December 18, 2015

Sociology and Holiday Rituals

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Do you have certain holiday rituals that you look forward to each year, or at least feel compelled to participate in? Sociology provides us with tools for understanding these practices more deeply.

For Emile Durkheim, one of sociology's key nineteenth century thinkers, shared values and beliefs help to form society itself. Emphasizing particular values during end of year holidays like giving, connecting with family and friends through visits, cards, or well wishes serves a very important purpose. He contends that societies are more than just a collective of individuals, but rather people learn to be part of an already-existing society. Holidays aid in this process.

He also wrote extensively on religion, noting that it serves as social glue that holds people together, emphasizing shared values that help people feel part of the larger collective group. Durkheim argued that a central tenet of religion involves maintaining a separation between the sacred and profane; the sacred being special and reserved for celebrations and worship, while the profane is mundane and part of everyday life.

We see this reflected in the many critiques that surround the commercialization of holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, which focus so much on exchanging material goods that the origins of the holidays are easily lost. While Hanukkah was originally a more minor holiday within Judaism, it has evolved in the U.S. to be a way to take part in the rituals of shopping, giving, and receiving.

Although the profane—spending heavily on gifts—often supersedes the sacred, these shared rituals enable diverse groups of people to celebrate in similar ways, echoing Durkheim's idea of collective consciousness. The secularization of rituals may bring larger groups of people together, but it also may cause members of these once distinct groups to lament a loss of their own separate collective consciousness. We see this in the backlash against using the phrase "happy holidays."

Even rituals that people don't particularly enjoy but participate in can create a sense of solidarity. I regularly hear people complain about decorating their homes, shopping, gift buying, and having family over—even commiserating with others who also dread these tasks enables people to bond.

On a few occasions when hearing someone complain I have suggested that they stop doing the task that they so dislike. I stopped making this suggestion after getting the same response: "but my (kids, siblings, parents, friends) would be so disappointed if we didn't!" Holiday rituals are often about attempting to live up to the expectation of others, what Durkheim might describe as maintaining social integration.

Rituals also sometimes produce reciprocity: we had you over last year, so you should have us to your home this year; I get you a gift, you get me a gift, and so forth. True, giving should be about giving without expectations. But reciprocity helps create and maintain social ties. People who have extensive mailing lists of people they barely know for their Christmas or New Year's cards can relate to this. The ties might be extremely weak—maybe limited to an exchange of cards or messages once a year—but they are ties nonetheless and reciprocity maintains these ties.

Social media is central to the experience of rituals today. Not only do posts invite reciprocity, but social networking gives us new ways to engage in shared rituals. Changing a profile picture with an overlay to celebrate a holiday or commemorate an event is a new shared ritual, as is sharing a family photo of an event. One comedian colorfully requested that nobody share pictures of their Thanksgiving dinner on Facebook, since we'd all be eating the same thing that night—again, Durkheim would likely say both the shared meal and shared experience of being annoyed by people posting pictures of their turkeys help create social cohesion.

What other social theorists' ideas help explain holiday practices and rituals?


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