Holidays and Public Rituals

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Scott Hughes Myerly and Tamara L. Hunt

Rituals are easy to recognize. Some are performed alone or by a private group, such as family and friends or members of social clubs. These rituals include meditation and prayer; rites of passage, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals; or club initiations and commemorations. But public rituals, such as royal coronations, protest demonstrations, the Olympics' opening ceremonies, or mass rallies, are meant to be seen by everyone, and as such they are essentially a form of theater. Just what social and cultural purposes or functions do public rituals have? For more than one hundred years scholars have disagreed about defining ritual, what it is, and what it does.


Ritual first became a scholarly issue in the nineteenth-century debate over the origins of religion. William Robertson Smith (1846–1894) believed that pre-ancient religions consisted of beliefs (dogma) and ritual (practices) and that, of the two, ritual developed first. He thought religion cemented community bonds and that ritual was actually a way of venerating the social order through worship of divine representations that the community had itself collectively created. Similarly Jane Ellen Harrison (1850–1928) argued that primitive humans reenact whatever moves them spiritually and that ritual magically dramatizes everyday life. For her ritual was the origin of drama, and theater emerged as a secular variation of ritual. The sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) believed that reality is divided between two domains, the sacred (religion) and the profane (everything else). Religious practices, or rites, were rules of correct conduct in the presence of symbolic sacred objects, and conversely, negative rites were observances commonly viewed as taboo.

Somewhat later Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) characterized ritual as a means of coping with crises and critical life transitions, such as birth, death, puberty, or marriage. All of these, as well as special days, such as New Year's Day or Easter, he termed "rites of passage." The pioneer psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) also believed that ritual is a powerful yet subconscious factor shaping social behavior. His analysis of human behavior stresses the central role of repressed, forbidden sexual desires and suggests that ritual has hidden functions and larger social purposes of which its participants are normally unaware. Religious ritual helps people cope with distressing inner conflicts of which they are not conscious, so they can continue to function in society. Thus early scholars viewed ritual as forging social bonds that unified communities through shared practices and beliefs.

Functionalism and other models. Influenced by these debates, the anthropologists A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) combined insights from sociology, theology, and theater to advocate "functionalism," in which ritual is viewed as a social mechanism that stabilizes and regulates societies' interactions. They agreed with their predecessors that ritual essentially maintains the bonds of community. However, they preferred anthropological fieldwork as a means to garner solid data about ritual rather than earlier approaches that relied heavily on conjecture and inference.

But functionalism's drawback is that it views societies as static and unchanging, and in the tumultuous post–World War II era scholars looked for a model of ritual that would account for the social changes they were witnessing. Many had difficulty accepting the functionalist model that seemed to overlook or downplay the importance of individuals and dissidents. For example, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz agreed that rituals were part of "cultural performances" that shaped the "spiritual consciousness of a people," but he disagreed with earlier scholars, such as Malinowski and Durkheim, who argued that rituals symbolized underlying shared values in society. Geertz pointed out that their approach inherently favors those aspects of ritual that promote harmony over those that suggest conflict. He further argued that functionalism could not be used to explain social change since it emphasizes stability and group consensus. Geertz developed a model that could be used by anthropologists and social historians to understand the role of cultural-religious drama in social change, arguing that three forces are at work in ritual: (1) "social structure," or the framework and context in which ritual takes place; (2) "culture," or the fabric of meaning within which humans interpret their experience; and (3) "personality systems" of participants, or the personal motivational patterns with which participants approach the ritual. An alteration in any one of these is a harbinger of social change, even if the other elements remain the same.

Social and cultural historians were also attracted by the model proposed by Victor Turner, one of Geertz's contemporaries. Turner's model explained ritual as an element in social change that takes place within a conflict-resolution setting he called the "social drama." According to Turner, these dramas occur within a group that shares a similar history and social values, and they begin when a dissident individual or group makes a deliberate breach with the norm to challenge authority. Tension rises as other individuals choose sides, and the resulting division reveals the fragility of the existing social consensus. At this point, according to Turner, leaders of the dissident group step in to keep the crisis from spreading uncontrollably, and their intervention may take the form of public rituals, such as parades or ceremonies, that symbolically promote a resolution of the conflict through castigation of a scapegoat or praise of an individual or idea honored by both sides. Once the crisis is defused, a reintegration of the disaffected occurs, but only after social changes have been adopted as a part of the new status quo.

Both of these models emphasize the importance of the actions of individuals or groups in ritual as a part of social change, but for some social historians these concepts did not go far enough. Despite their critiques of earlier scholars, both Geertz and Turner implicitly advocated the notion that a dominant ideology exists in society and is shared by its vast majority. Those who dissent will ultimately be reincorporated into the mainstream through "cultural performances" or "social dramas." But this seemed to ignore the power relationships often revealed in the rituals adopted by oppressed or dissident groups, and many social historians of the 1960s and 1970s turned to the ideas of Karl Marx (1818–1883), who interpreted ritual as expressing the relations of economic power. He argued that ritual operated to maintain elites in power to the disadvantage of working people. Most rituals, especially those of church and state, thus help delude people with nonrational, mystical charismatic flimflam designed to aid the powerful at the expense of the masses by instilling values and notions within the latter that keep them passive and compliant to the politico-economic system while being abused by its very operations.


