Love, Labor and Mediated Oppositions in American Domestic Ritual
Mark Auslander, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Anthropology, Brandeis University
This paper offers an anthropological perspective on a range of middle- class American family rituals, with attention to the functions of ritual practice in mediating core cultural imperatives towards love and work.
Although Americans formally tend to dismiss ceremonials as "mere ritual," high stakes are associated with the proper performance of domestic rites; failed or incomplete performances can have profound negative consequences for the family's functioning and trajectory. Building comparatively on an African ethnographic example, I argue that kinship-oriented rituals "work" by first staging a nested series of overlapping and ambiguous frames, in which a set of underlying social and cultural contradictions are dramatized. These tensions are then resolved, at least within the ritual arena, through higher-order symbolic integration. These dynamics are at play both in U.S. life passage rites, such as weddings or funerals, and calendrical rites, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. These multilayered ritual dramas powerfully evoke for their participants not only idealized scenarios of family unity but also the underlying structures and forces that threaten to undo the bonds of kinship. Family rites, paradoxically, thus afford glimpses into normally unarticulated zones of anxiety, loss, and ambiguity at the heart of the American kinship system.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. Anthropological field research (1987-89) in eastern Zambia was supported by IIE/Fulbright, Wenner-Gren and National Science Foundation grants. Field research (2000-02) on ritual performance in middle-class families in rural and urban Georgia was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Program on Working Families, through the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, (MARIAL) at Emory University; subsequent research on family ritual has been supported by the Norman Research Fund at Brandeis University. Many of the ideas presented here have emerged through prolonged conversation with Bradd Shore and other faculty and fellows at MARIAL. I am also indebted to Richard Parmentier, Ellen Schattschneider, Robert Paul and Herve Varenne for their many insights into ritual and symbolic process in American society. I alone, however, am responsible for the interpretations and analyses proposed here.
Please address correspondence to Mark Auslander, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University, Waltham MA 02454. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- What is Ritual and How Does it Work?
- Social Reproduction, Social Time and Ritual Mediation: An African Example
- How does Ritual Mediation Work in North America? The Case of the Wedding Party
- All in Good Time: Temporal Progression and Ritual Sequencing
- Rites of Passage: Coordinating the Transforming Self and Family through Time
- The Annual Ritual Cycle: Integrative and Dispersive Tendencies in the "Holiday Season"
- Conclusion: From Contradiction to Paradox
- Related Resources
Sigmund Freud, dark prophet of the bourgeois psyche, once famously defined sanity as the capacity to "love and work." Yet balancing and integrating these fundamental imperatives, paired enterprises that Freud suggestively termed the "parents of human civilization," has not proved easy for middle-class families from Freud's time onwards. The relentless pursuit of getting and spending in the outer world has long threatened to overwhelm the domestic domain, even if the home fires are in principle exempted from the frigid logic of the marketplace. Home may be where the heart is, but declarations of love are deeply embedded in the symbolic media of material consumption and the workplace-whether one chooses to say it with flowers and diamonds or by developing intricate activity schedules for children. For all of its troubling and troubled aspects, modern work has come in many respects to be thought of as the measure of all things, the pre-eminent source of self-worth and fulfillment. Work promises an escape from the complex, fraught psychic terrain of the family so long ago excavated by Freud and his disciples, while leaving many with the sense that in the pursuit of work they have betrayed key obligations to loved ones.
My title, "how families work," evokes these intertwined paradoxes of middle class domestic life. In most societies for most of human history, the reproduction of the family within larger social frameworks has been a directly economic enterprise, since the family was usually a primary productive unit. The work of kinship in most other societies has been profoundly continuous with other forms of work, the processes through which persons transform natural elements into cultural products and through which they exchange abstract signs of their labor and productive capacity--in the form of shells, cattle, women, money or other valued media. In contrast, since the mid 19th century the western bourgeois family has been formally defined as the social unit most directly opposed to the domain of work and commerce. The family has long been idealized as a haven in a heartless world, a secure enclave that protects its members from the predations of wage labor and financial calculation, a clearly-bounded zone within which unconditional love and sentiment reign supreme. "Family time" has in principle long been contrasted with its antithesis, "work time."
Nonetheless, the middle-class family has since its inception been intimately enmeshed within the cultural logics and practical necessities of capitalist labor regimes. In normative terms, "making a living" has usually implied supporting a family. Middle class wage levels have, in principle at least, been tied to the cultural ideal of home ownership and reproducing a subsequent generation at least at the same socioeconomic level as its antecedents. Since the high Victorian era the family and home life have been expected to restore and replenish exhausted wage earners, readying them for productive re-engagement in the business world. Middle-class families have been structured, in conjunction with the middle and upper tiers of the educational system, to reproduce a set of dispositions and orientations in each new generation, so as to meet the emerging labor requirements of the managerial and professional markets. Consumer spending for Christmas and other family holidays has for generations been understood as a bedrock of the national economy. In many respects, then, although the site of the "family" is usually formally contrasted with sites of "work," our families are "at work" continuously, laboring to support externally oriented economic productivity while constituting the home as a uniquely privileged site of "love," in both romantic and non-romantic senses of the term.
For over a century, ritual has proven an especially apt medium for dramatizing, and to some extent redressing, this fundamental tension between love and labor in middle class households. Rituals of the family have also served to mediate, with varying degrees of success, a set of related, pervasive oppositions in modern American kinship and society, including those between the (natal) family of orientation and the (affinal) family of procreation, between immediate and extended families, between autonomy and dependence, between the claims of self and community, between nature and culture, and between life and death, as well as across the complex boundaries of generation, class, race and gender. Ritual practices ranging from Christmas and Halloween to family reunions and funerals simultaneously help constitute and crosscut these fundamental categorical distinctions. 1
The enormous, fraught burdens placed on middle-class "family time" and on the domestic rituals staged within it may be conceived in terms of the contradictory overall social organization of temporality and labor in modern society. Modern conceptions of personhood are fundamentally tied to economically productive labor: the question "what do you do?" is the single most salient inquiry for middle-class Americans about an interlocutor's status and identity. Yet in the chaos of the marketplace, persons continuously risk being rendered anonymous, their labor time commoditized, their contributions rendered abstract or invisible, their projects absorbed without a trace. As businesses go under, jobs are lost and economies shift, familiar guideposts, through which persons might have kept track of their life progress, may swiftly vanish. The bourgeois family system is expected, in a compensatory fashion, to provide an enduring architecture of temporal continuity, telling its members where they have come from and where they are going. The family is, in effect, charged with maintaining coherent temporal scaffolds for making sense of relations between past, present and future, and most directly, with providing its members with reassuring visions of a viable future.
Yet in contrast to earlier bourgeois dynastic families, of the type memorialized by Thomas Mann in his novel Buddenbrooks, modern American middle-class nuclear families are structured to self-destruct each generation.2 As Bradd Shore argues our children are trained, often in subtle ways, to detach themselves from their natal families and homes, even during moments when the values of family continuity and stability appear to be most manifestly celebrated.3 In family rituals and everyday domestic scenarios, our children are socialized into achieving multiple futures, which are not always mutually consistent. They are told, in effect, that "the family" is as eternal as the Christmas tree or menorah, yet are conditioned to seek ultimate fulfillment by becoming parents themselves and presiding over an independent household of their own. Simultaneously, they learn that real self-definition depends upon economic productivity in the workplace and that adult citizenship is achieved through autonomous commodity consumption, governed by the prevailing fashions of the market.
Not surprisingly, these ambiguous ritual messages yield decidedly ambiguous consequences for family members. At times, those participating in domestic rituals derive a reassuring sense of coordinated wholeness and fulfillment, experiencing lineal continuity that coherently stretches back through the generations to time immemorial. Yet at other times, participation in these rites can provoke profound crises of faith, foregrounding failed attempts to balance love and work, deep anxiety over the validity and sincerity of family relations, and nagging doubts over market-governed definitions of worldly success.
Since the early 1970s, as the overt economic mobilization of American middle class families has dramatically intensified, the double-edged potentials of family rituals to heal or harm have arguably increased. As both parents are increasingly engaged in (or at least looking for) full time employment, and as time available for sentimental expressions seems to be more and more compressed, time-limited ritual occasions have been correspondingly idealized and elaborated. Ironically, as work increasingly invades the home, family rituals are often researched, planned and pursued with work-like intensity, in the apparent hope of restoring the categorical distinctions between work and family, and between labor and love that have long been eroded in practice. In a society that often expresses skepticism over the value of "mere" ritual, the stakes for family ritual--and for the "family time" that these rituals epitomize-may be higher than ever before.
What is Ritual and How Does it Work?
