Happy Christmas: the anthropology of ritual
I am writing this at seven o clock on Christmas Day...after opening the presents, cooking the turkey, eating the feast, playing some party games, all accompanied by industrial quantities of alcohol. Now we are watching a classic Morse on the television, before Poirot in Syria comes on at 9.00. Sounds familiar?
As the children have observed, this is about the only ritual we do without feeling stupidly self-conscious -- I couldn't for example, mount an Easter egg hunt without a certain sense of self irony (and even when we DID mount such things, it did always seem faintly silly).
So, we asked ourselves, if we were doing an anthropological analysis, what would we point to?
The tree, for a start -- which over period of a few days we all join in decorating. The decorations are the key here, a multi-cultural assemblage of tatt, gathered together over 20 years or so (the little velvet Anne Boleyn picked up at Hampton Court when we visited when the kids were small, the Maori warrior I got in New Zealand, the black angel found in Kampala earier this year). Cliché as it will sound, the tree is a memory tree of our life together -- and I think about the kids taking all the baubles out, and talking through their history, when the husband and I are long gone. OK a fantasy, but why not? (Son with it on the right.)
Then there's the food (daughter at it below). In a perfect world, maybe no one would choose to have a blow-out on turkey and brussel sprouts. But the menu is part of the (that is, our) tradition...and not just the menu, but the recipes and the cook books. The page of my Keith Floyd's cook book with the Christmas pudding recipe is now marked with the stain of many Christmas puddings past. And I still do the turkey, following Katie Stewart, out of my mother's falling apart copy, with her written-in recipes in the back. And that is part of the point.
And, of course, there is what Christmas allows you to do -- and what it allows you to enjoy, and why. After the Christmas pud, we ended up playing a guessing game. you write down the name of a character (fictional or real) on a piece of paper, you then stick it on the hat of the person on your left. They don't see the name, but have to ask yes/no questions until they guess. It wouldn't be what I would normally do after dinner, but in the ludic ritual world of Christmas it was both fun and bonding -- I took ages to guess "Dante" inscribed across my forehead. (Does the Saturnalia come to mind?)
And before you say, "bloody academic"...."this is precisely the way to ruin Christmas".. remember that, since Ovid at least, ritual has THRIVED on its actors intellectualising its practice.