Monthly Archives: December 2012

Ringing It In And Other Rituals: New Year’s Traditions From Around The World

Sydney. Fireworks Newyear 2006. Opera House an...

Sydney. Fireworks Newyear 2006. Opera House and Harbour. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How do you celebrate the new year? Booze? Lentils? Party Hats? Resolutions?

New Year’s is one of those holidays that, regardless of where you live (provided you are connected to civilization and not living off the grid or in a tree), is celebrated by most people around the world. Many cultures have similar traditions but it seems that equally as many have their own nuances.

In the spirit of a cultural education for the new year, here is a list of traditions from around the globe, courtesy of

Australian: New Year’s is celebrated on January 1. This is a public holiday and many people spend it having picnics and camping on the beach. Their parties start on December 31. At midnight they start to make noise with whistles, rattles, car horns, and church bells to ring in the New Year.

Austria: New Year’s Eve is called Sylverterabend, which is the Eve of Saint Sylvester. they make a spiced punch in honor of the saint. Decorations and champagne are part of the celebration. Evil spirits of the old year are chased away by the firing of moroars, called boller. Midnight mass is attended and trumpets are blown from church towers at midnight, when people kiss each other.

Belgian: New Year’s Eve is called Sint Sylvester Vooranvond, or Saint Sylvester Eve. People throw parties and at midnight everyone kisses and exchanges good luck greetings. New Year’s Day is call Nieuwjaarrsdag. children write letters on decorated paper to their parents and god parents, and read the letter to them.

Great Britain: the custom of first footing is practiced. the first male visitor to the house, after midnight ,is supposed to bring good luck. The man brings a gift like money, bread, or coal, to ensure the family will have plenty of these in the year to come. The first person must not be blond, red-haired, or a women, as these are supposed to be bad luck. In London, crowds gather in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly circus to hear the chimes of London’s big Ben as it announces the arrival of the New Year.

France: The French New Year is Jour des Etrennes, or Day of New Year’s Presents. Dinner parties are thrown for the entire family, where presents are exchanged.

Germany: People drop molten lead into cold water to tell the future from the shape it makes. A bit of food eaten on New Year’s Eve is left on their plate until after Midnight, as a way on ensuring a well stocked larder in the coming year..

Greece: January 1 is an important date in Greece because it is St. Basil’s Day, as well as the first day of the year. St. Basil was known for his kindness to children. Stories tell how he would come in the night and leave gifts for children in their shoes. People gather, have special meals and exchange gifts.

Hungary: In Hungary the people burn effigies, or a scapegoat known as “Jack Straw”. The scapegoat represents the evils and misfortunes of the past year. Burning the effigy is supposed to get rid of the bad luck.

Indian: The Indian New Year’s is started with a festival of lights called Diwali. Cards and gifts are exchanged and people finish off any uncompleted work.

Japanese: Oshogatsu in an important time for foamy celebrations when all business are closed. To keep out evil spirits they hang a rope of straw across the front of their houses. The rope stands for happiness and good luck. When the New Year begins, the Japanese people begin to laugh, which is supposed to bring them good luck in the New Year.

Netherlands: People burn Christmas Trees in street bonfires and let fireworks ring in the New Year,

Polish: Knows as St. Sylvester’s Eve., in honor of Pope Sylvester I. Legend is that Pope Sylvester foiled the plans of a dragon to devour the world in the year 1000.

Portugal: The Portuguese pick and eat twelve grapes from a bunch as the clock strikes twelve on New Year;s Eve. The twelve grapes ensure twelve happy months in the coming year.

Russia: Grandfather Frost, who wears a blue suit instead of Santa’s red, arrives on New year’s Eve with his bag of toys for the children.

Scotland: Night of the Candle. People prepare for New Year by cleaning their home and purifying it with a ritual or burning juniper branches carried through the home. The First Footer says that whoever the first person to set foot into your home on New Year’s Day decides the luck of the family for the coming year.

South Africa: The New Year is rung in with church bells ringing and gunshots being fired. On New year’s Day there is a carnival atmosphere.

South America: A dummy or straw person is ofter placed outside the home and burned at midnight..

Spain: Everything, including theater productions and movies, is stopped at Midnight on New Year’s. The clock strikes midnight and everyone eats twelve grape. They eat one grape for each toll to bring good luck for the next twelve months of the New Year. Sometimes the grapes are washed down with wine.

United States: The New Year is often rung in with festive dancing parties and meals. People kiss each other at midnight and wish each other a “Happy New Year”.