A fundamental shift in European ritual emphasis occurred with the transformation from medieval to modern society. Earlier ritual concentrated on emotional fulfillment and on the sensual, the gratification of the emotions associated with the symbolic "lower body" (that is, the physical and emotional side) in Catholic ritual and in the sensual release of carnival. However, during the Reformation, Protestantism led the way in emphasizing the symbolic "upper body" (that is, the intellectual and rational side), as intellect, self-regulation, and restraint were stressed and the churches tried to repress carnival. Strict rules and rationality became the focus of mentality, and a new personality type emerged that was emotionally repressed and disciplined. Individuals internalized the external coercive regulations of the church and the state. In the twentieth century the symbolic lower body experienced a renewal in ritual, as people sought greater gratification and spiritual fulfillment. This trend generated greater interest in ritualized public entertainment events, such as celebrations, festivals, televised religious services, and mass spectator sports, usually managed by professional promoters and image consultants. Emotionally satisfying versions of Christianity, including the evangelical and charismatic movements, accented a personal relationship with its supreme deity. The quest also led many Christians toward Buddhism, Islam, and the renewal of the neopagan religion of Wicca, which revered the female deities, mainly symbolized by Nature or Mother Earth, of pre-ancient European societies.

Eric Hobsbawm was perhaps the most notable of the historians who took this view of public holiday and ritual, arguing that such manipulation was at the heart of both colonial and nationalistic ceremonies and holidays in the late nineteenth century. He posited that the emergence of mass society encouraged the development of powerful political forces that demanded more democracy, while the traditional elite and other conservatives resisted such demands. Thus European regimes faced conflicting political, economic, and social claims that had to be placated, but they also had to maintain and promote the state's power. One way to achieve these goals was through the creation of national holidays that used symbols and allegories to promote unity of the people under the supremacy of the state.

Still other historians portrayed ritual as a means by which otherwise voiceless Europeans in marginal groups were able to express and empower themselves, albeit in a limited and brief manner. As E. P. Thompson demonstrated in his study of English charivari (shivaree), or public shaming processions, public rituals often have different and frequently inconsistent layers of meaning. Throughout the early modern period and into the early nineteenth century in France, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Hungary, Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere, traditional community standards, especially in regard to marriage, were expressed and enforced through charivari, targeting anyone who dared to violate local values. This traditional ritual especially targeted adulterers, those who abused or neglected their spouses, or outsiders who married local wealthy widows. Villagers who staged charivaris sometimes dressed up in fantastic costumes at night and "serenaded" offenders by banging on pots and making obnoxious noises. These were not just adolescent pranks but often included sober, respectable people. They had no legal sanction, and similar dress-up and noisemaking activities sometimes were used to challenge injustice by the authorities. In this way the collective values of ordinary people were demonstrated by proving that the law is not always sovereign and that perceived wrongs the law did not address could be successfully opposed through group action when the majority so desired.

Specific groups could also be empowered by ritualized public behavior. Robert Darnton's examination of the "great cat massacre" in eighteenth-century France shows that apprentices used public ritual to protest their working conditions and to ridicule the existing legal and social system by staging mock trials of cats belonging to their bourgeois employers to express discontent. Yet not all groups that used ritual to their advantage were disaffected. Leonore Davidoff has shown that middle- and upper-class women in Victorian England used the rituals surrounding the "rites of passage"—birth, coming of age, marriage, and death—as well as those governing social interactions to enforce the clear distinctions between the classes. These social rituals were an effective barrier that limited the entry of individuals and families into the higher social circles that enjoyed exclusive access to greater economic, political, and marriage opportunities. Ignorance of these rituals of "proper" behavior often resulted in social disaster and disgrace.

Refining the definitions. Social history's approach to the study of ritual and public holidays emphasizes the role of individuals, dissidents, and subcultures in such ceremonies, and it highlights the view that ritual is not only used by the powerful to regulate the masses but also can empower and unify for the disaffected and those excluded from power. While many scholars contributed to a larger understanding of ritual, subsequent work followed along the lines of the basic approaches described above, combining, developing, and refining them in various ways and prompting in more complicated debates.

One factor is that rituals are often ambiguous or their meanings change over time while retaining the same outward ceremonial forms. It is most significant that few languages have a single word that equates to "ritual" in English. This is partly because rituals are laden with symbols and trappings whose various meanings are not clear. For example, a piece of cloth—a nation's flag—can symbolize pride or oppression, depending on one's perspective and identity, and it can thus simultaneously symbolize both unity and exclusion. But symbolic ritual is also powerfully appealing because it functions as a shorthand version of reality, a quick, easy means to identify and categorize life's endless complexities.