Anthropologists have studied ritual since the discipline's inception, and many would regard the study of "ritual" as one of the few, distinctive features of anthropological inquiry left.4 Yet there is little consensus as to the definition, organization, consequences or ultimate efficacy of ritual action. Most would agree that ritual is a highly structured and prescribed form of action, in which actors tend to deny the ultimate authorship of their acts, ascribing their motive force to an external authority (be it the gods, the ancestors, law, or tradition) and in which participants understand themselves to be in a context significantly different from ordinary life. The internal structure of ritual is often characterized by intensive repetition, reversibility, severe restrictions on improvisation and accessibility, strict regulation of bodily comportment and emotional expression, marked distinctions in the time and place of performance, secrecy or elaborate control over perception (as in masking or the use of esoteric or archaic language and other restricted codes), the use of highly meaningful words and objects, and the simultaneous deployment of multiple (and usually multi-sensory) channels of communication and expression, often including music and dance. Yet many activities that would be generally recognized as "ritual" do not exhibit many of these characteristics, and some actions sharing many of these qualities would not necessarily be classified as "ritual" in the strictest sense.
Perhaps because of the multiple frames and meanings embedded in ritual practice, scholarly discussion of the topic is invariably marked by dispute, hedging and qualifying. Rituals often uphold the established sociocultural order and status quo, tending to socialize persons into taken-for-granted commonplace assumptions about the world.5 Yet ritual arenas are especially well suited to the ambiguous dramatization of paradox and may challenge, subvert or resist dominant sensibilities and structures of authority. 6 Ritual is often associated with intensive faith, yet ritual performance, notes Rappaport is not necessarily coincident with belief in any manifest sense of the term.7 (Consider Niels Bohr's reputed response to a student shocked that he hung a luck-bringing horseshoe in his laboratory: "Of course I don't believe in the horseshoe, but I understand that my lack of belief has no negative impact upon its efficacy!") Ritual tends to integrate practitioners into wider social collectivities, yet there are extensively documented private (non-shared) rituals and ritual activities may dramatize the radical separation of a person or persons from the larger social field.8 Ritual generally proceeds by imposing radical separations between persons, objects and categories but tends to establish intimate conjoining or unions between that which had been rendered distinct.9 Ritual is usually thought of as solemn, yet is sometimes playful, hilarious or uproarious.10 Although in principle conventional and scripted, ritual acts are at times strikingly original, imaginative, and improvisational.11 Preparation for successful ritual performance often demands intensive concentration, purposeful discipline and conscious reflection upon the rite, yet performances may enable experiential states of altered consciousness in which normal distinctions between act and actor or subject and object are transcended: "the dance dances the dancer."12
Social Reproduction, Social Time and Ritual Mediation: An African Example
The extraordinary mutability and diverse potentials of ritual frameworks perhaps help account for the fact that in human societies the world over, rituals mark and help organize significant moments in the developmental cycles of domestic groups and their changing relationships with higher-level social institutions. Social reproduction, never an easy process, is usually predicated on the social repression and regulation of sexuality and other libidinal drives, the exchange of marriage partners between discrete groups, the transfer of rights, property and obligations between generations, and the controlled, phased waxing and waning of relations between close kin. Amidst the inevitable conflicts that result over resources, power and loyalties, actors are often torn in multiple directions. Young and old can easily be overwhelmed by the divergent pressures of the immediate moment. Ritual provides highly evocative mechanisms for bringing underlying conundrums into the open in a structured fashion and rendering them, for the most part, manageable and negotiable. 13 Ritual dramas, which themselves proceed through highly structured temporal sequences, offer persons and groups meaningful guideposts for understanding larger passages of social time, and for apprehending normally inchoate continuities in collective experience. By the same token, rituals of social reproduction at times offer social actors particularly effective platforms upon which to pursue short-term and long-term political strategies within their families and in the wider community.
An extended example drawn from my fieldwork in south-central Africa may help to clarify how ritual action dramatizes and modulates the contradictory processes entailed in the enterprise of reproducing society. The Ngoni of eastern Zambia hold a special ceremony known as the mugeniso, around the time that the first-born son of a marriage union is able to walk. In principle, following the rite, strict prohibitions on the new husband eating in the presence of his wife's parents will be relaxed.14 In accounting for the ceremony, Ngoni informants explain that the first few years of marriage are nearly always tense. The bride, in a prolonged probationary state, is watched carefully by her husband's kin for signs of laziness, disobedience or disloyalty. She may often return to her mother and father's compound, bearing complaints of ill treatment, and her brothers may be tempted to take revenge on their brother-in-law and his agnates. Cattle or monetary bridewealth transactions, which ought to flow at a regular rate from the husband's people to the bride's people, are often stalled, and mutual recriminations and traditional court proceedings between affines (in-laws) are not unusual. The purpose of the mugeniso, it is usually said, is to "heal" or " cool" the burning animosity between the comparatively new affines and to celebrate their common bond, the first male child of the conjugal union.
In the initial phase of the mugeniso ceremony, the husband and wife's families dramatize these underlying tensions by playing at combat over a head cattle. On the morning of the rite, the husband, wife and child, accompanied by members of the husband's patrilineage (a classification often extended to his entire village) should journey to the bride's natal home bringing a bovine, usually an ox, as a gift to the bride's father. In precolonial days, I was told, the members of the military age regiment, to which the husband had belonged before marriage, would escort the procession. Once they come to the edge of the host village, the approaching party brandishes spears, knobkerries and shields and repeatedly hurls themselves towards the wife's natal relatives, who have danced out to greet them, shouting taunts and insults. The wife's people, in turn, stage mock charges upon the "foreigners, attempting to seize the ox and the boy from them.
This physically enacted opposition is to some extent undercut by the choice of ngoma war songs performed by the two parties as they dance, including the song allegedly sung in the 19th century by the Ngoni's traditional enemy, the Bemba, as the Ngoni legions approached, "Tipasile Mkhondo." There is a good deal of exaggerated leaping, laughter, and playful mock dueling as performers sing the words of the song, "Prepare the spears/ the spears/we are all going to die/the Ngoni are coming." In time, the host group "captures" the ox, and moments later the two groups merge into one another, singing songs of war victory as they dance together towards the compound of the wife's father. The young boy will usually be invited to dance with his matrilaterals at the head of the procession and his mother's female relatives will loudly ululate their praises as the child enters the compound.
After the maternal grandparents and their kin have formally welcomed the young family and their relations, the young boy is entitled to enter his maternal grandfather's cattle byre and select a single beast for slaughter. In most cases that I have observed or heard about, the boy seems to understand that regardless of his grandfather's protestations and his subtle (or not so subtle) hints to select a modest beast, the child is really expected to pick the plumpest and most desirable animal. Many times, I've heard Ngoni men rapturously and uproariously recount, "Oh, the old man cried, he just cried, when he saw the beast the boy had chosen. It was his favorite animal, but he had no choice. So he just cried!"
After the beast has been slaughtered and the meal prepared, the husband and his family are invited to enter the house of the wife's parents and to eat with them. The husband is scrupulous to avoid establishing direct eye contact with his father-in-law or mother-in-law, and will be very careful not to sit or crouch near the wall of his in-laws' sleeping quarters. In practice, sons-in-law tend not to eat much at this event, but the groundwork is laid for future commensality and collaboration. Both sides of the family take great delight if the first-born boy eats his food with zest. In several cases, I heard the maternal grandfather tell his grandson, only partly in jest, that he was going to keep him in the compound for good, since his father and his agnates were clearly incapable of paying all the promised bridewealth. The exchanges of food, speeches, teasing and laughter usually have the desired effect. "After the mugeniso," I was often told, "the families will be so much easier with each other."
The mugeniso rite thus effectively dramatizes and to some extent defuses a set of underlying tensions between affines through a series of ambiguous enactments. It begins with a tussle over one of the bridewealth cattle, a persistent source of argumentation between the two families. Appropriately, this struggle quickly merges into a struggle over the young boy, the product of the union that has been legalized through bridewealth cattle; in capturing the ox, his matrilaterals in a sense seem to be capturing their sister's child. At one level, the opposition between the two parties is deflected through the singing of a song about the common enemy of the Ngoni, the Bemba, whom they allegedly vanquished. Yet there is a semi-serious edge to this song, as well, which alludes to the Bemba's status, in Ngoni's eyes, as "food of the spear" (chakudya chamkhondo); it is never clear after all, in relations among affines, just whom is going to "eat" (or subsume) whom.15 Similarly, the practice of having the young boy lead the procession once it has been unified can be multiply interpreted. It is sometimes explained as showing the underlying unity among the extended family, which has an equal interest in the new offspring. Yet the husband's people usually tend to state that boy is a warrior "conquering" the village of his mother, while the wife's people assert he is "coming back to his real home."
Overlapping, ambiguous interpretive frames are especially evident in the byre episode, which calls forth a complex mixture of seriousness and hilarity. The scenario of the little boy annihilating his grandfather's favorite beast is a miniature rite of reversal, calling to mind a standard bone of contention between younger and older men. Juniors are forever pleading with their elders to slaughter or sell their cattle, yet men of the senior generation are invariably reluctant to do this, for cattle are the foundation of a patriarch's wealth, prestige and influence. Young men complain endlessly of their older male relatives "love only cattle, not their children" Hence the delight taken in seeing a small boy imperiously and successfully demand a beast from a senior man, especially from a man with whom the boy's own father would be loath to quarrel. At the same time, the incident anticipates the eventual passage of generational succession, when the boy will ultimately inherit the patrimony of the ascendant generation and become the master of its herds.
