The Spectacle of the American Ritual Cycle
“…the existence of a conventional order is contingent upon its acceptance; in fact a rule or understanding cannot be said to be a convention unless it is accepted. In ritual, however, acceptance and existence entail each other, for a liturgical order is perforce accepted in its realization, in, that is to say, the performance which gives it substance. Since obligation is entailed by acceptance, and the breaking of obligation is per se immoral, the existence, acceptance and morality of conventions are joined together indissoluably in rituals; they are, in fact, virtually on and the same.” — Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity
“When a more complex society finally becomes conscious of time, it tries to negate it, for it views time not as something that passes, but as something that returns. This static type of society organizes time in a cyclical manner, in accordance with its own direct experience of nature.” — Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
I was already thinking about an essay on the US ritual cycle, what with our recent Thanksgiving holiday and all. Then I got Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle for Black Friday (thanks, Phil!) and a mythological story of cyclical time from Doctor Who on Saturday. So, yeah, time to get this one out here.
With Spectacle and Doctor Who already posted or written about here at Eruditorum Press, I will start with ritual. My favorite definition of ritual comes from the late Roy Rappaport, who put it as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers,” with the “entirely” being a late addition. It encompasses both secular and religious practice; today we’ll be concerned primarily with the former. Anyways, what’s notable about ritual is that it is performed, not just spectated; and it is cyclical, even when it varies wildly—not only does it transmit certain information about the larger social system in which it occurs, it orders and structures that very system. It also, in so doing, inherently creates a number of dialectics.
But it’s the distinction of performativity that distinguishes ritual from spectacle. Spectacle is a one-way transmission. Ritual, on the other hand, is self-indexical. For the participants aren’t just recipients of messages, they are also the transmitters, and indeed the message themselves. And because of this, the intersection of ritual and spectacle, kind of like a genre-competition, yields some very interesting results.
With all this in mind, let’s start with America’s “spring rituals” and work our way to the end of the year, which is where (when) we’re at here at the beginning of December.
“Consciousness of desire and desire for consciousness are the same project, the project that in its negative form seeks the abolition of classes and thus the workers’ direct possession of every aspect of their activity. The opposite of this project is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making.” — Debord
Long after the haze of the New Year gives way to a bitter sobriety, the American ritual cycle begins itself anew with Valentine’s Day. While January may present a slew of “great men” ceremonies, these are not, in general, days celebrated by the mass of Americans. Most of us won’t get the day off, nor will we find ourselves immersed in anything but the mundane aesthetic of January. No, it isn’t until mid-February rolls around that we’ve been inundated with heart-shaped boxes of candy at the grocery store, rose-colored walls of greeting cards, and most importantly the expectation to engage in the rituals of courtship, up to and including sex.
Of course, relationship and sex are both powerful motivators of human activity. We’ll do a lot in service to them, by and large. But with Valentine’s Day they are now cordoned off into a ritual cycle. The cycle now takes authority over them. Imperfectly, of course, but perfection is not required, only the appearance of control, which is assumed simply by taking the position that can grant sanctification. And in the capitalist mode, what is a part of ordinary life becomes commodified. Even more so, it becomes a spectacle. All those people dressed up in fancy clothes at fancy restaurants. Glittering cards. Chocolate. It’s a special occasion, but that necessarily entails that the mundane time outside the ritual space is not special. Within the ritual space, as a display of spectacle, courtship and romance and sex become commodities, something to consume, to use up, to expend.
St Patrick’s Day
“The spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence.” — Debord
What was ostensibly a religious holiday of feasting has become something entirely different in the broader United States. It is more a holiday of a particular aesthetic than of its origins, and again, is transformed into rites of consumption. The day was originally to commemorate the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In the diaspora of the Irish in the U.S., it became a day of Irish pride, a rebellion against the stereotypical disparagement directed towards a particular group of immigrants. No more.
Yes, there are still parades, but the status of Irish immigrants was settled long ago – they are white. So what do Americans do? They paint their rivers green. They paint themselves green, whether they’re Irish or not. The red hearts in the grocery stores are replaced with green shamrocks. And the primary ritual is now one of drinking (and yes, Americans will even dye their beer green for this day). The drinking is ironic, despite its unironic execution, for it participates in one of the predominant stereotypes of the Irish in America, that of being lushes.
Drinking to excess, however, has its own meaning, its own encoding, which is necessarily inherent in the experience of oblivion. The consciousness of St Patrick’s Day is destroyed. Gone is the religious dimension. Gone, too, is the political dimension. In capitalist society, it is reduced to spectacle, a spectacle of green vomit.