Ritual's intricate, multifaceted meanings render a complete and thorough definition most difficult. When approaching this subject, each person's understanding highlights priorities and perspectives that reflect their economic interests and social status and thus their fundamental assumptions about the nature of the social order. Ritual can thus become an intellectual labyrinth in which analysis actually leads away from a comprehensive definition. Nevertheless, ritual may be broadly defined as any scripted (often rigidly) program of stylized performance that seeks to render appealing and often compelling those values and beliefs that it overtly represents or that constitute its underlying theme, and it normally marks some sort of transition, such as commemorations, institutional transitions, or a change in status, age, or occupation for individuals. Rituals are thus a medium of communication and are usually aimed at reaffirming values and beliefs or, within their context of meanings, addressing and solving some problem, such as absolving someone of his or her sins (ritual purification). In either case rituals benefit the interests of their sponsors, who are oftentimes associated with an institution or institutionalized beliefs that are deemed true and even sovereign by a majority associated with that society or subculture. Ritual is emblematic of power relationships, even when they express sharply conflicting values and beliefs.

Rituals have particular psychological and emotional effects on the participants, both performers and observers, by evoking, consciously or subconsciously, an underlying cultural story or theme that is more complex or deep-seated than the performance itself. Ritual is often rendered more venerable through formality or more potent as a form of mockery through comedy. It is frequently sanctioned through tradition by invoking the past, especially when its staging is periodically or regularly repeated, and it thus appears to be normal, natural, and authoritative. Ritual can also mediate between tradition and change to ease transitions into the unknown.

Rituals may be brief, as with a formal greeting, or may last for days, marking a symbolically meaningful occasion. They may require distinctive or unique locations, such as a church or other symbolic place, and special trappings, such as costumes, particular objects used in the show, and accompanying sounds (aside from spoken words), such as music, singing, chanting, or poetry. Frequently an essential aspect is that a suitably theatrical atmosphere be created from all these elements to evoke the proper setting, akin to the special effects of the lights, sounds, and sets in video productions. An occult magic ritual, such as a séance, performed in bright sunshine amid crowds dressed in swimsuits at the beach with a background of pop music seems incongruous.

Ritual is akin to routine and custom, but it normally has a substantially more profound wealth of meaning and emotional content than either routine or custom. It is akin to theater or drama but in an abridged form. Like commercial theater it can be entertaining and even riveting, but it can also exert a control over conduct and belief that is both obvious and subtle. Because ritual defines how something can be expressed, it controls what can be expressed and promotes acquiescence to its fundamental meanings while eliminating alternative perspectives. In a discussion someone may challenge specific ideas or values, but that person is far less likely to question a ritual formula. Anyone who mars a ritual performance seems rude or ignorant.

Nevertheless, a ritual must seem appropriate to its audience, which ultimately decides by acceptance or rejection if it will take the performance seriously. When the majority of participants or spectators either ignore or mock a ritual, the result is worse than a failure, since it shows a loss of prestige and authority for those who stage it. Thus a delicate balance often exists between manipulation and integration, between those sponsoring a ritual and its wider audience. The elements that constitute a ritual at any given time can represent a consensus of the cultural opinion and mentality of its voluntary participants, although rituals staged by dominant elites may be contrary to the wishes of the majority.


Public rituals exist in all societies, and in Europe they long predate written records. In the Middle Ages ritual was extremely important for religion, which was itself fundamental to each community's sense of unity. But scholars disagree about whether rituals functioned primarily to buttress feudalism's power hierarchy or to cement community bonds. By the sixteenth century Roman Catholic Christianity and Eastern Orthodox Christianity were the primary European faiths. Islam in southeastern Europe, Judaism, and the remnants of ancient, prehistoric Nature religions, are important exceptions. The rarity of literacy, even among the rich and powerful, was a decisive factor that encouraged a heavy emphasis on the dramatic, emotionally laden special effects of church ritual to sanctify religious belief. This was especially significant for the Catholic Church, with its quasi-monopoly as the dominant faith and as the wealthiest and most politically powerful state in Europe. Its rituals were usually staged in richly decorated churches, which served as aweinspiring settings for these medieval rites.

The most important religious rituals for ordinary people were the sacraments. These had a specific criteria, combining matter, such as the "host," or the bread of the Eucharist, with verbal forms recited according to an exact Latin formula. Receivers of the sacraments must also have the correct intentions, which means to truly repent their sins, and in return they receive renewed grace. The seven sacraments, fixed in 1439, included infant baptism, communion (eating the host, or the wafer, which has mysteriously been transformed by the priest into the body of Christ), confirmation (attaining adult status), marriage (not a sacrament in the early medieval period), penance (confession of sins), the ordination of priests, and extreme unction (essential last rites preparing the soul for death).

These rites punctuated the life cycles of believers, but time was marked in other ritual ways. The "holy day," from which derives the word "holiday," was of three sorts. The Easter cycle of feasts, "movable" because their lunar calendar basis gave them different dates from year to year, celebrated the crucifixion and ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven. The Christmas cycle of fixed feasts celebrated events in the life of Christ. Based on the solar calendar, it lasted from November to March. By 1500 hundreds of fixed saints' days were also noted. Each village or district had a local patron saint whom it particularly honored, but additional saints' days were also kept with a reduced emphasis.

Momentous holy days meant a rest from normal work routines, preparation of a special meal, and other distinctive activities, including a mass, festivities, and processions. Saints were ranked according to their overall importance. Among the most significant were Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Anthony, Patrick, Olav, Anne, Paul, Joan, and Francis. Saints' days fell mainly during winter, when the agricultural work cycle was reduced.

