Chronicle of Higher Education 2002

Flirting and Flag-Waving: the Revealing Study of Holidays and Rituals.
By Amitai Etzioni

My colleagues in the social sciences may wish to bring along their laptops, or at least their notebooks, as they join family 
and friends during the winter holiday season. The ways in which holidays and rituals like weddings and funerals, 
confirmations and birthdays, are celebrated reveal volumes about cultures and how they change.

The merit of using holidays and rituals as a research tool was driven home to me recently when I traveled to Iran as a 
guest of a group of reformers. I had long been deeply impressed by the religious fervor of hundreds of thousands of 
Iranians whom newsreels in the 1980s showed marching in the streets, flagellating themselves with heavy-duty, 
Hydra-headed whips, drawing blood to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein in 683 CE. When I found myself in 
Shiraz on the memorial day Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day after the martyr’s death, I heard that self-flagellations 
were about to take place down the road, and I rushed there with my camera and notebook. What I found was a 
well-stylized dance. Young men were eagerly stepping in a circle to the tune of pleasant, if repetitive, music, gently 
waving slight whips, with which they symbolically touched their well-covered backsides. They did not even work up a 
sweat, much less draw blood.

It was my eighth day in Iran. The gentle self-flagellation reminded me that I had heard fewer calls to prayer in Tehran 
than in any other Muslim city I had visited. During set prayer times, several of the mosques were nearly empty, and some 
were being converted for other uses. Indeed, one of the mosques in Tehran is now used as a political party’s election 
headquarters. My Iranian colleagues explained, and the rituals demonstrated, that the overwhelming majority of young 
Iranians (two-thirds of the population is under age 30) neither fast during Ramadan nor pray at the five daily required 
times. It might not be practical to collect mosque-attendance statistics or conduct public-opinion polls, but there is strong 
evidence that the power of religion over the people of Iran seems to be attenuating.

The reason that holidays and rituals are so revealing is that they have a very special place in the architecture of society. 
To put it succinctly, many sociologists hold that newborns are little savages who become socialized by being introduced 
to the values of their society. However, those values need constant reinforcement as our daily routines distance us from 
them. Holidays and rituals are the occasions on which our commitment to the values is shored up. Weekends, including, 
perhaps, religious services, are times set apart from our weekly business. Holidays, a tier removed from the whole weekly 
routine, serve as supra-weekends.

Looking at holidays that way leads one to ask which values a given society, in a given historical period, seeks to 
reinforce. Thus, if we could find out to what extent Christmas, in a given culture, is centered on the love of God for his 
children, on relationships (especially family ones), or on giving gifts and sending cards, that information would cast light 
on the culture’s values. It is common to observe that Christmas and other holidays have become excessively commercial, 
but as far as I can find out, nobody has shown that people’s values have changed along with their retail spending.

The same types of question might be asked about any other holiday. Is the Fourth of July a day of patriotism, or just 
another day at the beach? Is Memorial Day dedicated to remembering those we lost and what they stood for, or just an 
excuse for a long weekend? Comparing the findings of his 1976-79 study of Muncie, Ind., to data from 1890 and 1929, 
the renowned University of Virginia sociologist Theodore Caplow found that, over the past few generations, the focus of 
holidays has shifted away from rituals emphasizing civic loyalty, and toward family-centered celebrations. There have 
been few similar studies, however, beyond a scattering of dissertations on very select aspects of Memorial Day 

Tell an experienced researcher what is being celebrated and how, and that observer will be able to derive some insight 
into the values a society seeks to uphold. You might object that while people sometimes say a given holiday exists to 
honor this or that value, their behavior belies what they tell you. Well, that, too, of course, is helpful information. If one 
concludes that they are merely paying lip service to values they no longer cherish, then it’s natural to seek to find out 
when that happened, why, whether some new ritual has come to take the place of the waning one, whether it is 
deteriorating for overtly political reasons or more-mundane ones, and so on.

In highly homogeneous societies, most people celebrate holidays in more or less the same way. In such societies, 
holidays and rituals often serve to assimilate people from different subcultures into the values of the prevailing culture. 
But other holidays may serve to mark the rise of pluralism and even opposing values.

Kwanzaa, for instance, was originally a protest holiday of sorts, invented in 1966, in the wake of the Watts riots, by the 
black nationalist Maulana Karenga, a professor of sociology at California State University at Long Beach. He devised it to 
be an alternative to Christmas for African-Americans. He wanted to shield celebrants from what he saw as Christmas’s 
dominant white values — its European roots and traditions, its contemporary focus on shopping and gift giving — and to 
help them reconnect with their African ancestry. An attempt to “reaffirm African culture” (in Karenga’s words), Kwanzaa 
melds the traditions of several African harvest festivals with new rituals meant to embody unity, self-determination, 
struggle, and other values.

However, over time, Kwanzaa has become more mainstream, commercialized by greeting-card companies and gift giving, 
and celebrated in addition to (rather than instead of) Christmas. If a team of researchers looked deeper, who knows what 
ambivalence and variants they’d find?

A study of May Day celebrations will reveal a lot about the status of a nation’s workers. Do they march to promote their 
own values in opposition to the dominant culture, to seek a fair share in that culture, or to mark the day as sort of a 
nostalgic historical homage to workers’ movements? Social-democratic Europe always took May Day more seriously than 
did the United States, but less seriously than the Soviet Union. What will May Day look like in the budding, quirky, 
capitalistic greenhouse of Russia and its formerly or partially socialist neighbors? How will it play out in the Americas as 
new, wider trade pacts are proposed, and information-age technologies threaten to displace worker hours?

