Human consciousness allows us to get beyond the here and now—to elsewhere, and into the past and future. Our ability to comprehend the conceptual breadth of space/place and time/sequence is thus a key cognitive capability. Space and time are basically nature’s way of keeping everything from being everywhere, and from happening all at once.
Not everything in space and time is equally important. We especially value such emotionally important places as homes, shrines, historic sites, and favorite destinations. We also value certain times such as births, graduations, anniversaries, weekends, and deaths.
Powerful rituals and traditions can develop around such preferred spaces and times. Many animals similarly follow shelter, mating, and other rituals. They’re important in a social species because they help to establish and maintain group identity and membership.
Movement is a definitive animal property, and many cultural rituals and traditions include repetitive rhythmic movements, such as those in music and dance. Consider a group of like-minded worshippers who assemble for a service steeped in liturgical rituals and traditions. These activities emotionally move the worshippers towards a closer relationship with each other and with their god.
A similar connection occurs in many movement-oriented secular events (such as sports events, political conventions, and parades) that are also steeped in ritual, tradition, and institutional allegiance. We humans seemingly need to join groups and participate in events that share and communicate our beliefs and allegiances.
The Big Celebration
The final six weeks of the year are perhaps the most fascinating single period of the year. It’s a frantic rush to end one year and enter the next. Since this column appears in January, it’s a good time to reflect on what occurred last year, and what might recur this year.
What occurred last year was a contentious Internet and mass media squabble about appropriate seasonal commemorations, with folks proposing economic sanctions against businesses that didn’t do it correctly. Those who complained about the presumed secular phrase Happy Holidays were seemingly unaware that the phrase is basically religious, Happy Holy Days.
Almost all religions and cultural groups schedule important traditions and rituals during this period, and many overlap. For example, since the Northern Hemisphere’s winter darkness occurs during this period, Jews have a Festival of Lights, Christians light up evergreen trees, Hindus set off firecrackers, and ancient north European pagans burnt a Yule log. Similarly, giving gifts and decorating with greenery go back to Saturnalia, the ancient Egyptian and Roman solstice celebration. Hanging prickly holly to ward off evil spirits arrived via European pagans. The content of the various myths and stories may vary, but the basic message is similar. December has thus become a fascinating mix of religious traditions and rituals.
Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, but scholars suggest that his birth probably occurred in spring. Further, the Puritans discouraged Christmas celebrations and so it was typically just another workday for them. Charles Dickens described many customs in his 1843 book, A Christmas Carol, and the current set of traditions and rituals gradually evolved in America—many being embedded with values consistent with Christian theology. The liturgical reality is, however, that Christians should actually commemorate the expectancy of Advent rather than the celebration of Christmas during the four weeks prior to December 25.
To add to the confusion, many things that occur at the end of the year aren’t religious or aren’t necessarily guided by purely religious values. For example, it’s also a time for football bowl games and skiing. Ballet and theater companies and symphonic choirs depend on The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, and The Messiah to balance their budget. Caterers depend on parties, and toy stores and bookstores probably couldn’t survive without their December sales. Many charities similarly depend much on late year contributions.
Santa Claus goes pretty far back, but Rudolph is a reasonably recent addition to the daunting task of delivering gifts to everyone within a single night. Folks who haven’t written to anyone all year similarly go into a flurry of December letter writing. Duplicating technology has simplified the task—and email greetings are becoming more common. Some folks further simplify things by getting a greeting card company to write and illustrate their message. Charities send folks personalized return address stickers—which creates unseasonable guilt in those who use the stickers but don’t contribute.
Folks who identify with the same cultural community can still differ vociferously about the specifics of rituals and traditions. When should gifts be opened? Purchased gifts or money? Fruitcake, Stollen, or cookies? A real or a manufactured tree? Is it appropriate to play jazz versions of carols? Should we go to our parents’ home(s) or establish our own family traditions? The truth is that such family and cultural beliefs and traditions can be powerful, but what occurs when one marries into a family with different traditions? Similarly, what happens when a reasonably homogeneous early American society becomes a melting pot of cultures?
So Who Owns December?
Given the historical complexity of a 6 week period that includes Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Ramadan, and such pleasant secular events as bowl games, seasonal parties, and family get-togethers, the annual complaints about the secularization of the season seem misplaced, and the claim that a single religious tradition should define the season seems dubious. A key unresolved issue involves the appropriateness of religious icons on public property or of religious rituals inserted into public events. These are certainly part of our culture, but the problem is to determine which of the many religious icons and rituals should represent the various groups, if any are appropriate.
Advances in transportation and communication have transformed our huge world into a global village. All languages now incorporate words from other languages, and all cultures incorporate the traditions and rituals of other cultures.
The intermingling of December religious and secular traditions/rituals is a good example of our need to understand and accept their common roots. Although we may identify ourselves as a member of a religious group or as a devotee of a bowl-bound university team or as someone who simply likes all the excitement of the season, the end of the year has now become a global celebration of the complexity and universality of the human condition, and not a month that one group owns. We thus are all free to celebrate as we wish, but we should also appreciate the celebratory traditions and rituals of others.
On a personal note, our immediate family also celebrates six birthdays and three wedding anniversaries during this period. Try adding that to your celebratory plate.
I hope that you have a pleasant year that ends in a non-contentious December.