December 22, 2021

Rituals, Rites, and Habits

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

What distinguishes a ritual from a habit? This is a question that I return to at the end of each calendar year as many seasonal traditions play out privately and publicly. How is a ritual more than just a shared habit?

If a habit is an individual behavior that results in some sort of reward, a ritual is a shared pattern of behaviors; we might think of habits as residing within the realm of psychology and rituals within sociology. Both habits and rituals can be meaningful to those who perform them and bring a range of rewards, or they might be automatic and something we don’t give much thought to either way.

The American holiday season is filled with rituals, regardless of what specific holiday(s) one might celebrate. Here are just a few examples of commonly practiced rituals:

1. Having a feast with specific foods each year (such as turkey and/or ham, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, cakes, cookies; regional or ethnic differences might involve different foods such as tamales, crabs, potato pancakes, black-eyed peas, and other dishes).
2. Gathering with family and/or close friends for said feast, often involving travel.
3. Listening to holiday-themed music.
4. Holiday-themed decorations.
5. Shopping for gifts.
6. Exchanging gifts.
7. Sending and receiving cards in the mail, often with photos or updates of highlights from the sender’s previous year.

Rituals typically serve a social function; if we think about the rituals listed above, they mainly connect people with one another, often people who are not part of one’s day-to-day life. This might be the one time of the year where people see family members that they are not particularly close to or have much in common with. As a result, another ritual has emerged: complaining about having to see family during the holidays, leading to a host of tips for how to deal with one’s racist uncle at Thanksgiving, for example.

Just because a ritual exists, it doesn’t mean we all enjoy it or even get anything out of it. While some people certainly do—even if it is just because it connects them back to a memory of a time when they enjoyed these rituals—some people might find these rituals empty and not personally meaningful.

Sociologist Robert Merton wrote about what he called ritualism, where we don’t necessarily buy into the celebrated goals of society but still go through the motions nonetheless. It seems likely that many people are at best ambivalent about the holiday season. A 2019 poll found that the majority of respondents (88 percent) thought that they holiday season was the most stressful time of the year. More than half within this poll were concerned about the financial stress that often comes with gift exchanges and gatherings.

In a 2021 Experience Camps/Harris Poll, more than one in three Americans surveyed said they did not feel like celebrating the holidays this year. The poll found that 42 percent of 18-24-year-olds and 52 percent of 25-40-year-olds reported that they did not want to celebrate, largely due to feelings of grief.

So back to my original question: are celebrating “the holidays” at the end of the year a set of shared rituals that connect us to one another, or for a lot of people, habits that we don’t give much thought to (or both)?

There isn’t one answer to this question; for many people these are important rituals that help them feel close to others, manage the rhythm of life events and the calendar year, and provide reasons to get together. Many people (but not all) have time off work and the end of the year can be a break from the normal routine.

Others might have mixed feelings, enjoying some aspects of the season, but say, wishing that the pressure to buy gifts for others was lessened, or preferring not to see ads for holiday-related shopping in late October. Some might just assume ignore the whole thing.

The end-of-year holidays reflect the sociological concept of cultural scripts: ways of behaving that are expected of us in specific social contexts. Thinking critically about these cultural scripts, especially aspects of these scripts that cause stress or unhappiness, might help us sort out if we want to keep practicing particular rituals.

In some cases, we might feel as though we don’t have a choice—rituals are social, not just personal. For instance, not going to a family member’s holiday gathering could have serious ramifications that are larger than just one meal. Extenuating circumstances, like having to travel a long distance, illness, or in COVID times, concerns about possible exposure, can reduce the pressure to conform to such cultural scripts.

The holiday season and the break from the past that the COVID pandemic brings may give us an opportunity to decide which rituals each of us want to keep, and which have become habits that we might want to leave behind; these decisions are both personal and social.


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