Wales: At around 3:00 to 4:00 am on New Year’s morning, the boys of the village go from house to house with an evergreen twig to sprinkle on the people and then each room of their house, to bring good luck. On New Year’s Day the children travel the neighborhood singing songs are are rewarded with coins and sweets.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, pop culture, Rituals, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part III: Social Media

Some more “best of” in the spirit of the new year. I like the take on Facebook Groups: breathing new life into a social media platform that is SOOOO 2011.

judgmental observer

Earlier this week I posted “Part I: Television” and “Part II: Memes” of “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012’ List Ever.” There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for these highly idiosyncratic “Best Of” lists that I’ve been producing BUT I’m the kind of gal who likes to finish what she starts, so today I present Part III of my list:

Best of Social Media

You thought this post was going to be about Pinterest, didn’t you? Wasn’t 2012 the year of Pinterest? And really, I should be the target consumer for Pinterest since, according to MediaBistro, 97% of Pinterest users are female. And I’m a female. But after just a few weeks of heavy use back in March, I stopped using my Pinterest account all together. Simply put, I found it overwhelming. So many crafts to make, so many recipes to try, so many quick and easy ways to “do…

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The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part II: Memes

Awesome: entertainment AND context!

judgmental observer


Over the weekend I posted Part I of  “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012’ List Ever,” focusing on why I think Wilfred is the best, or at least the most unusual and innovative, television show of 2012.  I then promised threatened to continue to devote posts to “Best Film,” “Best Meme,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” of 2012. That list was ambitious, particularly since I am going on a long vacation in a few days. I’ve realized I may not get to cover everything promised in my first post before 2013 hits (when you will promptly stop caring about “Best of 2012” lists). But as the kids say, YOLO! Let’s move forward as best we can:

I present Part II of my “Best of 2012″ list:

Best Internet Meme

It’s hard to select the best meme of 2012. There are so many and, like all trends, when they hit big…

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Marraige: The Ritual Accoutrements


an informative video on marriage

Today my wife and I are officially legally married…at least in the state if New York and any other state that chooses to acknowledge it.

When we got to the city clerk’s office, not wearing anything special nor bringing any accoutrements to adorn the occasion, I suddenly felt like we had fallen short. Even though we have already done the big ceremony and party I still wanted this, albeit beaurocratic, occasion to be marked with some flare: so I purchased floral boutteniers to pin on our shirts. I just can’t help but include even the smallest amount of tradition.

So what do all of the trappings of wedding ceremony represent? Where do the rituals come from?

I found a great wedding planning website that gives the Anthropological lowdown on rituals we know and love and some you may have never heard of:

PIB weddings

Wedding Traditions & Folklore

Many of today’s popular wedding ceremony and reception traditions can be traced to ancient Egyptian and European customs. These were often based on symbolism, superstition, folklore, religion, and even the belief that evil spirits could bring disease and death to newlyweds and crops, which was very important in many farm-based early cultures. Although the exact origin and usefulness of many of these early wedding traditions are not always clear, popular acceptance has allowed them to flourish. Besides, many of these wedding traditions are just plain fun!

According to various sources, some of the early marriages were literally carried out by the Groom and his “Bridesmen” (or “Bridesknights”) who would kidnap a woman (the origin of “carrying a Bride over the threshold”) from another tribe! The Groom and his fellow conspirators would then fight off the female’s family of tribesmen with swords held in their right hand while the Groom would hold the captured Bride in his left hand, which is the origin of why a Bride stands on the left side of the Groom at a wedding.

After a successful capture, another politically correct practice was for the Groom to hide his new Bride for one month for mating purposes. It is said that the word “honeymoon” was created to describe this one month cycle of the moon when they would drink mead, which was a honey sweetened alcoholic brew that effects both sobriety and the acidity of the womb, thus increasing fertility.

Beginning around 1000 A.D., marriages were often nothing more than trading chips used in bartering land, social status, political alliances, or money (no checks or credit cards were accepted) between families!

The word, “Wedding” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “wedd” that meant a man would marry a woman and pay the Bride’s father.


Wedding bouquets were originally made of such strong herbs as thyme and garlic, which were meant to frighten away evil spirits, and to cover the stench emitting from people who had not bathed recently!

Bouquet Toss

In ancient times, it was believed that a Bride was especially lucky on her wedding day. Guests would sometimes tear at her dress for a souvenir piece of good luck to take home. The Bride’s tossing of her bouquet grew from her desire to offer a good luck souvenir, and prevent guests from bothering her (and her dress!) during her reception.