“…the overwhelming realities of present-day social existence prevent people from actually living events for themselves. Because history itself haunts modern society like a specter, pseudo-histories have to be concocted at every level of life-consumption in order to preserve the threatened equilibrium of the present frozen time.” — Debord
This is one of the two rituals (the other being Christmas) practiced in America in a strangely schizophrenic way – that of being religious and secularly consumptive at the same time. This has two contradictory effects. First, it sanctifies the religion of Christianity over all others – no other religions in America are ritually privileged in this way. Secondly, it denudes Christianity, wrapping it up the capitalistic excess of spectacle and consumption.
For now the stores are packed with eggs, and bunnies, and pastel colors. Children go hunting for secret treasures, and gobble down more candy. It is entirely possible to celebrate Easter in a secular manner, as a marker of Spring, perhaps, with all the fertility symbols on display. And so resurrection can still be consumed, even if you’re not Catholic. Likewise, with the old order of religion safely contained within a capitalistic ritual container, it can be safely ignored during the much more prevalent mundane time of everyday life. Even though the holiday itself is established by religion (according to the particular union of celestial and artificial calendars), its spectacularization stifles its ability to disrupt the power of the bourgeoisie. In this way, the former dominant power becomes subservient to the current ruling class.
“Whereas during the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation ‘political economy considers the proletarian only as a worker,’ who only needs to be allotted the indispensable minimum for maintaining her labor power, and never considers her ‘in her leisure and humanity,’ this ruling-class perspective is revised as soon as commodity abundance reaches a level that requires an additional collaboration from her. Once her workday is over, the worker is suddenly redeemed from the total contempt toward her that is so clearly implied by every aspect of the organization and surveillance of production, and finds herself seemingly treated like a grown-up, with a great show of politeness, in her new role as a consumer.” — Debord (mostly)
I debated about including this one, but I think it’s apt. It’s the “endpoint” of this initial battery of “spring rituals,” and a natural antecedent to the fertility imagery of Easter itself. While we won’t find a new set of decorations to put up for the weekend, we will find the day ensconsed in a particular aesthetic, one closely resembling that of Easter, but abstracted out – no bunnies, no eggs, no crosses, but flowers, and pastels, and anything appropriate to marking the height of Spring.
And again, we have to consider the ironic power of the Mother’s Day ritual. For on the one hand, its very existence demands that we accord power and respect to mothers. It always falls on a Sunday – a “sacred” day according to the dominant religion. On the other hand, though, it speaks to the fact that on all the other days of the year, mothers are not sacred. They are workers, for their children at the very least, but more broadly for their entire families. One day off per year from and incredible amount of work. What a blessing. Sleep in. Have family make breakfast, or go out for brunch, in nice clothes. More greeting cards. So the society can’t say it devalues mothers (even though it does in praxis) because of the spectacle of the holiday.
But heaven forbid if you should forget this holiday. I mean, I’m certainly complicit here – I buy my mom a card, a small present, go visit for the weekend (or a weekend near enough, with an additional phone call). My participation in the ritual is an acknowledgement on my part, an acceptance on my part, of the social contract encoded within the ritual, and the relationship. Like every ritual, there’s an element of inherent morality in Mother’s Day. For me, perhaps, it is a way for atoning for the fact that we are separated, a separation which is part and parcel of the capitalist enterprise and bundled up as “normal” for westerners.
So this is one of the ways in which ritual binds us. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or not with the precepts of the rite, or what interpretation we bring to it. Simply by virtue of participating in it, I am necessarily accepting something, even if it’s the tacit admission that I am subject to the authority of another – and when it comes to my mom, I am happily bound to her authority on this matter, because she’s quite important to me.
“Pseudocyclical time is associated with the consumption of modern economic survival — the augmented survival in which everyday experience is cut off from decision-making and subjected no longer to the natural order, but to the pseudo-nature created by alienated labor. It is thus quite natural that it echoes the old cyclical rhythm that governed survival in preindustrial societies, incorporating the natural vestiges of cyclical time while generating new variants: day and night, work and weekend, periodic vacations.” — Debord
In much of the United States, Memorial Day marks the beginning of Summer. Which is a peculiar function for a military holiday. Memorial Day is ostensibly a day set aside to honor those who’ve died in military service (Veteran’s Day, for those who survived, isn’t nearly as important). And sure, there will be memorials, parades, rituals held in cemeteries. But this is largely secondary in terms of the ritual cycle, in terms of the appearance and practice of the day.
Falling at the end of May in the northern hemisphere, it’s like a warm day. The spring blossoms have largely given way to green leaves. It’s when summer fashions become sanctioned, when community swimming pools open up, when schools let out, more or less. And a goodly number of people get the day off — though proletariats in the “service” sector are still expected to work, which makes this a holiday that helps define class distinctions in the country.