In principle, this episode teaches the boy the lesson that he may always go to his matrilaterals for aid, for they love him unconditionally, in contrast to his agnates who may resent him as a potential competitor for the common resources of the patrilineage. Yet, there is unquestionably an aggressive edge to the pressure on the boy to pick the finest animal, a choice that invariably pleases his agnates, who are thus reassured that the boy has the makings of a virile, assertive male who will not be overly under the spell of his matrilaterals, whom, they suspect, seek to spoil and "soften" the youth.
Ngoni regard it as particularly hilarious (yet also deeply propitious) if the boy picks one of the cattle that had been given as bridewealth for his mother by his father's people. Significantly, his agnates and matrilaterals tend to differ over just what the joke is. The boy "knows his own beasts," the agnates joke, and is "taking his own back." In contrast, matrilaterals proclaim with a smile, "he feels free since he knows he is in his real home now!" Picking one of the bridewealth cattle raises a delightful paradox: the boy is annihilating one of the media through which the legitimacy of his own birth was established and through which he has legally been made a member of his father's patriline. Interestingly, the demonstrable (and I believe sincere) anguish of the maternal grandfather over the loss of a valued bovine is seen as a good omen by both sides of the family. As one agnate of the boy told me, "When the grandfather cries so hard, that means he and the boy will always be good friends!" A maternal uncle of the boy agreed, laughing, "Oh, he will be a wild one, that one!"
Only once the child has symbolically triumphed over his mother's father may relations of avoidance between affines be relaxed. This victory and subsequent transformation of relations are only possible because of the ambiguous status of the child during the rite; he "belongs" to both his father's people and his mother's people. (If the child unambiguously represented his father's patrilineage at this moment, the assault on the matrilaterals' livestock would presumably seem too aggressive.)
Two further points should be emphasized. First of all, the ritual management of the marriage bond in this instance demands the participation of three generations: the tense relationship between adjacent generations (of the father-in-law and his son-in-law) is successfully manipulated by shifting the focus of attention to relations between alternate generations (of the maternal grandfather and his daughter's son). In effect, solidarity between generations one and three helps to secure the reconciliation of affines, especially between generations one and two.
Secondly, note that these generational reconfigurations are effected through the medium of cattle, the overarching embodiment of social and economic value in Ngoni society. Cattle here operate as the pivotal switch point between the social levels of descent and kinship, between the agnatic principle of patrilineal organization and the interpersonal ties of complementary filiation. In regular bridewealth transactions, cattle mark the boundaries of distinct descent groups, dividing the donating family of the husband from the receiving family of the wife. In the mugeniso rite, performed once the marriage has proven its solidity, these former lines of contrast are blurred; in seizing his maternal grandfather's cow, the little boy (the fruit of the marriage union) operates as a bridge between the two families, establishing a new intimacy that is exemplified by their subsequent act of eating together. Although cattle are the enduring source of aggressive conflict among affines, the seized cow in this instance establishes the enduring "love" between the child and his matrilaterals, who welcome the youth to his "real home." Through the selection and slaughter of the second head of cattle, chosen by the daughter's son of the host, this cross-generational affection is partially transferred to the relationship between the host father-in-law and his guest son-in-law. Up until this moment, in effect, father-in-law and son-in-law have only been linked through the daughter/wife, a highly fraught link suffused with sexual anxiety. (Indeed, many Ngoni insist that it would be akin to incest for affines to eat together before the mugeniso.) Now, the assured presence of a healthy young grandson/son, a common heir, more securely links the two men. Appropriately, all parties celebrate their transformed relationship by safely consuming together the flesh of a slaughtered beast that embodies the salutary three-way relationship between father-in-law, son-in-law and grandson.
How does Ritual Mediation Work in North America? The Case of the Wedding Party
At first consideration, the elaborate ritual logic of the Ngoni mugeniso-- defusing affinal tension through a highly valued economic medium that is manipulated to dramatize positive cross-generational solidarity --would seem worlds apart from modern American family rituals. Yet the above analysis casts some light on the internal symbolic mechanisms through which structural oppositions are mediated in middle class North America. Consider, as an illustrative example, the functions of the wedding party in the standard American neotraditional "white wedding" ceremony, which emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.16
Over the course of the wedding ceremony, the bride and groom must be visibly separated from their natal families (and especially from their parents) and established as a discrete couple capable of eventually being a family of their own. At the same time, enduring bonds of filial love between parent and child must be emphasized and preserved. This phased attenuation is partly accomplished through the performance of generational solidarity among the couple's peers, in the form of the costumed wedding party, who are visibly contrasted with the couple's parents and families of origin seated in the audience.17 The process somewhat resembles the much more elaborate functions of age-grades or age-sets in some small-scale, age-ranked societies, in which induction into a male or female cohorts is a necessary precondition to marriage and promotion to full social adulthood and in which age-mates actively assist in the marriage process.18 (Recall that in the mugeniso the Ngoni husband is escorted by his former age regiment.) The American wedding party is typically composed of a group of male peers of the groom and a group of female peers of the bride. At the start of many wedding ceremonies, a series of paired bridesmaids and groomsmen often walk down the aisle, in a ritual foreshadowing of the eventual conjugal pairing of the actual bride and groom. Upon reaching the altar each couple of the wedding party will separate and retire to their respective sides of the altar, forming a line of women on the left and a line of men on the right (in some weddings, this division conforms to the distinction between bride's party and groom's party in the seated audience.)
The wedding party, flanking the altar in a gender divided fashion, thus tangibly paves the way for the bridal couple. This line of peers, which may include the couple's siblings, friends, and a few young cousins (or children of the bride or groom from previous marriages or relationships), stands facing the seated audience, which normally includes the couple's parents and other members of ascendant generations. Standing, among other things, signifies the virility and endurance of the youthful wedding party, who function as representatives of the rising generation on the cusp of social maturity. Appropriately, the wedding party is made up of paired cohorts of male and female peers who may be younger than the couple but who are (in most cases) structurally contrasted with the parents' generation. This twinned peer group in effect frames, and helps to create, the charged ritual space of transformation which will moments later be occupied by the couple. The transition to the adult state of marriage is thus accomplished through the simultaneous performance of generational solidarity and opposition. As they stand before the assembled, the couple is established as structurally like the youthful members of the standing wedding party, and structurally unlike their seated parents and natal families, to whom the bride and groom have turned their backs.
From the late Victorian period onwards the potent generational solidarity of the youthful wedding party, which helps in effect to break bonds between the new spouses and their parents, has been predicated on a manifest gender hierarchy. The groom should from the start of the ceremony stand by his best man and the other male members of the wedding party near the altar at the right front of the church or hall, waiting for his bride. She should enter, escorted by her father or another male who "gives her away" and process down the aisle, in full sight of the assembled, who stand in respect as she does so. She is to be met by the groom, who takes her from her guardian and with her faces the altar and the officiant. This procession enacts the classic principles in European kinship of patriarchy and virilocality; the bride is moved out of her father's family into her husband's domain, and is presented as an elaborate, decorated "gift." The walk down the aisle may also enact the European principle of mild hypergamy; the woman is, in principle, lifted up in status through marriage, as she is absorbed into the relatively superior estate of her husband's family.
The maid of honor and bridesmaids receiving the bride are thus in a significant sense differentiated from the best man and groomsmen standing by the groom, in more ways than gender per se. The line of males of the junior, rising generation, of which the groom is a part, constitutes the key fulcrum of ritual action, the base to which the mobile bride is delivered by a male figure of the senior generation. The line of young women bridesmaids offer protective solidarity to their peer, the bride, but inasmuch as they are "maids" they are destined to follow her lead as eventual brides, escorted in their turn to the altar by their own fathers. This motif is explicitly dramatized when the bride's train is held by girl bridesmaids who follow behind her, a vignette that is invariably viewed as adorable and poignant, for it anticipates the little girls' eventual journey down the aisle as brides themselves. (In contrast, little boys who are junior groomsmen would rarely process down the aisle behind the bride, but are rather expected to stand in the line of males at the front of the church by the altar.) The groom and his best man, in contrast, do not walk down the aisle but appear from another entrance to take up their place at the altar. The groom, in receiving his bride, steps forward from the community of his young male peers, while the bride, in effect, is brought forward to stand near her female peers, although she never precisely stands with them.
In this respect, the work of male generational solidarity is to constitute the fixed social base from which the groom emerges, as an exemplary embodiment of society's ascendant generation. (The groom in most cases is dressed in the same attire as his groomsmen, while her bridesmaids should never emulate the bride's attire.) In contrast to the male wedding party's solid public stability, the primary ritual work of female generational solidarity undertaken by the bridesmaids is to support the bride, through prior backstage work of preparing her for public presentation within a private space that is in principle prohibited to men (be it a changing room, powder room or bedroom). Groomsmen embody the public face of the new generation coming into its own; bridesmaids link the less visible domestic realm to public aesthetic displays, but their status as members of the junior generation would appear to be subsumed under the status of their male counterparts, who have "escorted them" down the aisle.