Early Brides and Bridesmaids wore similar dresses in order to confuse evil spirits.

Bridal Shower

Back in the days when weddings were arranged by family members, it is said that a poor Dutchman fell in love with a girl whose father refused her a dowry. Their friends showered her with enough gifts to help them start a household. According to another story, the first “Bridal Shower” occurred at the end of the 19th century. At a party, the Bride’s friends placed small gifts inside a parasol and opened it over the Bride’s head. When she opened the parasol, she was “showered” with presents!

Bridal Veil

When marriages were arranged by family members, the newlyweds very rarely were allowed to see one another. Family members exchanging a dowry were afraid that if the Groom didn’t like the appearance of the Bride’s face, he might refuse to marry her. This is why the Father of the Bride “gave the Bride away” to the Groom at the actual wedding ceremony. Only after lifting her veil just prior to the ceremony did the Groom see the Bride’s face for the first time! Early Greek and Roman Brides wore red or yellow veils to represent fire, and to ward off demons.

Carrying The Bride Over The Threshold

When a Groom used to steal his Bride from her tribe, he was forced to carry her kicking and screaming. This act of thievery has evolved into a more romantic gesture, welcoming the Bride into her new home.


Brides originally tossed a garter, rather than a bouquet, at a wedding reception. In the 14th century, this custom changed after Brides became tired of fighting off drunken men who tried to remove the garter themselves! According to one legend, the garter toss in England evolved from an earlier tradition of “flinging the stocking”. On their wedding night, guests would follow the Bride and Groom to their bedroom, wait until they undressed, steal their stockings, and then “fling” them at the couple! The first person to hit the Bride or Groom on the head would supposedly be the next person to marry.

Money Dance

According to one custom, when arranged marriages were common, the Groom collected a dowry only after his marriage was consummated. The money dance insured that the couple would have some money before they left their wedding reception. According to another wedding tradition, the people of the village gave gifts of pottery, livestock, and garden plants to the newlyweds because the Bride and Groom had no money to acquire these items until they had children, after which a dowry was exchanged.

Penny In Shoe

This is a European tradition to bring the Bride good luck, fortune, and protection against want. After the Wedding Day, the lucky penny can be turned into a piece of jewelry as a pendant, charm for a bracelet, or ring setting.

Ring Finger

Prior to the 5th century, the ring finger was actually the index finger. Later, it was believed that the third finger contained the “vein of love” that led directly to the heart.

Shoes On Vehicle

Ancient Romans used to transfer to the Groom his authority over his Bride when her Father gave the Groom her shoes. In later years, guests threw their own shoes at the newlyweds to signify this transfer of authority. Today, this tradition is kept alive by simply tying old shoes to the back of the newlywed’s vehicle before they leave their wedding reception celebration.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

This superstition of the Bride wearing something that fits each of these four categories originated in Europe to ward off evil spirits. Something Old: This tradition symbolized the sense of continuity while making the transition from a single person to that of a married couple. Something New: This tradition symbolized that marriage represented a transition to adulthood. Something Borrowed: This tradition symbolized the popular belief that by borrowing something from a happily married couple, good fortune would follow the newlyweds. Something Blue: In ancient Israel, blue was the border color of the Bride’s dress, symbolizing purity, constancy and fidelity.

Stag Parties

This is the male equivalent of the Bridal Shower. Roman empire soldiers would feast with the Groom the night before his wedding to say goodbye to his irresponsible days of bachelorhood, and to renew their vows of allegiance to their friendships.

Tossing Rice

By believing that newlyweds brought good luck, guests used to shower them with nuts and grains to insure a bountiful harvest, and many children to work the land. During years of a poor harvest, rice was tossed instead. This tradition continues today with rice or birdseed (where permitted), or bubbles to wish the Bride and Groom much happiness. Incidentally, it is not true that birds eating rice thrown after a wedding ceremony will cause their stomachs to enlarge and eventually explode. This myth may have simply evolved from church and synagogue employees weary from cleaning up after every wedding ceremony!

Until the 20th century, the Groom simply wore his “Sunday best” on his wedding day. It is said that President Teddy Roosevelt popularized the modern tuxedo.

Tying The Knot

This comes from the days of the Roman empire when the Bride wore a girdle that was tied in knots. The Groom untied the knots prior to the consummation of their marriage.

