first time.

3.       Role Conflict

Seeing family members can be complicated by something called role conflict, when we feel competing demands for our time due to the many social roles we play. Students returning home from college on break for the first time might especially experience role conflict. Newly accustomed to independence, readjusting to parents’ expectations of being in charge may be difficult. While to the parent the student is a child—and often still financially and emotionally dependent—the student has a new role as young adult.

Adults who have children themselves and are visiting their own parents, may be treated both as a child by their parents and a parent by their child.  Conflict can arise when grandparents discipline grandchildren or attempt to override a parent’s decision during a visit, undermining a parent’s authority and reinforcing their status as child.

Another common way people experience role conflict during the holidays is when visitors arrive and their role as host may conflict with their role as parent or employee if they need to be at work. Often I hear of family conflicts arising when a guest expects to be entertained or escorted around town while the host still has their regular responsibilities and is not on vacation.

4.       Consumption

Hosting family members, cooking holiday meals and buying presents can get expensive, and are central facets of the holiday ritual, highlighting our culture of consumption. I happened to be shopping the weekend before Christmas amidst traffic, crowds, and long lines. Nobody I saw looked like they wanted to be shopping (that would include me), but within our consumer-based society purchasing gifts has become defined as a way to show our love and gratitude.

Around the holidays, romantic ads for jewelry and cars suggest that these are appropriate gifts for someone extra-special; images of happy children opening gifts encourages parents to buy toys that they may not be able to afford or their children may not need in order to fulfill the expectation that childhood happiness comes in part from consuming.

These are just a few sociological concepts that can help us understand the end-of-year rituals known simply as “the holidays.” Extended beyond religious rituals, this is a time when many people work less, are off from school, and spend time with family members they may not see during the rest of the year.

What other sociological concepts can we apply to make sense of these rituals?


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For myself the recent holidays did bring a number of issues raised in this blog post. Especially the area of role conflict and being away from my family of choice.

I often think that it is interesting to look at the holidays in western culture by using Mertons theory of Manifest and Latent fucnctions. For example, the manifest function of the Christmas Holiday might be to celebebrate the birth of Christ, to restablish social contacts, to give gifts, charity and share food and common rituals such as tree trimming, sending and receiving holiday cards, specific religious observances and wishing both intimate members and casual acquaintences a happy holiday season. The latent function is an economic one. The Christmas Holiday season is a massive economic phenomenon each year for retailers and consumer markets, so much so that many industries are almost completely dependent on its seasonal success each year. So while we may look at the holiday initially in its obvious form of celebrating seasonal traditions, its true and important function is an economic one. There is also possibly some interesting thoughts about reciprocity and wealth redistribution.

The Holidays can be overwhelming so I've chosen not to participate in formulating new debt for gifts and parties. So I just cook a dinner and invite friends and family over no gifts involved just family. No fuss! No stress!

i come from turkey and in turkey may be you know there are a few religious feasts in which sacrifice or celebrate 3 holy months. families come together and help to poor people. i think that such feasts contribute the ensuring social solidarity as Durkheim predicted.

its really a challenge to act both as a parent and a host when visitors are around

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