Holy days often overlay special days observed long before Christianity existed, and they stressed the need to reaffirm the wisdom that was embedded in the collectively derived meanings of noteworthy events. They also marked the passage of the work year, which was vital for regulating the work rhythms of traditional agricultural societies. The closer Catholic rituals resembled the practices of beliefs already held, the easier it was for the church to encourage conversion, the leap of faith from one belief system to another. In such borrowings the trappings of ritual are important, since they are easily copied but always with the requirement that they be appropriate in the new role.

Easter began as rites marking the return of spring, Christmas was originally the winter solstice in Europe and later the birthdate of the Indo-Persian god Mithras, and St. John's Eve replaced Midsummer Day, the year's longest day. Such occasions were observed with bonfires or ritual bathing, fire and water symbolizing purification. In agricultural communities the planting season often began with a procession bearing the local saint's image followed by a blessing of the fields.

While holy days are ranked according to their importance, the observance of any form of special day or holiday is distinctive, and holidays exert subtle effects on belief and mentality. People subscribe to a holiday whose saint or other focus they might not even honor simply to enjoy a day of rest from the normal work routine. This enhances the symbolic importance of a holiday for all of a society, and its oftentimes multiple meanings obscure its promotion of an agenda.

But as a critique and modification of Catholicism, saints' days were largely eliminated in those countries that embraced Protestantism in the sixteenth century. Some traditional saints' days continued, however, evolving into more modern forms. In England, Saint George survived while other saints disappeared, partly because he was not actually associated with any particular place in that country. Apparently this symbol of one of Europe's earliest nationalisms was thus easier to elevate into a modern, national symbol.

Protestantism also stressed that each believer must read the Bible, a mandate aided by the invention of the printing press, which made books cheaper. The former Catholic emphasis upon elaborate rites was modified by eliminating some rituals and simplifying others in a more austere approach to faith intended to restore early Christian practices. "Ritual" thus came to be used as an abusive term by Protestants, but only in the sense that their rites were fewer and less elaborate than Catholic ones, not that they rejected them entirely.


As religious ritual diminished in importance from the sixteenth century onward, secular rituals proliferated, a trend that illuminated major shifts in the centers of power and in group identity. Some rituals had social functions for certain elites, such as of table manners and related forms of courtly etiquette. The decline of crude behavior among the medieval nobility was seen as virtuous by most, but it also instilled self-control and tamed the traditionally independent, elite warrior class. This aided the growth of royal state power and benefited the growing merchant class, whose interests frequently were allied with those of the monarchs, by turning the aristocracy away from seeking wealth through predatory violence to cultivating "courtly" behavior that would secure royal favor.

For centuries monarchs' and noblemen's courts had required a heavily ritualistic style of proceedings to sanctify and solemnize their weighty powers in the eyes of the masses they wished to dominate. Law courts came somewhat later, with similarly heavy responsibilities to settle serious conflicts. Judges and to a lesser extent lawyers wore special clothes that evoked dignity and wisdom—a practice that continued through the twentieth century. Judges constituted the central focus of the courtroom, seated above those who pleaded their cases.

By the seventeenth century more European monarchs held powerful sway over increasingly centralized states, and spectacular rituals underscored their greater power. These might dramatize important transitions in monarchs' lives by celebrating or marking events such as coronations, marriages, funerals, birthdays, and the birth of an heir. Nobles were mere supporting players. Such state-sponsored display reached its pinnacle in seventeenth-century absolutist regimes, in which monarchs held unprecedented power. The most vivid example was the French "Sun King," Louis XIV, whose court was Europe's most brilliant. He literally made his entire daily routine into an endless series of elaborate rituals, and to seek the royal favor, nobles vied with each other for such lofty honors as holding the king's coat when he got dressed each morning. These rituals kept the aristocrats busy at the royal palace of Versailles, with their attentions safely focused on the ceremonial glories of Louis's domestic life. The nobles were thus kept away from their provincial strongholds, where they might plot rebellion as their ancestors had done, and they came more to resemble trained poodles than men of the sword.

Despite this subordination to monarchs, the ritual of the duel symbolized continued noble pretensions to private feuding, an unofficial right to settle disputes among themselves outside the law with ritualized combat. Duels reaffirmed their claims to monopolize bravery and honor, while holding themselves aloof and apart from wealthy merchants who might try to imitate their betters.

But the growing power of merchants and cities was also marked by ritual, which emphasized the commercial methods of self-enrichment by celebrating urban prosperity, often in conjunction with local defense, trade guilds, transitions in urban government officials, and occasions when rulers made elaborate, symbolic entries into a city. The entertainment of such events was enhanced by exotic elements that celebrated trade. According to Johann Deitz, "militia revels" in late-seventeenth-century Lübeck, Germany, included characters costumed as "Indians, Moors, and Turks," thus emphasizing the city's exotic, far-flung trade connections and its prestige as an economic power.