Wedding Cake

Also during the days of the Roman empire, wedding cakes were baked of wheat or barley. At the reception, they were traditionally broken over the head of the new Bride by the Groom as a symbol of her fertility. Guests would then scramble for pieces of the cake, and take them home for good luck. It later became a tradition to place many small cakes on top of each other as high as possible. The newlyweds would then try to exchange a kiss over the top of the tower of cakes without knocking them down. During the reign of King Charles II of England, the baker added icing, and the modern style of wedding cake was born. It is unclear when the tradition of the newlyweds smashing wedding cake into each other’s face first began, and uncertain if such marriages are consummated later that day or evening!

Wedding Ring

According to some historians, the first recorded marriage rings date back to the days when early man tied plaited circlets around the Bride’s wrists and ankles to keep her spirit from running away. Approximately 3,000 BC, Egyptians originated the phrase “without beginning, without end” in describing the significance of the wedding ring. These rings were made of woven hemp which constantly wore out and needed replacement. Although Romans originally used iron, gold is now used as a symbol of all that is pure. Diamonds were first used by Italians, who believed that it was created from the flames of love. In some European cultures, the wedding ring is worn on the right hand. In other cultures, an engagement ring is worn on the left hand, and the wedding ring is worn on the right hand.

Wedding Toast

It is said that this tradition first began in France, where bread would be placed in the bottom of two drinking glasses for the newlyweds. They would then drink as fast as they could to be the first person to get to the toast. According to legend, the winner would rule their household!

White Wedding Dress

This was made popular in the 1840’s by Queen Victoria, who chose this instead of the traditional royal “silver” wedding dress. Prior to this, Brides simply wore their best dress on their wedding day.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Participant Observation, pop culture, Rituals, sociology | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Medicating Pets: Where Do We Draw The Line?


If you would like to experience an exercise in futility try making a cat take a pill. Better yet – how about three?

As a part of our stay in NYC this week my wife and I are house sitting and (more to the point) cat sitting for my brother’s family cats. One is very very big and fat and happy. The other is old and frail and whiny.

Guess which one needs to be given medication every day? Hint- it’s not the robust and cuddly one.

It makes me wonder about the torture we put ourselves trough for the sake of our pets and likewise the torture we put our pets through for the sake of our own needs. I remember years ago when I lived in the city with a former partner (who remains a dear but distant friend). We had an old cat we had brought with us from Florida who was very fat and very noisy but otherwise (or so we thought) healthy. He turned out to have a bone cancer tumor in his leg. We were given options: amputation, chemo therapy, etc. but at the end of the day the doctor gave us some advice about treating a mortally ill animal: “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. I suppose he meant that we shouldn’t put a cat through all that just to keep then around or ease our own conscience.

Eventually that cat left us…unfortunately in less comfort than we would have liked we avoided talking for a while and started to browse these toys for your pets that were displayed in a magazine, pure escapism, we snapped out of it – unlike humans pets can be euthanized- so we felt better cutting to the chase and ending his suffering.

So my point to ponder is to what degree we do the things we do to mend our sick pets for them or for us? And how far should we go? Is force feeding an old cat pills everyday still in the realm of reasonable? Or should we let our pets expire as they would in the “wild”? Or is it out responsibility because we domesticate animals to treat them like humans where their health is concerned? An anthropological and moral point to ponder indeed.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Participant Observation, pets, Suburban Living | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Isn’t It Romantic? Snapshots Of The civic Process of Marriage

When little girls dream of their wedding day, visions of white dresses and flying bouquets and dance floors and champagne usually come flash before their dreamy eyes. The ritual of marriage as portrayed in media and more is one of romance and pageantry and grand demonstrations of celebration.

What they don’t share with you in the movies is the ritual of paperwork and licensing that everyone who gets legally married (at least in the states) has to trudge through.

For some its am obligatory couple of hours in their lunch break that they get over with before the big show. For others, the city clerks office is the obligation and the destination.

My wife and I flew up from our state where gay marriage is not legal to make it “official” in NYC. Here are some snapshots of my observations of today’s romance whilst we waited for our application number to be called. Oh the majesty








Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Gay and Lesbian Lifestyles, Gender, Participant Observation, Rituals | Tags: | Leave a comment

Get Your Christmas Style On! Sociology Of Style 5 Outfits Of Christmas

It’s not necessarily a day of rest:  it’ Christmas!  On Christmas day most of us don’t lay around in one place all day.  There are family visits, Church and all kinds of stops in between.  Good thing the folks over at Sociology of Style have thought of everything to get us through!

The 5 Outfits of Christmas (and Some Holiday Tech Tips)

1950s xmas Paulette Goddard

Family, gifts, religion, a day off from work — regardless of the personal significance and symbolism of this day for you, two things are certain:  1) you need to wear something, and 2) you’ll be carrying your phone.  Here are 5 likely scenarios and a quick guide to help you get dressed and enhance your day with technology.

