Purdue News

December 8, 2004

Holiday traditions recall family history, values

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Asking Santa for a happy family holiday season? Then start with tradition, says a Purdue University cultural anthropologist.

"Tradition is very important because we rely on it to define ourselves and our values," says Andrew Buckser, associate professor of anthropology, who researches the relationship of ritual, culture and religion, and specializing on Judaism in Europe. "It's how we tell our story. Holiday rituals are really a kind of play, and everyone is always rewriting the script. Each of us is our own character, and we each have something we want to say."

Many people think rituals are only associated with so-called primitive societies or religious activities, but everyone, even non-religious people in the Western world, participates in rituals, he says. Holiday rituals are especially important for us because they represent the few times we really connect our personal pasts to our lives today.

"Holidays, such as Christmas and Hanukkah, include large family gatherings, and these reunions are how we create symbolism about what we are as a family," Buckser says.

People are not always aware of what that symbolism means. Why, for example, do most Americans eat cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, when they do not really like it and would not eat it any other time of the year? Foods like that often say things about who we are as a nation and a culture, Buckser says.

If tradition must be broken, find ways for people to engage in something new, Buckser recommends. For example, if grandma is not able to prepare latkes for Hanukkah this season, still find something for her to do or ask her to share her recipes with the new cooks.

"Hosts make the mistake of not including relatives in the holiday meal preparations, but preparing food is one of the most important ways that people participate in traditions," Buckser says.

For many families, decorating the Christmas tree is the most symbolic ritual they participate in.

"Decorating a tree is like assembling your past," Buckser says.

Some families decorate with homemade ornaments, and others use ornaments that have been received as gifts or inherited from family members.

"Remember that there's a difference between history and tradition," Buckser says. "History is ideally about an accurate record, but tradition is what we think of the past. It's our own folklore, a way we can say what we want about ourselves. This also is why traditions are always changing."

CONTACT: Andrew Buckser, (765) 496-2857, bucksera@soc.purdue.edu.


To the News Service home page

Newsroom Search Newsroom home Newsroom Archive