Over time people's attitudes toward holidays and festivals change, which challenges the historians who study rituals. A case in point is the mock mayoral elections of Garrat. An eighteenth-century burlesque pageant held in a hamlet south of London on the occasion of local or national elections, the event was originally a parody of English electoral politics that embraced many elements of carnival, including satirizing religious authority, electing a man of low standing as "mayor" to preside over the festivities, parodies of social customs, drinking, dancing, and other boisterous activities. John Brewer interpreted this seeming disorder as both a "safety valve" for defusing social tensions and a reinforcement of the existing social order by emphasizing its importance. He noted that gentry and aristocrats patronized the celebration and regularly attended it as spectators.

However, like Clifford Geertz, Brewer emphasized the importance of the way spectators and participants view public holidays. If either the plebeians or the patricians perceive it as something other than a licensed festival, the significance of the event is transformed, and this is what happened to the mock mayoral elections of Garrat. In 1763 the playwright Samuel Foote wrote and produced a comedy entitled The Mayor of Garret [sic], which turned the tables on the festival and savagely mocked plebeians who claimed to have political knowledge or power. Staged 167 times between 1763 and 1776, the play was enormously popular not only because of its quality but also because it provided a view of plebeian political action that London audiences found comforting in light of the ongoing popular discontent surrounding John Wilkes, whose defiance of the government in the 1760s in the name of British liberty stirred volatile public conflict about the nature of power, citizenship, and civil rights.

While Foote depicted popular politics as ridiculous to his patrician audiences, thereby defusing its threat, he also suggested to political radicals that the real mock mayoral elections at Garrat could be rendered useful for their political agenda. Consequently, although the festival continued to use many of the same forms and rituals, it came to have disparate meanings to its various audiences. To radicals and working-class supporters the Garrat processions were a desirable allegory for political change, but for patricians they were a burlesque that portrayed the aspirations of plebeian politicians as ridiculous. Moreover, many local people continued to view the event simply as a festive occasion that provided an opportunity for revelry and free food and drink.

The mock mayor spectacle at Garrat disappeared in the 1790s, and Brewer speculated that the adoption of French revolutionary ideology by British artisans and workers made it impossible for the patrician sponsors to ridicule the danger of plebeian politics any longer. Radicals probably withdrew their support from the festival as well, as its reputation for riotous behavior was not in keeping with the emerging emphasis on plebeian education, self-restraint, and order. The changing political backdrop to the festival imbued it with new meanings, even while it kept much of the same outward show. Those meanings rather than the rituals themselves led to the demise of this popular holiday.

Such ritualistic holiday celebrations were often significant sources of knowledge about a country's or a city's history for most commoners. They stressed the venerable antiquity, whether real, exaggerated, or imagined, of the political establishment and portrayed its rule as both just and impossible to oppose. This was especially true when monarchs faced an uncertain succession. In England, as part of their coronation processions, both Elizabeth I and Charles II displayed painted arches or tableaux vivant (striking poses to form living pictures) that depicted their venerable heritage. Likewise, when states' armed forces (now state-paid armies and navies) won major victories in battle, celebrations and thanksgiving rituals encouraged subjects to feel that they had a vital stake in the outcome, which promoted the emergence of nationalism.

But public rituals were not only shaped by the powerful; ordinary people also created and observed rituals that reflected their immediate concerns. For example, carnival was a traditional, popular event that included ritualized rebellion. It was strongest in southern Europe, but aspects also appeared in Scandinavia, Britain, and elsewhere. Held in cities, carnival was an interval of indulgence during the days preceding the penitence and fasting of Catholic Lent. Everyone participated in this "world turned upside down" festival, when the status quo was mocked. The poor in particular indulged in normally restricted pleasures. They ate richer food than usual, and sexual prohibitions were loosened. Revelers wore bizarre costumes, humiliated pompous people, and ridiculed the church and the state. They selected a "king" and "queen," who symbolically reigned over this celebration of disorder and inversion. Conservative, rigid people often abhorred carnival as threatening the social order, and in times of severe economic stress—always most destructive for the poor—the festivities could develop into rebellion. Such ritualized ventings of hostility normally made the establishment more stable in the long run, yet the simple fact that the masses could take over the streets showed their latent power to seriously challenge the status quo.


By the late eighteenth century ritual challenges to authority developed into more modern modes of political opposition, especially for those who expressed solidarity by resisting what they considered injustices. Proposing toasts and taking oaths at meetings were typical of western European ritual political expression in the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century. These were dramatic declarations of commitment, especially early on, when such activities were deemed as borderline treason. Related forms of political visual symbolism with significant ritual overtones were also especially important in this era. Symbolic dress and hairstyles publicly proclaimed political opinions. Militant radical signs, such as trousers; "round hats," forerunners of modern brimmed hats; and short hair fundamentally changed the trend of European male fashion and opened a new era.