1. Going to church

going to churchStyle tips:

  • Outfits should be modest and not too revealing. Need some inspiration? Check out these 4 looks that are stylish and appropriate for church.
  • Jackets and blazers are on trend this season, and chances are you have a blazer in your closet that can be updated and revived (find out how here)

Tech complement: Not religious? Or just want to reflect quietly on your own? Wear whatever helps you relax and download Simply Being, a guided meditation app that walks you through a meditation practice of your desired duration, with or without music.

2. Family dinner

sequin sweaterStyle tips:

  • It’s your family, so be comfortable, be festive, and have fun with your outfit. (Warning: don’t wear your favorite and/or most expensive shirt; spills happen.)
  • Rock some sparkle with a sequin sweater (but keep it casual with jeans or corduroys). Find more fun glittery stuff to brighten a dull winter here.

Tech complement: Want to set just the right mood, but don’t have time to play DJ? Throw on one of these Spotify Christmas playlists and enjoy the compliments on your exemplary musical tastes.

3. Playing in the Snow

snow suitStyle tips:

  • Realistically, not everyone (over the age of 10) has a fabulous snow suit at their disposal, not to mention the good ones are usually far too expensive to just casually pick up at the store. This holiday season, wear a cute beanie and some stylishly practical mittens, and improvise the rest with waterproof technical gear and layers of fleece.
  • Splurge on that snow suit next year.

Tech complement: Heading to the slopes? Download the North Face app to get site-specific snow conditions, weather forecasts, full trail maps, and post your action shots to Facebook.

4. Holiday Party

holiday dressStyle tips:

  • Transform what’s already in your wardrobe into a festive outfit.  Wear your go-to black dress and spice it up with some costume jewelry or sparkly hosiery.
  • Keep it subtle and classy with a solid dark green or oxblood dress and give a modern twist to the classic red and kelly green Christmas colors.

Tech complement: Don’t have any parties to attend?  Find some local happenings to fit your mood with Gemster — or organize your own impromptu gathering using just your mobile phone with GiddyUp.

5. For those of you not partaking in Christmas festivities, and for whom this day is like every other day of the year…

pajamasStyle tips: Pretty much anything in your closet will suffice. Go ahead and embrace the “I don’t have to be anywhere” theme and stay in your pajamas.
Tech complement: Give yourself the gift of disconnecting from technology today.  Spend your time volunteering at your local Salvation Army or wander around your neighborhood looking at holiday lights (here’s some help for interpreting what those decorations say about your neighbors). Find more unplugging inspiration here.

For this and more from the Sociology of style, head here:

Categories: Art and culture, Blogging, Consumer Culture, Fashion, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

For Christmas I Want A Fat Dude Sliding Down My Chimney To Bring Me Stuff


I remember when I was little and (despite the fact that both my parents are Jewish) I would spend the weeks up until Christmas anticipating Christmas morning, when Santa would have brought me and my brothers a living-room full of presents.  I took the responsibility of making sure Santa had cookies and milk (as well as a carrot for Rudolph) very seriously.  The man worked hard and needed nourishment to fuel him on his long journey.  On Christmas eve it was typical for one adult or another to fool me and my twin brother into going to bed super-early by pretending to hear sleigh bells down the block.

Imagine my disappointment the year I was awake to hear Santa actually IN MY KITCHEN about to help himself to a snack and tiptoed down the stairs to  sneak a peek, only to find my dad in his Hanes tighty whities scarfing down my painstakingly arranged Oreos.  A myth debunked and a little bit of innocence lost.  But not all for naught.  I was seven at the time and managed to feign naiveté for another three years – endearing myself to my parents by playing along with childhood nonsense for material gain.

The origin of Santa Claus came Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and simply “Santa”, is a figure with from historical myth and legend who, in is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas eve, December 24.  Over the last couple hundred years, Santa has been elevated from folklore to Coca-Cola salesman – but still exists in our hearts and minds as the symbol of Christmas for all Americans (regardless of whether or not they buy into that whole birth of the lord and savior thing).