Significantly, the bride, and emphatically not the groom, is the center of aesthetic and affective attention throughout the rite. Thus, while the groom formally embodies the new generation that will in time succeed the parental generation, his separation from his parents is nowhere dramatically enacted during the rite. In contrast, the separation of the bride from her father or male guardian is one of the most remarked upon and poignant aspects of the ceremony, calling forth an almost obligatory sigh or muffled tear from the audience. This visible separation of bride from father at the rite's opening is complemented by the ever-popular moment at the rite's conclusion when the groom lifts the bride's veil and kisses her. In this regard it is striking that while most officiants have foregone the blatantly patriarchal "I now pronounce you man and wife" for the more egalitarian, "I now pronounce you husband and wife," few officiants can resist uttering the phrase, "You may now kiss the bride," which treats the bride as the marked epitome of desire. The audience's relief at this moment is palpable; after the solemnity of the formal ceremony the kiss is usually greeted with applause, appreciative oohs and aahs, and raucous laughter (especially if the groom and bride a little "too" amorous in their embraces.)
The net effect of these overlapping oppositions and conjunctions is to moderate or defuse the potentially troubling force of the basic narrative running through the ceremony. Children are being separated from their parents, one generation is succeeding the other, and erotic pairing is being sanctioned, but these points are, if all goes well, never made too emphatically. There would be something too disturbing, I suspect, if both groom and bride were escorted down the aisle by their parents and then simultaneously abandoned them as they took their final steps to the altar. Similarly, beginning the rite with the bride and groom lined up with the entire wedding party facing the audience might lay excessive, troubling emphasis on the structural opposition between the new and old generations. Similarly, it would too painful and unseemly if the groom, receiving the bride from his soon-to-be father-in-law, were immediately to kiss her at the very moment of transfer in the aisle. In turn, although the lifted veil and final kiss do have erotic connotations, overt sexual displays at this moment would be widely deemed inappropriate.19
Appropriately, the rather ambiguous confounding of the identities of the wedding couple and their generational peers is typically disambiguated during the reception. The bride and groom may initially sit with the wedding party, but they are expected to circulate through all the tables of guests, reaffirming bonds with friends, parents, parents' friends, and relatives of all ages. The bride and groom should dance together, but the bride and her father should have a special dance as well. Towards the end of the reception, the bride should toss her corsage or bouquet towards the unmarried women present, and the groom should toss the bride's garter towards the unmarried men. Beyond the manifest purpose of "predicting" the next persons to be married, these acts serve to move the bride and groom out of their liminal state ('betwixt and between" youth and adulthood) into a fully married condition. By ridding themselves of these ritual paraphernalia, imbued with the interstitial qualities of their intermediate status, the couple distinguishes themselves from their former generational cohort, and thereby enters into the more fully adult citizenship status. Generational solidarity, which was necessary to accomplish this rite of passage during its central phase, is somewhat undone at its conclusion in favor of new, enduring solidarity among all married persons.
The wedding rite, then, is not solely a celebration of the bonds of love between the two members of the couple. It is also, more subtly, a public recruitment of new members into the polity of socially and economically productive actors, and to some extent celebrates the periodic integration of an ascendant generational cohort into the larger realm of the senior generations that run society. Hence, the insistence of parents, often in the face of complaints by the marital couple, that their business associates and friends must be included on the invitation list. The bride's protest, "But this is my day," may be met with a parent's explanations that the older person in question, "has known you all your life", "is a really close colleague," or "might be of help to you someday, you know." For parents at a more advanced stage in the life cycle, in contrast to those a generation younger, the wedding is not simply a drama of love and of the private self but is also a rite of collective social transition, predicated on a cycle of age-based promotion into the socially-sanctioned domain of work.
As in the mugeniso, at least three generations are implicated in the standard American wedding ceremony: the generations of the conjugal couple, of their parents, and of their hoped-for children. The latter are evoked through flower girls and junior groomsmen, the bouquet that the bride carries (usually in front of her abdomen), the rotund shape of the wedding cake, and the ribald toasts about procreation often delivered at the reception. Although there is of course no precise equivalent of the mugeniso cow in the American wedding, this realignment of inter-generational relations does, rather like Ngoni practice, depend on symbolic media that embody supreme exchange value. First and foremost, an implicit exchange underlies the substantial amount of money spent on the ceremony itself. Well into the nineteenth century, middle class marriage was centered on direct and indirect payments of dowry by the bride's parents to the groom. Dowry functioned, among other things, as a form of pre-mortem inheritance, transferring wealth from the senior generation on the bride's side to the new couple (under the husband's dominion) and ultimately to the couple's offspring, the grandchildren of the bride's parents. This logic endures in the common expectation that the bride's parents will pay for the wedding ceremony, initiating the process that ideally will culminate in "giving us grandchildren." Money transferred from generation one to generation two, in effect, will be reciprocated (or, in a sense, see its potential realized) through the eventual production of members of generation three, who will be linked by intimate emotional bonds to the generous grandparents of generation one.
Although the bride's parents traditionally shoulder the bulk of the wedding costs, every member of the wedding participates in this general process of transforming financial value into affective solidarity. All adult wedding guests, regardless of seniority, are expected to purchase and present wedding gifts, which may take the form of cash or physical objects. Through these gifts the guests project aspects of themselves into the new union (in principle, the gift should not favor bride or groom, but should be something that "they can enjoy together"). Simultaneously, each donor vicariously partakes of the hope, love, erotic energy, and unity of the new couple. Widespread ambivalence over bridal registries, which are so often derided as marketing ploys and self-aggrandizing strategies by the wedding couple, partly derives from the inchoate desire to be tangibly, directly linked to grand narrative of the wedding by choosing a gift that partly expresses the identity of the giver as well as the recipient. Nonetheless, in spite of their misgivings, many guests find themselves using the registry, since selecting a gift independently is time consuming and risky. As everyone knows, not making a monetarily-valuable gift simply is not an acceptable option. Economic value, in both its practical and symbolic dimensions, is essential to the making of the new family.
In this light, we should hardly be surprised by the enduring popularity of weddings, even in our era of frequent divorce and extensive premarital cohabitation and procreation. In real life, on television or at the movies, weddings dramatize the trials and triumphs of the self and the family in search of love, fulfillment and fortune. Weddings remain perhaps the most important ritual arena through which the periodic reproduction of society is enacted, through which our public and private lives are integrated, and through which love and work are brought into meaningful coordination, if only for a few precious moments.
All in Good Time: Temporal Progression and Ritual Sequencing
As the above analysis suggests, the enduring power of the wedding ceremony lies partly in its capacity to mark and regulate major temporal progressions in individual life cycles and in the mythic life of society. Each ceremony signals the social maturation of persons and evokes the cyclical realignment of generations, in a way that broadly encompasses divergent definitions of social value, variously grounded in love or work, self or community, autonomy or dependence. Wedding participants and guests often find themselves reflecting upon the broader shape of their lives and the changing configurations of their families over time. A woman in her sixties recently explained to me why she cried while watching her niece exchange vows with her new husband: "Suddenly, I saw my mother's face, the way she looked all those years ago on the day I married my husband. And then I started thinking about my son and whether or not he'll ever get together again with his wife and my little grandson." Smiling apologetically, she dabbed her eyes and said, "Weddings just do bring things up, don't they?"
The peculiar nature of temporal experience within American family rituals is largely a function of unusual features in our family system. As noted above, in contrast to virtually all other human kinship and descent systems, middle-class American families self-destruct in a periodic fashion; from an early age, parents train their children for autonomy, having them sleep alone, go to sleepover parties and summer camp, usually go away to college and eventually form a new family unit through a marriage or long-term romantic bond. Rites such as the wedding celebrate and solemnize this profound separation of child from parent, yet also manifest a compensatory longing for continuity and return to an imagined more secure and "authentic" past. This longing is expressed in the standard injunction that the bride wear "something old, something new," and by the emphasis on self-consciously archaic speech acts, practices, adornment and décor at many weddings. Similarly, in recent years, many couples have sought to unearth and incorporate into their weddings Old World or pre-modern practices associated with their ethnic background. In so doing, they attempt to link themselves to much earlier generations at precisely the moment of marked structural rupture from the generation of their parents.
Family time is organized through two major kinds of ritual activity, rites of passage, which mark singular transitions in a person's life, and calendrical ceremonies, which are regularly repeated, usually on an annual basis. In different ways, each of these ritual events dramatizes and mediates core conundrums in American domestic life while providing a tangible temporal framework though which people attempt to make sense of the complex events of their own lives and of their shifting relations with loved ones. Ritual time thus makes it possible to coordinate individual and social transformations, which in everyday life may be experienced as inconsistent, opposed or wildly divergent.