These fashions coincided with the French Revolution of the late 1780s, which heralded the eventual transformation of old regime Europe. Festivals with processions became a major means of asserting political legitimacy, and both counterrevolutionaries and revolutionaries sponsored them to promote their respective agendas. Revolutionary rituals emphasized the idealized notions of "liberty, equality, and fraternity," and participation by all classes reduced social barriers and promoted a sense of solidarity. These rituals borrowed their forms from the old saints' days, and other Catholic ritual practices were likewise adapted because people were used to them. Maximilien Robespierre's Fête de l'Unité (festival of unity) borrowed heavily from church rituals to commemorate the monarchy's fall, including baptizing the ground in the name of liberty. Mona Ozouf, one of the foremost scholars of French revolutionary festivals, argued that these rituals involved a "transfer of sacrality" (Ozouf, 1988, p. 267) from the church to the revolution, which claimed to embody a more righteous ideology than either the corrupt church or the decadent monarchy. As a part of this transfer, the revolutionaries set about changing societal elements related to religion, including the marking of time. They introduced a calendar with ten days per week, new names for the months, and renumbered years, starting with the year one in 1792 to show that history had begun anew. Yet old ways of thinking persisted, and Napoleon scrapped this calendar in 1806.


As the festivals of the French Revolution suggest, politicized public holidays were one means by which new political regimes attempted to assert their legitimacy. During the nineteenth century this became a standard tool of governments that sought to promote unity through nationalistic fervor. Yet these ceremonies had to be managed in such a way that only the state's message was promoted, leaving no room for political opponents to turn the occasion to their own purposes. This was a constant concern during the reign of Napoleon III. For example, in 1849, early in his presidency, he banned celebrations in Lille commemorating the beginning of the revolution of 1848, which ultimately had brought him to power, due to worker unrest and criticism of the government. In addition he criminalized singing the revolutionary song, the "Marseillaise," even though Louis Napoleon's electoral campaign had courted people's identification of him with the first French Revolution.

The potential for dissidents to use French history to justify their opposition to government was so great that Napoleon III and later the Third Republic avoided holidays connected with France's revolutionary past. The notable exception was Bastille Day, which was made a formal holiday in 1880. Although this festival ran the risk of giving workers, socialists, and other dissidents a public platform, the emphasis on state pomp and popular holiday defused the event's inherent radicalism. As in virtually every other European state, French celebrations became larger and more grandiose throughout the nineteenth century, reminding their audiences of the grandeur of the nation and the power of the state. Thus nationalistic holidays functioned on a number of different levels, as entertainment, as a unifying force, and as a threat.

The newly unified German state faced similar problems in creating a national identity, given the disparate religions, histories, and interests of Germans scattered across central and eastern Europe. Because war was central to the forging of modern Germany, many of the new state ceremonies introduced after 1871 commemorated battles and events connected with the Franco-Prussian War. The kaiser also became a focus of national unity, and as in other monarchical states, such as Britain, the royal birthday was a national holiday, celebrated with elaborate state and military pomp.

The enthusiasm people exhibited at such celebrations highlights the close similarity between the awe and veneration people feel for religion and what they feel for the modern state as a sacred entity—as a secular religion. This development was due to changing conditions. Industrialization and urbanization eroded the ancient supporting and sustaining bonds of family, extended family, and community. Powerful institutions and states displayed in appealing ways appear as safe and even fascinating havens of power and strength to those who feel insecure. The sense of unity and belonging that a state or political party offers may provide such a feeling, for which allegiance is an intrinsic aspect.

Yet leaders tend to use state power to their own best advantage. They serve those interests within the polity that wield the most political influence, often while treating individual citizens high-handedly or with brutality, directly in proportion to a person's wealth. States vary widely in the degree to which ordinary people are protected from government abuse, but the more oppressive the government, the greater its need to convince the public that it actually serves them. Ritual and related trappings can work as a form of advertising by partially masking oppression, and they manufacture consent and popular approval by overwhelming and obliterating all negative impressions to the maximum extent. Mass communications elevated ancient techniques of political flimflam to a sophisticated level as images and sounds began broadcasting daily into hundreds of millions of homes throughout the world.

One tactic for achieving a public goal is to enhance the scale, duration, and quantity of ritual to impress and overawe the public with charismatic, entertaining ceremonies. This is not done solely to encourage people to feel that the state is the only true protector that always serves their best interests. Its purpose is to convince the public that it is vital and essential to their very existence, and without the state they would perish or be enslaved by malevolent enemies. Not everyone is persuaded by such means, but if the senses and emotions are manipulated skillfully enough, a high percentage of the public will be influenced, swayed, or convinced by these shows. Ritual can be a critical factor in modern politics, for an oppressive state can continue to hold power only when it enjoys the support of enough people, of a "critical mass" of the population, which may be only a minority.

Yet states were not the only entities that created new holidays in the nineteenth century. Politicized religious groups, such as the Protestant Orange Order in Ireland, regularly used parades and ceremonials to symbolically assert their domination over Catholics by marching through their neighborhoods. Those parades often commemorated seventeenth-century Protestant military victories over Catholics and provoked unrest or riots. On a larger scale socialists were responsible for the founding of an international May Day holiday when the Socialist International of 1889 called for a one-day strike on 1 May 1890 to press for an eight-hour workday. Although they specifically denied that this was a worker's holiday or celebration, socialist leaders did not take into account the appeal to the rank and file of the long-standing, widespread folk celebrations traditionally associated with May Day. While the political content of the event survived in the slogans, banners, speeches, and the abstention from work, May Day celebrations became popular family holidays for workers, replete with parades, parties, and goodwill.

