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Friday, November 11, 2005

On Holidays, and Other (Invented) Traditions

I love holidays, as anyone who has read this blog for a while surely knows. In particular, I enjoy the holiday mentality which descends upon the U.S. during the fall, or what my father-in-law calls (jokingly, but not without affection) "Hallothanksmas." Yes, it's true, for a lot of Americans Halloween and Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays all smear together, sometimes creating a cascade of annoyance and stress, all of which is greatly aided and abetted by a consumer culture that starts shoving holiday commercials and goods down our throats at the first opportunity. (I can remember watching TV at my grandmother's house after Thanksgiving dinner when I was a child, curious to see the Christmas commercial season begin. Nowadays, when Santa Claus starts making appearances at some shopping malls around November 1, that seems like a century ago.) Nonetheless, I still think it's a wonderful time. Partly this is simply because of the turn of the season; the arrival of autumn and eventual its transformation into winter is, in much of the North American imagination at least, an even greater seasonal marker than the arrival of spring: it generates feelings of remembrance, renewal, and thoughtful reflection (as well as some great writing in the blogosphere, as the foregoing links attest). But mostly, I think, it's because these are still, nonetheless, good holidays, which year after year give us a chance to ground ourselves in traditions that both enlighten and entertain.

A couple of weeks back, Scott McLemee wrote a snarky-but-somewhat-serious column about Festivus, the Seinfeld-inspired holiday that, apparently, actual people actually "celebrate." The fact that I just put "celebrate" in quotations marks (and, indeed, just did it again) is part of McLemee's point: Festivus is so wholly manufactured, so completely a creature of the mass media and the narcissistic world of ironic detachment that it enables, that it can't possibly be celebrated without that celebration itself being comment on the presumed constructedness of all celebrations; Festivus is, therefore, the "postmodern 'invented tradition' par excellence."

It's a funny and sharp piece, like everything Scott writes, but something about it bugged me. The way he set up his analysis on Festivus leaned on Eric Hobsbawm's argument about the invention of tradition. Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian who played a large role in developing the "constructivist" or modernist reading on nationality, is of the opinion that the fact that we associate certain traditions with holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so forth, is indicative of our historical position vis-a-vis those holidays: only when they are no longer binding, no longer obligatory, no longer necessary--in other words, once the world had sufficiently modernized that we could actually partake of forms of life that our illiterate, village-dwelling ancestors couldn't possibly have imagined--do any of these holidays actually suggest anything traditional. In other words, "traditions" are themselves always invented. They are modern creations, cobbled together from "bits and pieces of the past," as Scott put it; pieces that allow us to imagine what that lost world must have been like, a world that isn't any longer, but which still holds a kind of longingful "the way things ought to be" over our lives nonetheless. No one who actually lived what we reconstruct as "traditional" ever thought about it that way; that kind of sentimental treatment of various rituals and practices only comes along when one doesn't actually live that way any longer (assuming you ever did).

That last parenthetical aside is the heart of my complaint with this interpretation. Scott doesn't press the point, but anyone familiar with such Hobsbawmian readings of history know that central to such arguments is the presumption that our acts of cobbling bits of the past together are always profoundly flawed. Scott eludes to this when he mentions the argument that "traditional Christmas carols" only became such when moderns started getting interested in identifying and encouraging the singing of carols at Christmastime as a way to preserve the feeling of the day, whereas the actual historical record of Christmas observances suggests that for centuries people just sang the same hymns in church all year long, whatever the season. In short, this argument tells us that holiday traditions, indeed all traditions, are more about our own longings (and perhaps our own power struggles) then anything which actually "connects" us to a larger historical or cultural whole; any "meaning" drawn out of a tradition, therefore, like any meaning attached to a community or nation, is a sentimental fiction. Which makes it that much easier (and even, in the eyes of many, admirable) to tire of all the presumed pressure which modernity puts upon us to prop up connections to whatever came before, say "bah, humbug!" to the whole thing, and celebrate--if one celebrates at all--with complete detachment from one's own arbitrary inventions. Bring on Festivus!

My complaint with this argument isn't, primarily, with the history (though I'm one of those who think the meaningful ties people feel to a culture or nation are a lot less arbitrary and a lot older than Hobsbawm & Co. would have you think). Rather, it's with the little normative punch hidden within it--the implication that, obviously, as all our reflecting and cobbling are driven by psychological factors and hang-ups, the mature thing to do is to just adopt a Festivus-type attitude towards all of them. Again, this isn't Scott's argument, at least not directly, but it's one that lurks over much of the debate about holidays and traditions. It assumes that the ability to meaningfully affirm things through ritual and observance depends upon a "naivete" which has been destroyed by modernity, and that talk of "tradition" means little more than aspiring to some kind of blinkered "second naivete" that will cover up our constructive role in establishing said rituals and observances in the first place. Such aspirations, some say, are both flawed and foolish. I'm bringing in Ricoeurian language here, I realize, and I don't want to derail this into a belabored philosophical discussion (I've done that a couple of times already), but I think it's necessary in order to refute both those claims. It is not as though holidays and traditions in the premodern world somehow existed in the absence of any sort of subjectivity or interpretive correspondence; the constructive identification of rituals and observances with particular ends has always been present. (This point is underlined by Scott's offhand description of premodern holidays as something you did because "[n]ot doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable"--which implies, of course, that there were acts of imagination involved, acts which defined what rituals pertained to the holiday and how and why they so pertained, thus allowing one to label that which was out of bounds or abnormal.) And if this is the case, then the increased subjective awareness which attends our own rituals and observances does not mean that our appreciation of them is categorically different from what came before; we may well be inventing something when we celebrate holidays today, but whatever we come up with need not be an arbitrary invention, because our inventing can very possibly a kind of adaptive remembering, a connecting that is potentially every bit as morally valid as that which was experienced by those who went through the same process as the seasons turned a hundred or even a thousand years ago.