Rites of Passage: Coordinating the Transforming Self and Family through Time
The basic structure of rites of passage lends itself to this double temporal burden, signaling coherent transitions in the individual's life while simultaneously making sense of larger transitions in the family and collectivity.
These multilayered dynamics can be made sense of with reference to Van Gennep's classic model of the "tripartite" structure of these commonly occurring rituals, famously developed by Victor Turner.20 Such rites commence with the radical separation of the person or persons being transformed, often marked through special adornment, locale, or comportment. The subject then enters into a special interstitial or intermediate state, in Turner's terms, "betwixt and between" conventional social statuses or categories: he or she is neither student nor graduate, child nor adult, unmarried nor married, layman nor priest. During this "liminal period" the person undergoing ritual transformation is often subject to special prohibitions and precautions; he or she may be apprehended as especially pure, sacred, stigmatized or polluted, and may be subjected to heightened risks. This in-between period is often characterized by paradoxical or dramatic reversals of ordinary behavior; one needs, in effect, to step outside of normal society in order to alter one's social position. In the final stage of re-aggregation, during which basic principles of social life are celebrated or reinvigorated, the subject is reintegrated into normal life, usually into a different (often higher ranked) social role than that occupied before the rite.21
This tripartite sequence and the extraordinary qualities of the liminal phase make these rites highly appropriate for dramatizing transformations in persons other than the rite's formal subjects. Those organizing, performing or attending the rite often take on certain liminal, interstitial qualities during the ceremony and undergo significant (if subtle or backgrounded) transformations and shifts in status. Rites of passage are thus nearly always collective enterprises that proceed upon multiple tracks, establishing important connections and distinctions among varied persons and groups beyond the proximate, central foci of ritual attention.
For example, birth in modern American society has emerged as a multileveled ritual process through which the newborn child is produced as a social person, the woman giving birth is produced as a socially legitimate mother, the mother and her husband or partner are together produced as a socially legitimate parental couple, the parents and their child or children are produced as a "family" and a wider network of relations with kin and friends are readjusted and coordinated. The elaborate technological management of modern birth and neonatal care has occasioned subtle linguistic and ritual markers for distinguishing between different kinds of newborns, which, if all goes well, culminates in pronouncing this liminal being "a baby ready to go home."22 Middle-class expectant mothers are usually expected to conform to a self-improving regimen of regulated health and conditioning during pregnancy, and may feel some pressure to demonstrate their moral fitness as mothers by forgoing pain medications during birth and recapturing a trim figure during the postpartum months.23 Middle-class fathers are widely expected to participate in birthing classes, watch ultrasound images of the fetus with the mother, and serve as "coaches" during birth. In so doing, fathers vicariously partake in the liminal status of the neonate and birthing mother, and are eventually reintegrated along with them into normal space and time, now as a unified nuclear family. To be sure, like all processes of unification this new social entity rests upon subtle role distinctions; even in couples that strive for gender egalitarianism, the father may, within minutes of successful birth, take on the traditional male role of mediating relations between the domestic unit and larger social domains, phoning friends and relations and handing out cigars to passersby and business associates.
Similarly, the rites of christening or bris (the Jewish circumcision), while manifestly directed towards transforming the moral and spiritual status of the infant, also confirm or help establish important shifts in other persons' conditions, especially in generations one and two. The parents are established in front of the family and the religious community as persons of tradition, substance and faith. Grandparents from both side of the family are, if possible, prominent at a christening, and often exhibit considerably warmer, less formal relations with one another than they did at the wedding itself (shades of the mugeniso?) At the Jewish bris, the paternal grandfather usually holds his grandson as the foreskin is excised, evoking a line of patriarchal authority that in principle stretches back through the generations to the original covenant between the Lord and His chosen people. In this ambiguous, liminal position, holding his male flesh and blood in the face of a knife, the grandfather takes on aspects of the early patriarchs themselves, recalling Abraham's abortive sacrifice of Isaac and Moses' role as the first circumciser. In this sense, the bris is equally a rite of passage for the grandfather and his grandson, who emerge from it confirmed respectively as patriarch and novice within the family and the wider community.
Birthdays may be conceived as special kinds of repeated rites of passage, marking progressive phases in the life of the individual person and in the life of the family units to which he or she is attached. In addition to celebrating the physical and mental maturation of a young child, early birthday parties may mark status shifts for young mothers or engender growing solidarity among the parents (especially mothers) in attendance. The birthday party (for the most part, a 20th century invention) manifestly celebrates the pleasure-seeking self (complete with chocolate cake) and is sometimes dismissed as a narcissistic indulgence. Yet the rite also emphasizes the progressive middle class disciplining of the willful self. Through successive birthday parties, children are expected to learn to play with one another, and are socialized into middle class codes of collaboration, appropriate degrees of formality and informality, and principles of reciprocity. For example, I recall that at my fourth birthday party, my young friends James and Leon in turn, by coincidence, each gave me identical plastic Indian headdresses. Thinking that the second headdress was superfluous, I tried to give it back to Leon, but my mother quickly intervened to tell me to graciously accept both gifts, whispering rhetorically to me, "don't you still want to be Leon's friend?" Such staged events and the moral pedagogy they occasion gradually lay the groundwork for the child's later integration into generational cohorts at school and in the workplace.
Sweet sixteen birthday parties, like high school proms, debutante balls or cotillion, celebrate the coming eligibility of young women for marriage and may be interpreted as "dress rehearsals" for eventual wedding ceremonies.24 In turn, adult birthday parties, especially for "milestone" years such as forty or seventy, may help solidify relations with peers at work and may spark reflections on the changing shape of the family as well as meditations on mortality.
Educational rites, which subtly mediate between the symbolic practices of the internal family and the wider public sector, may also help reconcile individual life trajectories and the developmental cycles of middle class families. School theatricals, concerts, dances, ballet recitals, and sport events are staged as dramas of symbolic detachment, celebrating a student's increasing autonomy from family-bound roles and integration into horizontal peer groups. At the same time, these events often occasion emotionally-laden family gatherings, in which family members are cast in the roles of "supporters" or "audience members" (or in the cases of proms, as "chaperones") and reflect upon the shifting organization of their family. Parents often report a mixture of pleasure and anxiety in seeing their child skillfully perform dramatic roles, which may remind them that the child is capable of becoming a new and different person than the one that they know. As one father recalled, "Of course, I loved seeing my daughter in school plays, but you know as she got older, I had to steel myself each time. The better she got, I was so proud, but I found myself saying to myself, 'she's just not daddy's little girl anymore!'" Perhaps because of this implicit drama of looming separation the most beloved and effective performances by young people often center on the vanishing horizon of childhood experience and coming-of-age narratives of detachment, such as Peter Pan or the Nutcracker.
Multiple, at times discordant planes of experience are also evident in graduation and commencement exercises, which in addition to marking passages in the life of individual students and of student cohorts, help constitute shifting phases in the life of the graduate's family, at times signaling the coming of the "empty nest" for parents, or representing socioeconomic upward mobility for the entire family. While high school and college graduation ceremonies at one level signal a graduate's fitness for entry into the labor force (and in that sense help mediate detachment from one's natal family and the process of eventually founding one's own family), they also often celebrate the authority of the academy and the contemplative life, and in that sense may signal enduring anxiety over the capacity of the "the real world" or marketplace to provide ultimate meaning in life. Individual and family trajectories are both interlaced and juxtaposed in class reunions and homecoming games, which are often characterized by intermingled nostalgic elegies for lost innocence, celebrations of material success and family vitality, and anxiety over failed opportunities.25
As suggested above, these multi-track, contradictory processes culminate in the modern wedding. On the hand, the rite simultaneously celebrates the free, co-equal autonomous selfhoods of the individual persons being married, recognizes the gradual ascension of an entire younger generation, and honors the couple's parents (and often their grandparents). At the same time, it subtly re-instantiates principles of patriarchy, attenuates the couple's relationships with their natal families, asserts that the couple is "one flesh," directs them to procreate, and disciplines the parties into the rigors of married life and bourgeois convention. It is striking that these diverse objectives, implicating so many different persons and overlapping relationships, are all dramatized and mediated through obsessive ritual attention to a single person, the bride herself. Dressed in white, she visually dominates the entire proceeding, and becomes, during the central phase of the rite, a veritable vessel of the eternal and the sacred. (The wedding rite might in this respect be regarded as a curious resurfacing of the ancient cult of the goddess, or a sanitized Protestant rendition of the medieval cult of the virgin.) The blessings of life itself seem to flow from her as marches down the aisle, greeted by an appropriately reverential sighs.