Nevertheless, May Day's appeal to workers as an expression of symbolic unity was great, so much so that in 1917 the Russian revolutionaries adopted the Western calendar so they would celebrate May Day on the same day as the rest of the world. But to appeal to a broader public, the Bolsheviks also adapted traditional rituals drawn primarily from the Russian Orthodox Church. Leon Trotsky believed that rational appeals to the masses were not sufficient to emotionally attach their loyalty to the state. Therefore church saints became the model for revolutionary martyrs, and the icon, so culturally significant in the Orthodox Church, reemerged in a new form. On the death of Vladimir Lenin, his preserved body was put on public display in a mausoleum-monument, and this shrine was visited by millions of pilgrims. Joseph Stalin's portrait was later displayed everywhere to keep him in the public eye, compensating for his dislike of public appearances.


The foregoing examples illustrate a prominent feature of ritual: in dramatic changes of a regime or faith, familiar figures are often retained in a modified form or with new meanings because people prefer what they know and mistrust change. Among the most vivid examples of state ceremony as quasi-religious ritual are those of the German Nazis, who never won a national election but built a powerful regime that delicately balanced coercion and consensus. Their rituals and to a lesser extent those of similar fascist parties in Italy, Spain, Finland, and elsewhere promoted various messages of national, racial, and ethnic unity and superiority. The Nazis were particularly adept at this game. Their rituals borrowed heavily from Christianity, refurbished with new symbols and ideologies and starring Adolf Hitler as a protective, wise, powerful father figure.

The Nazis probably staged more sensational rituals than any other twentieth-century European state. They were on a grander scale with longer parades, some over four hours, and extremely eye-catching uniforms. The Nürenberg nighttime rallies were staged with a breathtaking theatricality. These elaborate, colorful, dramatically torchlit displays included enormous masses of participants, a backdrop of monumental civic buildings, hundreds of swastika banners, and sensational lighting effects, and they were filmed to reach a wider public. No detail was overlooked in instilling the desired sensations of unity and unquestioned loyalty within the participants and audience while advertising the Nazi virtues of mass unity, bravery, and aggression. The emotions were further reinforced by omnipresent trappings, such as the formation of uniformed, regimented organizations; the use of birds of prey, especially eagles, on badges and other symbols; and the frequent, ornamental display of weaponry, including some that were traditionally venerable but obsolete, such as swords and daggers.

Nazi displays emphasized an irrational, emotional, and mystical content to conceal fundamental social, political, and economic conflicts between the rich (wealthy businesspeople who backed Hitler's rise to power) and ordinary Germans. The emphasis on powerful emotional impressions also was intended to obscure the fact that they offered no genuinely comprehensive explanatory narrative or "myth." Germans increasingly were expected to believe in Nazi symbols as such, though they lacked a deeper content beyond vague, shallow simplicities. Perhaps at no other time in human history were so many expected to accept an ideology founded on a purely symbolic and impressionistic content with little actual substance. One ideologue wrote: "Flag! Führer! Volk [folk]! Eternal Germany! Who can interpret their meaning? . . . We sense it, and therefore we believe it and trust in the word of our fellow believers" (Taylor, 1981, p. 518).


Pleasure and entertainment became increasingly vital aspects of modern European life, and sports were noteworthy for ritual. Traditional peasant games in western Europe involved rites of local significance, displaying honor, pride, and solidarity among village men. With ever-expanding urbanization and wealth, these games acquired an institutional emphasis on obedience to regulations, such as rigid boundaries, precise measurements, and codified rules strictly enforced by officials. A greater degree of hierarchy, specialist players, team captains, coaches, winners and losers, and the idolizing of elites harmonized with and reflected integral values of industrial capitalism, and victory was analogous to the almost sacred goal of profits in business.

The largest supposedly nonprofit sports event, the International Olympic Games, emerged in Athens, Greece, in 1896, and its ritual aspects continually proliferated. Victory award ceremonies were enhanced, and gold medals were first awarded in 1904. The parade of nations was introduced at the opening ceremonies of the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden, and the five interlocking rings logo appeared in 1920 along with the first "Olympic oath."

In 1936 Adolf Hitler further enhanced Olympic ceremonials, using the games to promote Nazism at home and German prestige abroad. With no ancient nor modern precedent, the Olympic Torch run was added, a dramatic event with runners dressed as ancient Greeks bearing the torch from Athens to Berlin, and concluding with an attractive, blond German runner followed by six black-clad runners who lit the Olympic flame brazier. The winter games likewise included torchlight ski runs, which like similar rites recalled a glorious, pagan Germanic past that the Nazis freely invented as a racist and nationalist self-promotion. All this advertised the idea that the Nazis were capable, respectable, tolerant (black athletes were allowed to compete), and peace-loving, and widespread media coverage made the Olympics more popular than ever. Subsequent games included more events and ceremonies and larger expenditures as corporate sponsors competed for profits through the idealized games.

Twentieth-century sports included strong ritual elements, especially in the spectator sports that were outlets for national or local pride, such as football (soccer) or rugby. Singing team songs or national anthems before or during the match was a standard feature of organized sports, and victories in national or international championships prompted parades and organized celebrations. Other ritual trappings included team colors, flags, and pennants that reinforced identification with the team and allowed people from different social and economic backgrounds, even those living in cities or countries other than where the team was based, to feel a sense of unity by rooting for a team. Widely diverse events, such as rock concerts, cult film events, and New Year's Eve celebrations shared similar elements. Some corporations adopted some of the ritual of sports, organizing "teams" of workers, dressing them in special uniforms, and staging "competitions" to achieve greater profits.