Its biggest televised spectacle is actually the Indy 500, a car race that an absurdly large number of people watch, or at least pay attention to while grilling steaks and hotdogs outside while drinking down cheap beer. Indeed, this is probably the primary form of consumption for the day. It is a “vacation” done in miniature, or perhaps as a synecdoche, given that summer in America is also defined as a time of vacations… which only a few can truly afford to take.
Fourth of July
“Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.” — Debord
This day of the ritual cycle marks mid-summer, more or less, and in terms of its ritualization it strongly resembles Memorial Day – again, we’ll primarily see the practice of grilling meat and the drinking of beer. The stores will be filled with flags, and the décor of the country turns into a gaudy display of flags, stripes, stars, red white a blue. And again, “everyone” gets the day off, except the working poor, who can’t afford it.
But the 4th is perhaps the “purest” of American capitalist ritual, both in the fact that the country doesn’t have to share the ritual service with other concerns, and in the nature of the primary ritual of the day, which is typically an ostentatious display of fireworks at nightfall. Fireworks, of course, are spectacle. They are meant to be watched. And though they often draw immense crowds, especially in the cities, they still function to separate. In the dark, we don’t see each other. In the noise, we don’t hear each other. All there is, then, is spectacle, and it’s only in our numbers that we ourselves participate – we too, then, are simply spectacle.
“Due to the very success of this separate production of separation, the fundamental experience that in earlier societies was associated with people’s primary work is in the process of being replaced (in sectors near the cutting edge of the system’s evolution) by an identification of life with nonworking time, with inactivity. But such inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity. It remains dependent on it, in an uneasy and admiring submission to the requirements and consequences of the production system.” — Debord
Conversely, the final holiday of the summer ritual cycle is the most ironic. Labor Day. A day for “celebrating” labor, which is really just a way of acknowledging that all the other days of the year are day that labor need not be celebrated, let alone valued. And once again, we get a day off. A day for backyard grills. For drinking beer. For mere consumption. So Labor Day is the close of summer, often falling on one of the first weekends when much of the country is “free” from the heat of the season. Schools resume. Fall colors become the norm in terms of fashion. But the Day itself is spent like the other summer holidays. It’s part of a triptych.
While there may be a few parades, however, certainly nothing in the regular media coverage will approach the fawning reverence displayed towards soldiers and flags. And then there’s the position of Labor Day as the end of summer, a position that lends its own intrinsic entailments. Consider that the “birth” of summer comes from fallen soldiers, and the “height” of summer from nationalistic concern – and a celebration of “freedom.” That the “death” of summer coincides with “labor” casts a rather sour note, especially given that summer is purportedly a time of “vacation” and “freedom” from work. So there’s a connotation, then, that Labor itself is complicit or even responsible in the loss of freedom.
Now for the end-of-year rites.
“Although the present age presents its time to itself as a series of frequently recurring festivities, it is an age that knows nothing of real festivals. The moments within cyclical time when members of a community joined together in a luxurious expenditure of life are impossible for a society that lacks both community and luxury” — Debord
Halloween is, of course, the recuperation of death. It may be the ultimate recuperation ritual of the cycle. It’s a holiday of turning everything that’s macabre into something that’s kitsch. And, you know, it can be a lot of fun dressing up as something else, but wait, hold on, what do we dress up as? Often it’s as something transgressive. Hence all the sexytimes outfits. So this is really America’s “Carnivale” except at the wrong time of year (Mardi Gras proper being more a regional expression, primarily along the Mississippi). This is a ritual of inversion.
Look at the trick-or-treaters. Mostly kids, but who in their right (capitalist) mind would train their kids to panhandle? Trick or treating is basically a form of begging. But ensconced in ritual, what is verboten in everyday life becomes “allowed” this one day of the year.
And, of course, there’s the usual transformation of folk ritual into consumptive ritual. So much of Halloween comes from a variety of European customs. But recuperated into America’s spectacle, the rite is now one primarily oriented around consumption, primarily of candy, but also of spectacle itself. See, there isn’t just dressing up transgressively. There’s also dressing up reflectively, mirroring the current icons of pop culture from Iron Man to the TARDIS.
At the same time, though, this is still (by its Carnivale nature) a ritual that can be used for détournement. For example, going as the Halloween ritual itself: the “trick or treaters” bring along a door, and put it up in front of someone’s house, so when they open their door, they just see a door… which then opens, allowing the trick-or-treaters to give away some candy and remark fancifully on the costumes of the people they just visited.