Various objects associated with the bride carry traces of the numinous qualities that temporarily inhabit her; like ritual paraphernalia in other societies these objects are characterized by what Turner terms the "polyvocality" of ritual symbols, the capacity of a given object or act to evoke different meanings or associations at various levels of experience.26 Initially, her elaborate white dress connotes virginity, purity, aristocratic bearing, demureness and sacredness. Yet later in the ceremony, when her veil is drawn back for the dramatic kiss, her attire takes on more erotic and procreative associations, anticipating her "deflowering" on the wedding night and her hoped-for fertility. (These associations are dramatically accentuated by the increasingly popular practice, at some receptions, of the groom crawling beneath the bride's billowing skirts, to the raucous cheers of onlookers, to retrieve her garter belt.) Similarly, the bouquet she carries down the aisle initially has extensive associations with her hoped-for fertility (a single flower, after all, would usually seem as inappropriate as a single handful of rice). Yet when the bride tosses the bouquet a different set of meanings comes to the fore: she is not discarding hopes of fertility but is rather, as noted above, shedding her liminal state as wife-to-be. She thus dramatizes her new married state through a playful (but ultimately serious) contrast with her unmarried former peers.
At one level, the white wedding cake, the same color as the bride's dress, evokes the sweetness and pleasure of conjugal unity (on the anticipated marital bed), as emphasized in the (quasi-erotic) moment when the bride and groom feed one another, as well as the resplendent and unique status of the couple, as often signified by small dolls of the couple atop the wedding cake. The cake may also be said to signify the collective investment of the assembled guests in the future procreative generativity of the couple and the hoped-for fecundity of the bride's body. After the couple has exchanged bites, all the guests are expected to eat a piece of the cake, in effect sealing through a shared act of commensality their united witnessing of the marriage and their common hopes for fruits of the union. The cake's associations with fecundity are further emphasized by its large, rotund shape (anticipating the bride's pregnant body) and by the practice of saving a piece to be consumed one year after the wedding, the idealized moment when a newborn baby is expected. In turn, the many handfuls of white rice thrown by the wedding party's members simultaneously re-emphasize their collective commitment to recognizing the marriage and evoke the union's hoped-for fecundity; appropriately, this action both marks the formal end of the rite and signals the commencement of a new liminal period, the honeymoon, during which the couple is traditionally supposed to initiate the sexual union that will lead to conception and birth.
In short, the bride's body and its symbolic extensions function as polyvalent symbolic media through which all members of the wedding are brought into close relationship with one another and with the mythic narrative of conception, fertility and the regeneration of life. The wedding is thus a supreme bourgeois ritual, producing a tangible, optimistic vision of a viable future, centered on the symbolic "birth" of a new nuclear family.
At the other end of the spectrum, the American funeral rite also centers on a single body, that of the corpse, in order to orchestrate another set of complex social and temporal relationships. The dead person may be thought of as moving from initial separation (through special treatment, including embalming), into the ambiguous liminal status of funeral corpse, to a final state of integration into the domain of the dead (signified through burial or cremation). This close attention to the dead body not only manages the deceased's social transition out of the living world, but separates the mourners as a collective social unit out of ordinary life, placing them into an ambiguous interstitial space and time. They wear special somber clothes, adopt a solemn demeanor, and may even be expected to view or kiss the corpse, before the coffin lid is closed and the service begins. At the rite's conclusion, they are collectively reintegrated into ordinary life, often through actions, such as food and lively conversation at a reception, that emphasize the renewal of life.
The ultimate consequence of the funeral's double tripartite structure is an achieved marked separation between the categories of life and death, Paradoxically, this ritual distance enables subsequent moments of communion between the living and the dead, as in visits to the cemetery, which are often tied to key moments in the annual calendar, such as Christmas, Memorial Day, or Mother's Day.27
The Annual Ritual Cycle: Integrative and Dispersive Tendencies in the "Holiday Season"
Rites of passage thus primarily concentrate upon individual life stage transitions, while simultaneously evoking collective transformations in family and kinship configurations. Conversely, calendrical family rites tend to foreground the collective institutional existence of the family, while secondarily highlighting personal life course journeys through successive family spheres.
To some extent, our major calendrical rites can be conceived as compensatory retreats from the external domains of commerce, getting and spending. Anthropologist Gwen Neville suggests that the modern family reunion (a North American practice developed after the Civil War) is an inverted kind of Protestant pilgrimage.28 The medieval Catholic pilgrim typically set off from a rural kinship-based setting and moved across a sacral landscape into the wider world toward a distant site, often marked by holy relics, through which he or she might come into intimate contact with the divine. In contrast, as Weber argued, the modern Protestant subject moves through a disenchanted landscape, sensing divine election only through disciplined work and persistent self-actualization in the marketplace. Hence, Neville, maintains, the modern longing, epitomized by the family reunion, to return periodically to the bonds of kinship within a nostalgic agrarian setting, such as the "old home place" or a state park.29 This insight may be extended to other modern calendrical ceremonies, which are also grounded in an imagined agrarian past, including the harvest festival (Thanksgiving and Halloween), the midwinter rite of sun return (Christmas, Kwanza and Hanukah) and spring fertility festivals (Easter and Passover). In contrast to earlier public festivals, however, the celebration of these rites has been privatized since the mid-nineteenth century, more and more confined to the interiors of nuclear family households. During the past century and a half, these rites have been increasingly homogenized, as regional variations have been leveled (although some distinguishing ethnic markers are often reinserted). These annual holidays thus function as apparent refuges from the wider world of work, enclaved from the rationalized calculations of the economy. Yet, paradoxically, the rites also celebrate the integration of the family into the larger nation and economy.
To appreciate the multiple dimensions of calendrical rites, let us briefly concentrate on the annual "holiday season," stretching from Halloween through Christmas. This two month period--centered on the image of pure child surrounded by a loving family--is characterized by mounting mass commodity consumption, during which all Americans are surrounded by the sights and sounds of marketing, from blinking lights, to storefront displays to Christmas carols. Building on Warner, Bellah approaches Thanksgiving as an integrative rite, binding discrete families into the national "civic religion" of shared sacrifice and imputed grace.30 The turkey might in this light be conceived of as symbolizing both the solidarity of the family (hence the common prohibition on cutting the turkey before all members and branches of the family have assembled at the table!) and the unity of the nation. In partaking of a piece of the turkey (partly consecrated by a common prayer or murmured words of thanks) family members are thus more intimately bound to one another and to their fellow citizens-symbolically integrated into what Benedict Anderson terms the "imagined community" of the nation. 31 In some families, this integration is hierarchically ordered; all "children," including unmarried persons of any age, are confined to the "children's table."32
Although commentators have for generations dutifully denounced the "commercialization" of Christmas as contrary to the day' spiritual and religious principles, it is manifestly a festival of mass commodity consumption, arguably the most important context through which the domestic domain is integrated into the broader public sphere. 33 Preparatory mini-pilgrimages to department store or shopping mall Santas are de rigeur in many families. 34 A Christmas morning featuring only homemade toys would hardly count as Christmas; enormous emphasis is placed on obtaining fashionable and expensive industrially manufactured gifts, especially those celebrated in the mass media. The common myth that Santa Claus, and not the parents, miraculously places the gifts under the Christmas tree could be interpreted as poetically evoking the nearly magical status of the commodity at the symbolic heart of the American family system.35 The gifts, after all, really do come from somewhere else (if not the North Pole) and through interacting with the outer world of the marketplace the parents have translated mere money into expressions of love, the foundation of the family unit. As Nancy Munn perceptively notes, the polyvalent symbol of the wrapped Christmas present effectively conflates two kinds of parental love.36 The outer colored wrapping evokes nurturing affection, classically associated with maternal love and aesthetics, while the material value of the store-bought gift within the wrapping evokes the parents' monetary contributions, classically associated with the wage-earning working father. Significantly, on Christmas morning, all these gifts, evoking the multiple relationships (parent-parent, parent-child, sibling-sibling) that constitute the nuclear family unit, are assembled around a singular ritual object, the Christmas tree. There should be only one tree per family, topped by one single star, but the tree itself should have been previously decorated through the collaborative work of the entire family, using objects that often evoke previous Christmas celebrations and key persons and events in family history. The idealized tableau of Christmas morning--children and parents delightedly opening gifts under the tree--is an exemplary model of the American family system, in which close relatives are bound together as a single unit by exchanging tokens of love derived from the wider market-driven culture.
The Christmas tree, while sometimes spoken of as a sign of family continuity, is also a potent sign of rupture between successive nuclear families. Once a new couple has established their own household, they are likely to have a tree of their own, and are considerably less likely to receive presents under their parents' trees in their natal households. Each newly established Christmas tree embodies the virtual sanctification of the new bourgeois home and nuclear family. Santa Claus, significantly, is believed to deposit his gifts at the symbolic core of domestic space, descending the chimney and entering the "living room" through the fireplace/hearth, an eminently maternal site.