Recently, when listing a bunch of favorite holiday children's books in our family, I mentioned Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Matt Faulkner. It very entertainingly tells the story of Sarah Hale, an abolitionist, editor and social reformer, who spent thirty years writing letters and publishing articles, trying to get the U.S. government to officially acknowledge (and thus hopefully resuscitate) Thanksgiving, the observance of which in the mid-19th century was slowing dying out. She finally succeeded, and the book makes President Lincoln's declaration of a national Thanksgiving holiday out to be Sarah's greatest triumph. But I think we can take a lesson from that. Sure, you could cynically dismiss Hale as a sentimental busybody. But maybe she was more; maybe she was committed to helping her country engage in a little creative remembering. The fact that what she accomplished was, strictly speaking, a political invention doesn't, I think, take anything away from the real connections it made possible for all Americans. That's a valuable point to keep in mind. Note that if you accept this view of holiday "inventions," it becomes possible to actually critique the construction of holidays, to study and reflect on their rituals and observances as better or worse adaptations of the meaning of the day. This is especially appropriate today, on Veterans Day, an American holiday that honors people richly worth honoring, but along the way does terrible disservice to the deeper roots of the day, roots far better honored in those countries that have preserved November 11th as Remembrance or Armistice Day. (See here, here, here, and here for just a sampling of those who agree.) You could make no such critique if all holidays, and all the remembering they make possible, were essentially just arbitrary poses adopted by nostalgic moderns.

Not to say that you shouldn't celebrate Festivus, and be as postmodern as you can, if it turns you on. And it's not like I'm suggesting holiday traditions can't be mocked. (Misrule plays a part in every Christmas, after all.) But don't read that postmodernism back into the very existence of modern holidays, if you please. There's too much truth to be found in letting traditions seasonally locate you in a place and time and community to stand for that.


Hellmut said...

May be, Schumpeter captures the difference between modern and premodern holidays.

Pre-modern imagination captured tradition more authentically not because people did not imagine but because their presence resembled the past more closely. As innovation has become the enduring feature of the human condition, creative destruction has been accelarating. Therefore the presence is less like the past. Thus the spontaneous search for meaning cannot authentically imagine the past anymore.

We should write a paper about Hobsbawm, Schumpeter, and imagining tradition. :) 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz

Russell Arben Fox said...


"Pre-modern imagination captured tradition more authentically not because people did not imagine but because their presence resembled the past more closely."

This I can agree with, and it's an important complement (and perhaps corrective) to what I was arguing about up above. Definitely, the actual materiality of progress has taken most of us away from the sources of our holiday traditions, the majority of which took form in a more seasonal, agrarian context. The less we are tied to the seasons or to the countryside--because technology allows us to escape it--then the less access we have to the local, "intuitive" knowledge which the rituals of all these holidays presumed. So yes, to the extent that we are not talking about the modes of consciousness by which traditions invest life with meaning, but rather about the actual material knowledge that traditions require, then moderns definitely have lost something. (It would be interesting to look at Festivus in Schumpeterian rather than Hobsbawmian terms: why the alummunim pole? Because in the city no one has any evergreen trees of their own to chop down, and all the local Christmas tree merchants are just trying to rip you off!)

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Russell Arben Fox said...


"I actually hate Christmas. I kept it a secret until a few years ago, when I discovered that it is fun to say I hate Christmas. And others seem to enjoy hearing me say I hate Christmas....But this seems to me to be the sign of a healthy, un-self-conscious celebration--that it has developed forms which are so manifestly ridiculous that one can easily despise the thing without constituting a threat to moral order."

Hmm--I guess I can see that. Hating a tradition, or certain elements of a tradition, can be a way of acknowledging its enduring presence; why would someone bother to hate something that is an irrelevant construct? Of course, a lot of people hate things because; they are, supposedly, irrelevant constructs. This is the burden of the Enlightenment; we're supposed to "wake up" from anything that can't be justified on purely rational terms. So I guess I'd have to ask why you hate it: because you don't like the substance of the extant traditions, or because you think they're "fake." If the latter, then I would say you're doing damage to the moral order. If the former, you're not--Christmas needs the Grinch, after all.

Hellmut said...


I cannot resist: How would you apply your concept to the Smithmas celebration on December 23? 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz

Anonymous said...

I love Thanksgiving, too. However, at one of our recent Thanksgiving dinners, someone (possibly one of the kids) raised the question of whether it is appropriate to "give thanks" if you don't think there is Someone up there to thank. I suppose I mainly feel grateful to the other people sitting around the table; that's also my dominant emotion at Christmas. But gratitude and affection for one's kin and friends is not the official meaning of those holidays. For those who don't embrace the traditional meanings, a sense of artificiality is perhaps inevitable. Still, even if we gather on Thanksgiving Day for arbitrary reasons, we can sincerely appreciate one another. That is what the Seinfeld four were incapable of. 

Posted by Peter Levine