I found an article on the that gives us some fun facts about Santa Claus I thought I would share as a time-saving gift for my readers….all 7 of you.  😉

So, enjoy the light holiday reading and don’t forget you still have to be good for another several hours to cash in…

The history of Santa Claus: 7 interesting facts
From why he wears a red suit to when he got hitched to Mrs. Claus, a look at the mythmaking behind jolly old St. Nick
By The Week Editorial Staff | December 23, 2011


As Christmas approaches, children around the world have Santa on the brain. They’re anxiously wondering if they’ve been overly naughty or sufficiently nice, and eagerly daydreaming about their potential gift hauls. But exactly how did the jolly, bearded North Pole resident evolve into the cultural icon we know today? Here, seven interesting facts about his evolution:

1. He was real… sort of
Folklore may have turned Santa Claus into a toy distributor who mans a sleigh led by eight flying reindeer, but he is actually based, loosely, on a real person. Born around the year 270, St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town in what is now Turkey. He earned a reputation as an anonymous gift giver, says MSNBC, by paying the dowries of impoverished girls and handing out treats and coins to children — often leaving them in their shoes, set out at night for that very purpose. Since his death, Nicholas has been canonized as the patron saint of children.

2. He’s only been ‘Santa Claus’ for 200 years
A Dutch tradition kept St. Nicholas’ story alive in the form of Sinterklaas, a bishop who traveled from house to house to deliver treats to children on the night of Dec. 5. The first anglicizing of the name to Santa Claus was in a story that appeared in a New York City newspaper in 1773.

3. Satire first sent Santa down a chimney
In his satiric 1809 book A History of New York, Washington Irving did away with the characterization of Santa Claus as a “lanky bishop,” says Whipps. Instead, Irving described Santa as a portly, bearded man who smokes a pipe. Irving’s story also marked the first time Santa slid down the chimney, says the U.K.’s Independent.

4. “Twas the Night Before Christmas” introduced the reindeer
Clement Moore’s 1822 poem A Visit From Saint Nicholas — which is now more commonly referred to as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” — was first published anonymously in the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. The 56-line poem introduced and popularized many of Santa’s defining characteristics — chiefly, that he drove a sleigh guided by “eight tiny reindeer.”

5. Coca-Cola created the modern Mr. Claus
When Father Christmas first began showing up in illustrations, he wore many different colored robes: Green, purple, blue, and brown, among others. Beginning in the late 1800s, it became popular to outfit Santa in a red suit. Artist Louis Prang depicted him that way in a series of Christmas cards in 1885, and The New York Times reported on the red garments in 1927. But the modern image of Santa Claus as the jolly man in the red suit was seared into American pop culture in 1931, when artist Haddon Sundblom illustrated him that way for a widely-circulated campaign for Coca-Cola.

6. The department store Santa is a 120-year-old tradition
In 1890, Massachusetts businessman James Edgar became the first department store Santa, according to The Smoking Jacket. Edgar is credited with coming up with the idea of dressing up in a Santa Claus costume as a marketing tool. Children from all over the state dragged their parents to Edgar’s small dry goods store in Brockton, and a tradition was born.

7. Santa was a bachelor until the late 1800s
The first mention of a spouse for Santa was in the 1849 short story A Christmas Legend by James Rees. Over the next several years, the idea of Mrs. Claus found its way into several literary publications, like the Yale Literary Magazine and Harper’s Magazine. But it wasn’t until Katherine Lee Bates’ widely-circulated 1889 poem Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride that Santa’s wife was popularized. (“Goody” is short for “Goodwife,” or “Mrs.”)

Categories: american History, Anthropology, Art and culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Marketing, pop culture, Rituals, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On The Road To Godlesness?

As we careen toward’s Christmas just a few days away, the topic of religion is obviously unavoidable.  I know, I know…muddying the celebratory waters with facts.   An article in today’s New York Times discusses the fact brought to light by a new Pew Center study that a full 20% (that’s 1/5th) of the U.S. Population claims no religious affiliation.  That’s not to say, according to the study, that they don’t necessarily believe in God (although the Athiests are in there).  Many said they were indeed spiritual or participated in prayer in one way or another – they just don’t dig the religious system because they find it a bit too focused on money or politics or just find it otherwise undesirable.

Interestingly enough – did you  know there are more Athiests than Jews living in the U.S.?  Hannukah just became way more fringe of a Holiday in my book.

But I digress.  The point is: as a country we celebrate a holiday proclaimed a national day of observation by our government as the Christian population steadily declines (5% in the past 5 years, although still the overwhelming majority at about 73%), we start questioning the propriety of religion as a civic guidepost.  It brings up a host of debate and conversation.  But I will let the New York Times do the talking.

You can click on the article or just read below:

One Nation Under God?
Published: December 22, 2012

THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Enlarge This Image
Valero Doval

Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.

Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.

The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.

The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”

Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.

How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?

The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.

Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.

When conservative activists claim that America stands apart from godless Europe, they are not entirely wrong. The colonies were relatively unchurched, but European visitors to the early republic marveled at Americans’ fervent piety. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840 that the absence of an established state church nurtured a society in which “Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.”

De Tocqueville visited during a wave of religious revival, but he underestimated the degree to which some Americans held Christianity at arm’s length: the “infidel” Abraham Lincoln declined to join a church, and his wife invited spiritualists to hold séances in the White House.

Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.

We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility. “I like the fact that we’re getting more ‘nones’ because it helps Christians realize that they’re different,” Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian at Duke Divinity School, said when I asked for his thoughts on the Pew poll. “That’s a crucial development. America produces people that say, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ ”

The temple of “my personal opinion” may be the real “established church” in modern America. Three decades ago, one “none” named Sheila Larson told the sociologist Robert Bellah and his collaborators that she called her faith “Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Americans are drifting out of the grip of institutionalized religion, just as they are drifting from institutional authority in general.

THIS trend, made famous by books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” has encouraged both the theological mushiness of those who say they are “spiritual, not religious” as well as the unfiltered fury that has come to characterize both ends of the political spectrum. “It seems like we live in a Manichaean universe, with vitriolic extremes,” said Kathryn Lofton, associate professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. “That’s not unrelated to the lack of tempering authority. ‘Religious authority’ is no longer clergy in the pulpit saying ‘Vote for Eisenhower,’ but forwarded URL links or gossip exchanges in chat rooms. There is no referee.”

For a very long time, Protestant leaders were those referees. If individual impiety flourished in centuries past, churches still wielded significant control over civic culture: the symbols, standards and sexual mores that most of the populace respected in public, if not always in private. Today, more and more Americans openly accept extramarital sex, homosexuality and other outrages to traditional Christian morality. They question the Protestant civil religion that has undergirded our common life for so long.

The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.

Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.

The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. This is a “political stance” premised on a “chiefly Protestant notion of religion understood as private assent to a set of propositional beliefs,” she told me. Other traditions, such as Judaism and Islam and to some degree Catholicism, do not frame faith in such rationalist terms, or accept the same distinction between internal conviction and public argument. The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as “religion,” even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like “Judeo-Christian.”

Conservative Christian activists hold those sectarian foundations more dearly than they admit, and they are challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to frame access to contraception and same-sex marriage as civil rights immune to the veto of “private” conscience. Alan Sears, president of the legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sees an unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the harsh fines facing employers who refuse to cover contraception in their insurance programs. “It is a death penalty. It is a radical change,” he told me. “It’s one thing when you’re debating about public space, but it’s another when you say, if you don’t surrender your conscience, you’re out of business.”

Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (an organization that until 1972 was named, tellingly, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State), sees things differently. He worries about what might happen if an unpredictable Supreme Court agrees to hear conservative Christians’ challenges to the contraception mandate, or their pleas for exemptions for charities that accept federal grants but discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. “The court could create something vastly more dangerous than corporate free speech: a ‘corporate conscience’ claim,” Mr. Lynn, a lawyer and an ordained minister, told me. “These cases could become as significant for the redefinition of religious liberty as Roe v. Wade was a rearticulation of the right to privacy.”

These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Mr. Sears sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. We are left groping for something far messier: an evolving, this-worldly, compromise.

Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Categories: Anthropology, Politics, sociology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Gift Of Stress? Pontification On The Anthropological Origins of Exchanging Gifts

holiday-shopping-stress-love-christmas-season-ecards-someecardsThe holiday season in the U.S. is a wondrous time of year when we choose to prioritize family over work, corniness over being “cool” and eating tons of fat and sugar over a proper balanced diet. it’s also a time of year when we all gain a few extra gray hairs racking our brains over what to give as holiday gifts, the coolest products must be found. Who among your family, friends you ought to give gifts to, what to have on hand when someone unexpectedly gives you a gift that will need reciprocating and how much to spend.

Then there is the inevitable dilemma of receiving gifts that defy all rules of good taste but you still must feign gratitude for because “it’s the thought that counts” or it was given by your  – fill in blank with “Mom”, “Boss”, “Client”, etc.

We commercialize the giving season to death and days before Christmas you can find hundreds of frenzied last-minute shoppers scouring the threadbare shelves full of chocolate boxes and lotion gift-boxes for the perfect obligatory Christmas tree-skirt filler.