These symbolic complexes may be read as striking evidence of the enduring resonance of premodern and pre-Christian symbolism in modern American culture. Levi-Strauss proposes that Father Christmas carries traces of a pagan quasi-shamanic figure, the King of Saturnalia, who embodies the seasonal cycles of death and the regeneration of life.37 By giving gifts to children--who for the three months following Halloween incarnate the spirits of the Dead--adults propitiate Death and enhance the vitality of the human world. Hence, parents tenderly struggle to maintain children's faith in Santa Claus for as long as possible. "Is it not that, deep within us," asks Levi-Strauss, "there is a small desire to believe in boundless generosity, kindness without ulterior motives, a brief interlude during which all fear, envy and bitterness are suspended? No doubt we cannot fully share the illusion, but sharing with others at least gives us a chance to warm our hearts by the flame that burns in young souls."38 In a similar vein, ethnographer Cindy Dell Clark observes that Christmas is not so much for children as it is a "a holiday in which other members of the culture socially situate themselves vis-à-vis children."39 In the wedding rite, as we have seen, the assembled take pleasure in the eventual prospect of the bride's fertility and the birth of children; in turn, on December 25th all are expected to rejoice in the realization of this promise, reveling in dramas of childish energy and vitality.
Pagan symbolism also runs through the rite that inaugurates the holiday season, Halloween, the night during which the souls of the dead were classically thought to roam the earth. Like Christmas, Halloween also centers on children, but with a different set of emphases. Disguised as ghosts, goblins and other supernatural beings, children would seem to function as temporary vessels of the dead traveling from house to house. The requirement that adults give gifts to these masked beings, on penalty of destructive mischief, could be read as an attempt to propitiate the forces of death, at precisely the moment in the northern hemisphere that the darkest and coldest season of the year descends. In this regard, illuminated jack-o-lanterns made of grimacing, carved pumpkins and placed on threshold sites such as porches might be interpreted as polyvalent (and prophylactic) talismans, simultaneously simulating feared goblins and guarding the home against intrusions by the dark spirits of the night.
Perhaps because of this underlying symbolism of inversion, death and disorder, Halloween celebrates the emergence of children's autonomy and individuation over their normative, vertical integration into the social collectivity. In spite (or perhaps because of) parental and mass media anxiety over child abduction and rumors of poisoned candy, children avidly campaign for trick-or-treating, a practice that dates only to the 1930s.40 Costumed trick-or-treating could be interpreted as a kind of "deep play" a symbolic rehearsal of adolescence and adulthood, as children try on new roles and identities (in the form of masks and costumes, often associated with miraculous powers) and venture out into the wider world, especially into the normally prohibited domains of other households -precisely the kind of sites they will come to know once they leave the nest of their parents' homes. In contrast to the integrative communion meals of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover or Easter, Halloween is centered on a kind of anti-meal, candy, which is not consumed in a collective context. As in classic carnival or saturnalia the world is "turned upside down" during Halloween.41 Children shout out commands to adults, venture out into the darkness, violate social conventions of decorum, flirt with the grotesque by over-eating and hanging toilet paper, and actively seek out frightening experiences. In temporarily taking control of instruments of secrecy, children may be tentatively exploring more pervasive mysteries and secrets of the adult social world. Each year, the complex dance of collaboration and conflict between parents and children over the precise nature of Halloween activities dramatizes in microcosm parents and children's deeper ambivalence over the maturation process: how much dependence or independence is desirable and tolerable?
Like the other family rituals we have considered, Halloween ambiguously dramatizes both the centrifugal and centripetal tendencies in American kinship. On the one hand, the rite exemplifies the child's growing horizontal integration into a socializing peer group, within which solidarity will be increasingly established (especially in adolescence) through carefully calibrated exercises in common risk-taking. On the other hand, Halloween also occasions intimate collaboration and solidarity between parents and children. The whole family often works together on elaborate scary decorations in the front yard, parents help dress the children in costume, and adults increasingly escort their children through the neighborhood on trick-or-treat ventures.
Taken as a whole, then, the entire holiday season may be regarded as a ritual drama evoking and "solving" the forces of dissolution and dispersal that threaten the American kinship system in a society that has radically separated the family from economic production, and which, in so doing, periodically pre-empts tri-generational households. The season begins on Halloween night, as children make ambiguous, experimental forays out to other households, testing the limits of parental forbearance and anxiety. Grandparents are often not present at Halloween, but the disturbing specters of more distant antecedents, in the form of the dead unleashed from the graveyard, are sensed and must be placated through ritual play. In turn, on Thanksgiving, at least three living generations should ideally be present to engage in joyous commensality. Significantly, Norman Rockwell's now mythic "Freedom from Want" World War II poster prominently displays loving grandparents at the top of the table, and places happy, expectant grandchildren at the table's base, evoking the affective solidarity between generations one and three. Finally, at Christmas, the ritual focus shifts from alternate generations (who may have traveled to be together) to the adjacent generations inhabiting a single nuclear family household. The white-haired Santa Claus makes a purported appearance as a substitute grandfather, but he is not, appropriately, to be seen by the children. In playing at being the grandfatherly Santa Claus, the parents, in effect, transfer the affective solidarity of alternate generations into the compressed nuclear home, reconciling proximate generations at the end of yet another year of inevitable parent-child negotiation and conflict. (One week later, on New Year's Eve, parents are rewarded with a night that is in principle for adults only, marking the final conclusion of the holiday season.)
Conclusion: From Contradiction to Paradox
Rather like the Ngoni mugeniso ceremony, modern middle-class American family rituals poetically encapsulate and work upon a set of pervasive conundrums at the heart of our kinship and economic system, revolving around problematic generational sequencing and ambiguous signs of abstracted exchange value. When these rituals "succeed," the radical formal divides between love and work, between family of origin and family of procreation, and between dependence and autonomy are, in effect, translated from the level of overt contradiction to a more inchoate level of paradoxical coexistence. In the context of a well-performed wedding, for instance, the costumed bride functions as a composite symbolic paradigm that simultaneously evokes separation and union, filial piety and conjugal eroticism, youth and maturity, poignant loss and the joyous regeneration of life. She is in one respect pure and authentic, an oasis of aesthetic perfection unsullied by the crude logic of the market. She is another respect the embodiment of financial solidity and the fruits of hard work, a tangible celebration of the wealth of her parents or of the marital couple itself. She makes her advent in the rite as a child, being passed away from the hand of her father; she disappears from view at its conclusion as a wife clutching her new husband's hand, showered by rice that evokes the new child she will, in principle, bring forth.
In a comparable fashion, Christmas promises to collapse everyday distinctions between emotion and economy, affection and rationality, juniors and seniors. On the one hand, Christmas is the annual culmination of the cult of domesticity, promising a tableau of unconditional love equally available to rich and poor like. On the other hand, Christmas celebrates the cornucopia of commodity consumption, and is the apotheosis of every dream and fantasy the market has to offer. It celebrates the transcendental self, rewarded through gifts and the pleasures of unbridled acquisition, yet locates that self within a coherent familial framework, under the encompassing sign of the Christmas tree. Each Christmas evokes the benevolent presence of grandfatherly figures, even it subtly moves the actual incumbents of generations one off stage, towards the mythical, invisible domain of Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the North Pole. Successive Christmases provide temporal benchmarks as persons move through the life cycle, from their natal family to new nuclear family units, allowing for periodic reflections on the shape of one's life and for what Shore terms "identity-updating."42
Our greatest mythic narrative of Christmas, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directly addresses both the intertwining of the market and the holiday and the complex intersections of personal biography and intergenerational temporal sequencing. Scrooge, the embodiment of soulless capitalist rationality, demands that Bob Cratchet work on Christmas Day, then fires him on this day, of all days. He is punished by successive visitations (significantly, brought to him by the dead themselves) of the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. In his visions of the past, he re-experiences the pain of love lost and friendship betrayed. In the present, he sees the immediate consequences of his action. In the future, he glimpses the possible legacies of his selfishness, in his own unlamented death and in the preventable death of Cratchet's young son, Tiny Tim. Finally, embracing the spirit of Christmas through joyous commodity consumption and distribution, Scrooge saves Tiny Tim and, in so doing, remakes the future and saves himself. He thereby grasps the basic paradox of Christmas and of the sentimental domestic cult: in giving unstintingly to the junior generation that will in time replace both the middle and senior generations, elders actively secure their own vitality and achieve symbolic immortality. Appropriately, it falls to the youngest child, Tiny Tim, to pronounce the closing words of salvation over the elderly Scrooge and the extended family of Christmas revelers: "God bless us, everyone."
As A Christmas Carol reminds us, although family rites produce powerful visions of the past, present and future, they do not, in themselves, determine whether or not the future will be bleak or joyous, alienating or transcendent. As most of us have learned, family rituals can trigger moments of devastating isolation, or afford exquisite glimpses of the sublime. Ritual provides microcosmic, condensed models of the contradictory texture of lived experience, yet these models are not fixed templates, but are only the potential building blocks out of which we may, under certain conditions, come to know ourselves, our antecedents and our descendants more deeply. In creatively manipulating these building blocks, we may improvise more effective and meaningful relations with love ones.
Here, then, lies the greatest paradox of our family rituals: in subordinating ourselves to pre-existent structures that we neither fully understand nor control, we are afforded the possibility of discovering novel aspects of ourselves and our relations with others, living and dead. Such visions may be as fleeting as a bride's tossed bouquet, a Christmas gift's wrapping, the menorah's flickering flame, or a tossed clod of earth. Yet it is out of such glimpses that we may fabricate meaningful trajectories of self and collectivity. In our ritual performances, enigmatic dramas of the insolvable puzzles of our common world, we pursue the enduring double task of reconciling our love with our work, our predecessors with our posterity.