What values can we find in celebrations of Halloween, Oktoberfest, Purim, New Year’s Eve, and Mardi Gras? Some 
scholars view them as occasions on which people suspend the norms of behavior and blow off steam. After that release, 
established theories suggest, we’re able to return to the grind a little refreshed. Many of those holidays involve 
costumes, so revelers can briefly step outside their identities: A gay man can be a nun; a Jew can be a Persian king.

However, I am unaware of any data showing that after those events, people actually return to work with new vigor. It 
wouldn’t surprise me if research determined, in fact, that violating workaday norms during those holidays serves to 
increase tension at work and at home rather than vent it. Bosses, on January 2, are more likely to feel disgusted by 
employees who drunkenly teased them on New Year’s Eve than to feel a human bond with them. Spouses who flirted — 
much less those who, in their merriment, were unfaithful — are unlikely to be soon forgiven. Here is fertile ground for 
studies in social psychology and its sister sciences.

If one compares holidays and rituals characterized by “tension management,” to borrow a phrase from Talcott Parsons, 
with those that reinforce values, one gains an important tool for determining whether a given culture is holding firm or 
unraveling. It is also informative to see which type of holiday is more common in a society.

In Israel’s pioneering days, when the commitment to hard work and the common good was paramount, as well as in 
earlier, more-religious periods in the Diaspora, value-reinforcement holidays were much celebrated, while the 
tension-management ones were given short shrift. Fifty years ago, Passover, with its heavy educational agenda, was 
emphasized, and Purim, which features a fair amount of drinking, costumes, role playing, and games, was played down. 
In contemporary Israel, it seems to me, Passover is still a major holiday, but not as central as it used to be, and Purim 
has moved up at least a notch or two. Scholars studying the changing importance of any two holidays could probably 
learn much about the condition of the society they are examining.

Holidays and rituals are so revealing that it is hard to imagine an aspect of society that they don’t illuminate. Say you 
want to find out whether a given culture is moving away from tradition, seeking to restore it, or attempting to find some 
kind of synthesis between the more-distant past and the period since the 1960s counterculture. A study of weddings 
would be a mighty good place to start. Weddings are the subject of a few dissertations and articles in narrow journals, 
and some literature explores the wedding industry as a business, but we don’t have nearly enough in-depth research on 
the subject.

If I had to guess, synthesis is winning out. Fewer weddings are tradition-free; there’s less Mozart next to a brook followed 
by vows composed by the couple. But at the same time, few weddings strictly follow the traditional seven bridesmaids, 
seven grooms. Couples are combining old forms with personal twists — weddings held in a church but with vows 
composed partially by the couple, or Jewish weddings of couples who commission the traditional ketubah (marriage 
contract), but adjust the document with personalized words, symbols, and artwork. If we could establish that these are, 
indeed, trends, what would we make of them?

An enormous amount of data shows that intermarriage is becoming more common. About 45 percent of third-generation 
Asian-Americans and Latin Americans intermarry, and the rate is on the increase, though more slowly, for 
African-Americans, too. A 1997 study showed that in 1990, 84 percent of married African-Americans over age 65 were 
married to other African-Americans, while only 53 percent of those under age 25 were married to other 
African-Americans. But such information comes from census studies and public-opinion surveys. Dig deeper, as only 
academics have the inclination and competence to do, and we can explore whether intermarriage reflects, or spurs, shifts 
in the couples’ thinking about other matters, too.

Other occasions as well can illuminate the changing relations between men and women. On one hand, you will find some 
indications that gender inequality is decreasing. For instance, some bachelorette parties have become bawdy enough to 
make men blush, while some bachelor parties have became tamer. On the other hand, holidays seem to be what 
sociologists call a lagging sector, one that changes after others have been recast. Thus, even in relatively liberated 
families — in which the husbands do a fair share of the household duties, including cooking and cleaning during ordinary 
days — men watch football on Thanksgiving while their wives slave in the kitchen, or at least fuss at the takeout counter.

As a communitarian, I am particularly interested in what is happening in public spaces, because it is there that 
communities are created and reinforced. The more people withdraw into their homes and cars — say, because of fear of 
crime or terrorists — the harder it is to nurture a sense of community.

The Fourth of July used to be a communal event. As the social historian Diana Karter Appelbaum shows, during the late 
18th century the holiday parade would end in a church, where the members of the community would have dinner 
together. By the 1970s and ’80s, there seems to have been considerable movement toward celebrating the Fourth as a 
picnic in one’s backyard or in a space reserved for a group in a park.

However, it appears that after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Fourth has again become a rather public and 
community-building holiday. Shanksville, Pa., the site of the crash of United Flight 93, held its first-ever formal 
Independence Day celebration, which drew visitors from around the country. Shanksville has become a shrine to 
American heroism, and its Fourth of July observances emphasized its role in the national tragedy.

Generations ago, holidays and rituals intrigued some of the social-science giants, like Émile Durkheim. More recently, a 
number of anthropologists have studied rituals and holidays in far-off societies. And a few scholars have turned their 
skills to American rituals. Elihu Katz, of the University of Pennsylvania, has looked at such practices as reflected in media 
culture; John Bodnar, of Indiana University at Bloomington, at commemoration and patriotism; Leigh Eric Schmidt, of 
Princeton University, at holidays and consumer culture; and Penne Restad, of the University of Texas at Austin, at 
Americans’ celebration of Christmas.

Young social scientists choosing their areas of specialization should think seriously about joining in this rich vein of 
inquiry. Rituals, like streetlights, lull us with their repetition and regularity. But the sometimes subtle shifts in light change 
both our world and how we see it.

Amitai Etzioni is a university professor at George Washington University. His recent books include The Monochrome 
Society (Princeton University Press, 2001).

This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (December 11, 2002) p. 16B.