Sports rituals, like all other rituals, play a variety of roles in society. Sports provide entertainment, forge a feeling of unity and belonging among the participants, and embody cultural values and social ideologies dominant in society.

The scripting and staging of the Nazi shows functioned, like many rituals, as a psychological conditioning by carefully excluding any other perspective or viewpoint. In this appeal to religious emotions, human existence was simplified into an eternal struggle between good and evil, somewhat analogous to that between the Christian deity and devil. The swastika flag replaced the Christian cross as a holy symbol, and words like "holy," "sacred," and "eternal" were endlessly repeated.

These shows were designed to satisfy, reassure, entertain, and make people feel good about a regime that destroyed both individual rights and anyone who dared to question orders. Ritual offered a sense of belonging and security to people who felt alone, weak, or lost, especially after the twenty years of World War I, its harsh peace settlement, and the worst inflation followed by the most destructive economic depression in German history. As with revolutionary France and Russia, traditional holidays were pressed into Nazi state service, including those associated with the harvest and labor, Mother's Day, Easter, and Christmas, which were recast as "authentic" German folk traditions.


Nazi ritual constantly celebrated war, strength, and aggression and was saturated with militarism. But martial ritual is notable in virtually every modern state. Military life is an intensely ritualized modern subculture. It is rooted in the absolute necessity to effectively coordinate and command masses of young men, whose duty is to fight and risk death when many would rather be anywhere else than on a battlefield. Military ritual developed as a technique of control in battle, especially through military drill, but also from the simple need to efficiently move large numbers of men from one place to another.

Military daily routines are punctuated with ongoing rituals, such as changing the guard and inspections. Rules ritualize a host of ordinary, mundane activities, including the manner of addressing others and the body's motions and movements. All this conditions soldiers, rendering them into efficient tools for enforcing the will of the state on its enemies, foreign and domestic. Compulsory participation in military ceremonies establishes esprit de corps, even when it is directly contrary to the soldiers' own desires. As "whole" institutions that rigidly manage all aspects of the soldiers' lives, armies can forge literally anyone into cannon fodder.

Ritual powerfully reinforces discipline, but it is a major component of a larger military management process, for which the psychological conditioning of strict rules, wearing uniforms, and drills are basic components. Military life exerts a particular form of mind control, in ways that are both subtle and obvious, over young men who as civilians never seriously considered killing anyone. The military ideals of power, honor, bravery, national defense, brotherhood, solidarity, self-sacrifice, harmony, and efficiency are communicated through virtually every aspect of martial display. "Our troops" exert a strong emotional appeal to civilians, who are often fascinated by this sublime vision. Martial ritual display has served as an idealized, inspirational model for the civilian world in a wide variety of organizational and personal contexts, where such values are deemed important, useful, or profitable.


By the twentieth century, independence days, often with a military component, became a focus for nationalism, especially in those smaller countries long subservient to foreign rule. The phenomenon evolved in eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, starting with Greece. Later a host of new nations emerged, including Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, Albania, Finland, and the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. National independence days were celebrated with the solemn rituals of parades, speeches and wreath laying. Only Iceland, which received its independence from Denmark in 1944, did not fit the pattern of a ceremonial connection between the military and independence since it had no military institutions and it alone among European countries had not been involved in major warfare since the Middle Ages.

Holidays and rituals have played a vital role in building a national community in lands that had not existed previously as independent states and that included people from different linguistic, ethnic, or religious groups. In Germany after 1871 ceremonies frequently emphasized the defeat of France rather than praising any qualities of the new state or its people.

What happens to national holidays when the perceived threat from external enemies fades and unity is asserted through education, legislation, economic ties, or other social and cultural interactions? Norway's national holiday, 17 May, while asserting local and national pride, became an occasion for family outings and pleasure. The other four holidays in May were revived saints' days. Since Norway was predominantly Lutheran, these spring holidays were not a return to Catholicism but additional days of springtime leisure immediately following the end of the long, severe Norwegian winter. Norway boasted more legal holidays in May than any other country.

One holiday with a self-indulgent emphasis is Christmas, which declined as a Christian celebration and became an American-style occasion for consumers. Even Communist Russia generated a version of Santa Claus as a distributor of gifts. Easter was especially important in eastern and southern Europe. While these commercialized holidays were viewed increasingly as time off from work rather than religious celebrations, they maintained many traditional ritual elements attached to them in past centuries. Those examples reflect what social historians have discovered about earlier rituals and holidays. While the ceremonies appear unchanged over time, participants attach different meanings to them to serve other purposes or to meet new needs. Ritual in modern Europe became more secular than ever. Europeans considered themselves far more sophisticated than their medieval ancestors, but they continued to adopt rituals and modify them to meet the changing needs and desires of states, corporations, religions, and ordinary people. This form of communication and social bonding appeared no less fundamental to human expression than in the past.

Se also other articles in this section.



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