- 1. Herve Varenne. Americans together, structured diversity in a midwestern town. (New York Teachers' College Press, 1977); Bradd Shore, Family Time: Studying Myth and Ritual in Working Families (Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Working Paper 028-03, 2003)
- 2. Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.Trans., John E. Wood. (New York: Random House, 1994) In a sense, Mann's novel prophesies the emergence of the modern nuclear family.
- 3. Bradd Shore, Family Time: Studying Myth and Ritual in Working Families (Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Working Paper 028-03, 2003)
- 4. Sociologists working in the tradition of Erving Goffman tend to use the term "ritual" in a rather broader sense, to refer to any patterned, repeated behavior. See Goffman, Erving. Interaction Rituals. (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. 1967)
- 5. N.D. Fustel de Coulanges, The ancient city. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1980 ); Emile Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (New York: Basic Book, 1915); Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural anthropology Volume I (New York: Basic Books. 1966); Pierre Bourdieu. Outline of a theory of practice. Translated by Richard Nice. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 1977); Maurice Bloch, Ritual, history and power: Selected papers in anthropology.(London: Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Athlone Press. 1989)
- 6. Victor Turner, The ritual process: Structure and anti structure. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); Carlo Ginzburg, The night battles; Witchcraft and agrarian cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries. trans. J. & A. Tedeschi, (New York: Penguin Books. 1986) Stuart Hall, & T. Jefferson, T. (Eds.) Resistance through rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain. (London: Routledge. 1993); David Lan, Guns and rain:Guerrillas and spirit mediums in Zimbabwe. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1985.) Pater Stallybrass and Albon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. (London. Methuen. 1986); Jean Comaroff. Body of power, spirit of resistance: The culture and history of a South African people. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1985)
- 7. Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the making of humanity. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1999).
- 8. Keith Burridge, New heaven, new earth: A study of millenarian activities.(New York: Schocken Books. 1969); Dick Hebdige, Subculture:The meaning of style. (London: Methuen, 1979)
- 9. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural anthropology. Volume I. (New York: Basic Books, 1966); Valerio Valeri. Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Nancy Jay, Throughout your generations forever: Sacrifice, religion and paternity. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1992.)
- 10. J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the play element of culture. (London, Routledge & K. Paul. 1949); Mikhail Bakhtin. Rabelais and his world. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1968); Clifford Geertz, The interpretation of cultures. (New York: Basic Books. 1973.); Keith Basso, Portraits of the "the Whiteman": Linguistic play and cultural symbols among the western Apache. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 1979)
- 11. Barbara Babcock (ed.) The reversible world: Symbolic inversion in art and society.( Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1978.)
- 12. Bradd Shore. Culture in mind: Cognition, culture and the problem of meaning. New York: Oxford University Press. 1996) p.50
- 13. For an overview of American middle class ritual, see Mark Auslander" Rituals of the Family" Sloan Work Family Encyclopedia. 2002. http://wfnetwork.bc.edu/encyclopedia_entry.php?id=253
- 14. Many of my Ngoni friends professed horror and disgust upon learning of the American practice of the rehearsal dinner. "How can affines eat together, before a child has even been born? Don't all your families go crazy in time?" a young man asked me.
- 15. Ngoni and Bemba retain a joking relationship with one another, and are expected to cavort uproariously at one another's funerals. In some respects, the relationship between affines at the mugeniso resembles a joking relationship, characterized by raucous clowning and muted aggression.
- 16. John Gillis, A world of their own making; Myth, ritual and the quest for family values. (New York: Basic Books. 1996); For an illuminating discussion of French bourgeois rituals of the 19th century, see A. Martin-Fugier, Bourgeois rituals. In M. Perot. (Ed.) A history of private life (Volume 4).(pp. 261-337. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1990)
- 17. The generational solidarity of the cohorts is usually emphasized, on an evening preceding the wedding, by single-sex reveling at bachelor and bachelorette parties.
- 18. The closest equivalents to age-grades in modern American society are class cohorts at school. Not surprisingly, the maid of honor and best man are often high school or college classmates of the bride and groom.
- 19. I realize that all these untoward scenarios must have happened in some weddings, but in an ideal-typical sense these enactments would seem to violate the normative constitutive principles of the system.
- 20. Arnold van Gennep. The Rites of Passage. (London: Routledge, 2004); Victor Turner, Betwixt and Between; The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage. in Victor Turner, The forest of symbols. Aspects of Ndembu ritual. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1967)
- 21. The enormous ideological and emotional power of such rites of passage, which can provide such deeply meaningful frameworks through the life cycle, is evidenced by the ever-increasing popularity of innovative life-transition rites, ranging from gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies and weddings to Afrocentric coming of age ceremonies. Indeed, one might argue that given the declining formal economic rationale for the nuclear family, the family is pre-eminently a ritual order in modern American society; a "family" could increasingly be defined as a group of people who practice a set of domestic rituals, integrating them both into intimate units and into larger structures of belonging across divides of space and time.
- 22. Yaya Ren, personal communication.
- 23. R.E. Davis-Floyd, Birth as an American rite of passage. (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1992)
- 24. Felicity H Paxton, America at the Prom: Ritual and regeneration. (Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania. 2000)
- 25. Sherry Ortner, Ethnography among the Newark: The class of '58 of Weequakic high school. Michigan Quarterly Review. 32. 1993. , pp. 411-429.
- 26. Victor Turner, The forest of symbols. Aspects of Ndembu ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967)
- 27. Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalfe, Celebrations of death: The anthropology of mortuary ritual. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).; Lloyd Warner, The living and the dead: A study of the symbolic life of Americans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959); John Gillis, A world of their own making; Myth, ritual and the quest for family values. (New York: Basic Books, 1996)
- 28. Gwen Neville Kennedy, Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion in American Protestant Culture. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); see also, Gwen Kennedy Neville Kinship and Pilgrimage: Rituals of Reunion In American Protestant Culture(Working Paper 023-03, Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, 2003)
- 29. This argument is developed in reference to Protestant camp meetings by Bradd Shore, in his Spiritual Work, Memory Work: Revival and Recollection at Salem Camp Meeting (Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Working Paper 024-03, 2003). For a discussion of American family reunions, with particular attention to African American reunions, see Mark Auslander, Something we need to get back to: Mythologies of Origin and Rituals of Solidarity in African American Working Families. (Working Paper, Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life. 2003)
- 30. Warner, op cit; R. Bellah, Civil religion in America. in Bellah, Beyond belief: Essays on religion in a post-traditional word. (pp. 168-187). (New York: Harper and Row. 1970)
- 31. Benedict Anderson. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism.( London: Verso. 1983)
- 32. The Thanksgiving rite also enables degrees of ethnic and family-specific variation. Cuban Americans, for example, may tend to serve as a special shredded turkey dish. Individual extended or nuclear families often consume a particular dish, or follow a particular practice that they consider unique to their family.
- 33. L.E. Schmidt, Consumer rites: The buying and selling of American holidays. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. 1995.)
- 34. W.B. Waits, The modern Christmas in America. (New York: New York University Press. 1993);J.M. Golby, & A.M. Purdue, The making of modern Christmas. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. 1986.)
- 35. Indeed, Belk argues that Santa is a secular, capitalist transformation of Christ: while the anti-materialist Jesus "reigns in the realm of the spirit," Santa is "first and foremost a symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure." See Ressell W. Belk. A Child's Christmas in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion. The Journal of American Culture. 10 (1); 87-100. On Christmas and capitalism see also Lloyd Warner, The living and the dead: A study of the symbolic life of Americans. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).; Daniel Miler, (Ed.).Unwrapping Christmas. (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1993); L.E. Schmidt, Consumer rites: The buying and selling of American holidays (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).; E.H. Pleck, Celebrating the family: Ethnicity, consumer culture, and family rituals. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).; R. Horsley, & J. Tracy (Eds.), Christmas unwrapped. Consumerism, Christ, and Culture. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International. 2001)
- 36. Nancy Munn. Symbolism in a Ritual Context: Aspects of Symbolic Action. (1973) pp.607-8
- 37. Claude Levi-Strauss. Killing Father Christmas, in Daniel Miller, ed. Unwrapping Christmas. (Oxford: Claredon Press. 1995)
- 38. Claude Levi-Straus, Killing Father Christmas, p.50
- 39. Clark, Cindy Dell. Flights of fancy, leaps of faith: Children's myths in contemporary America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1995) p.40
- 40. Elizabeth H. Pleck, Celebrating the family: Ethnicity, consumer culture, and family rituals. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2000)
- 41. On saturnalia, see Mikhail Bakhtin Rabelais and his world. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. 1968)
- 42. Bradd Shore Autobiographical Memory and Identity Updating Salem Camp Meeting (Emory Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life, Working Paper 048-06, 2006)