Suffice to say the holiday’s give me hives.  Not that I don’t enjoy giving and receiving gifts.  But I get fiercely stressed out by the feeling that others think they need to give me stuff because I have given them stuff…or at all for that matter.  I’m pretty low maintenance and would rather have my “people” spend time, not money.  I also tend to start the holiday’s with pangs of resentment for this consumerist culture-imposed ritual when I would rather just give people gifts as I find gifts that are appropriate, whether that be on a Holiday, Birthday or just any old day.  I cringe at the thought that people might think me selfish or odd If I don’t give gifts and find it totally odd in general that people would want the gift of my stress for Christmas.

So I ponder when and how we turned gift giving into a budget line-item and obligatory social tax.  Was it always like that?  Well, the short answer is “yes”.  Anthropologists have studied the universal cultural ritual of gift giving and basically defined it as “a vehicle of social obligation and political maneuver”.  You can read an invigorating academic paper on the topic by clicking here:,d.eWU

As  a social tradition, gifting is meant to be an exercise in reciprocity that carries a boatload of meaning to be read into or just understood.  Here is an excerpt from the article linked to above, so you can validate the reason’s for your stress and not feel like you need therapy.  I think we might just all feel the same way.

The gift has been interpreted as an invitation to partner­ ship, and as a confirmation of the donor’s  “sincere partic­ipation” in a recipient’s tribulations and joys, despite the presence of an ulterior motive (van Baall975). Inferentially or implicitly attached strings are a connotative aspect of the gift, social bonds being thereby forged and reciprocation encouraged. The giving of gifts can be used to shape and reflect social integration (i.e., membership in a group) or social distance  (i.e., relative  intimacy  of relationships).

The work of Mauss ( 1924) remains fundamental to con­ temporary interpretations of gift giving. Mauss viewed the giving of  gifts as a prototypical  contract (van Baal  1975) and as a form of optimizing behavior (Schneider 1974). According to an assumed norm of  reciprocity  elaborated later by Gouldner (1960), an individual is obliged to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The imperative nature of this three-fold obligation derives from its cultural embedded­ ness.

Mauss understood the gift as a total social fact. Building on this notion of the gift as an integrator of numerous social behaviors, Levi-Strauss (1949) extended the significance of gift giving through some previously unexpected cultural dimensions. For example, the exchange of women as a vehicle of alliance formation is conducted in ·some societies in the idiom of  gift giving. Underscoring this integration, Riches (1981) has  described the three-fold obligation dis­cerned by Mauss as the ”multiplex predicament.” An in­ dividual evaluates the circumstances of a single transaction in the context of multiplicity: because it is so thoroughly embedded, gift giving cannot be accurately interpreted in isolation from other behaviors.In Western society, giving appears to be somewhat more selective (insofar as all values are not exchanged via gifts), and is juxtaposed with direct exchanges (Schneider 1974). Firth (1967),  Harris  (1968), and Schieffelin (1980) have in tum extended these consid­erations.

Gift dimensions such as price or quality are used to cre­ate, maintain, modulate, or sever relationships with indi­ viduals or alliances with corporate groups. The boundary­ defining potential of gift exchange is frequently invoked in ritual (Schneider 1981). Those to whom we give differ from those to whom we  do not  give. Those  from whom we re­ceive may differ still. Gifts are tangible expressions of so­cial relationships.

The value of a gift partially reflects the weight of the relationship, and the changing nature of the relationship is partially reflected in a change in the value of a gift (Shurmer 1971). A charting of the gift-giving behavior of an individ­ual as one moves through individual and family life cycles, and as one’s social network expands and contracts, would reveal this association.  As an individual accumulates roles, the gift may be used to indicate the relative importance of those roles. As a male acquires the roles of son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather, a gift allocation strategy must be devised in the face of competing obligations.  Sim­ilarly, as he becomes an employee, an employer, or a re­tiree, his giving will be altered. Within culturally prescribed bounds, the reciprocity involved in gift exchange cannot be more balanced than are the respective social positions of donor and recipient, unless the participants are willing to risk imputations of ostentation or meanness (van Baal 1975). Giving too much, too little, or too late can strain a relationship  to the point of dissolution.

Lets get to the point then, shall we.  Gift giving is a requirement whether I like it or not.  So, I should put on my Santa-pants and just bite the peppermint bullet.  I suppose there are still a couple of good shopping days left and I’ve got plenty of Christmas cookies and homemade fudge (thanks to gifts from some friends and my wife’s students) to comfort me when it’s all done.

Happy Holidays, America!  May you not F up any relationships by giving the wrong gift – or by not giving a gift at all.

Categories: Anthropology, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Rituals, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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