“The spectacle, considered as the reigning society’s method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a false consciousness of time.” — Debord
Finally, the holiday that prompted this essay. This is one of the rituals that I participate in, primarily as an occasion to visit my parents and consume. We went out this year – I got braised peppers, an artichoke flatbread, squash soup, and pesto-stuffed mushrooms. My parents got the usual Thanksgiving fare.
So, about that usual fare. Turkey is a food that makes a lot of people sleepy; this holiday is actually a soporific. Combined with all the traditional “soft” foods – dressing, cranberry nummy, mashed potatoes – well, it’s kind of like regressing to early childhood and eating baby food, then nodding off blissfully surrounded by family. That’s really what this holiday is “about” ritually speaking; these are the obvious effects. It’s childlike consumption (but with wine for adults). The juxtaposition here is harvest-festival levels of consumption and family.
It’s the family part of the holiday that makes it difficult to criticize. Maybe that’s why it’s a family holiday, because yeesh, there’s a lot to criticize here. The make-believe “history” of the holiday, for example, burying the truth of how this continent was taken (which is, yes, another form of consumption). The increasing importance of American Football on the holiday, which is ritualized warfare. And, of course, the spectacle of Black Friday.
Black Friday is a ritual, I should note. It’s a performance, all those people lining up outside all night long, then rushing the doors and eventually coming home with their prizes. The masses of people participating in the quintessential capitalistic act, showing up on the local news, not just watching the spectacle, but being the spectacle. And of course it’s the lower classes who get suckered into this rite, those who are most easily manipulated by low, low prices – and should any violence erupt (and it has), well, guess who gets blamed? Not the pigfuckers, that’s for sure.
“The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity, works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.” — Debord
Christmas might seem like the ultimate capitalistic holiday, but it really isn’t. Sure, it heavily revolves around a tremendous amount of crass consumption, the spectacle of so many presents, and who gets to show off what when we get back to school or work. But in so many respects, it’s a ritual of mitigation.
First off, capitalism has to share the stage with religion again. This might actually be the central function of the ritual, to recuperate something which in many respects should be at odds with the spectacle of capitalism. After all, the religion promotes authority based on a clergy, not the bourgeoisie. And it preaches a greater appreciation for “spiritual” concerns as opposed to “material” ones. Even goes so far as to laud the poor over the rich. Of course, this is very convenient for the rich, for when such a sentiment is recuperated and contained within a ritual system, much like Carnivale/Halloween, that means the sentiment need not be observed during “mundane time” or in “mundane space.”
Secondly, for those who are no longer children, there’s as much if not more of an emphasis on “giving” as opposed to “receiving.” Consumption is transferred (much like the production of labor, oops, sorry about that) and self-gratification is deferred. And this is lauded as a Christian principle. No wonder the religion needs recuperation. And Christmas recuperates the hell out of it, by drenching the culture in a spectacle of lights, song, bells, forced cheer, tinsel, and pine trees. So much, again, borrowed from other rites of other systems, making Christmas “feel” authentic, even though so much of the current ritual is really quite modern.
But this isn’t just a feature of the ability of capitalism or spectacle, to take something and make it its own. This is a feature of ritual itself. See, rituals are always changing, even though they purport to stay the same. Everything changes, though, and there is no “original” ritual, nothing ab initio. It just feels that way, because it’s ritual. Funny thing… when something new gets introduced into ritual, sometimes it sticks. Depends on how well it “works” in producing the desired effects within the ritual participants (kind of like Black Friday being a recent phenomenon within Thanksgiving). And then the ritual changes.
We all have the power to create new rituals, or to change existing ones, and as long it works for us, why not? As long as we keep doing it, it gains strength, and soon the memory of all those rituals done previously inform the recurrence of what we do going forward. In this respect, ritual is a lot like advertising.
The New Year
“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.” — Debord
If Thanksgiving is a return to childhood, and Christmas is a coming-of-age, then the New Year is the step into adulthood, which means a proper acceptance of death. For the primary ritual of the New Year in this country is to drink one’s self into a state of oblivion. Not everyone does it, of course, but nearly everyone who drinks will probably reach this state of oblivion during one New Year or another.
Of course, the ritual is yet again one of spectacle. Not just the drinking, but especially the “countdown” which terminates in an orgy of wasted confetti and fireworks and more drinking. But it’s also a ritual of self-perpetuation. The whole point of examining the American Ritual Cycle is to see that it is a cycle, a cycle that doesn’t just perpetuate the spectacle of consumption in a capitalist society, but one that shapes the very fabric of our culture – nay, one that lays the foundation for how we understand the world around us, especially of how we conceive of time. The year is renewed, so we can do everything over again, year after year. This is the lynchpin, because it’s here that the calendar itself is laid down yet again to structure our every activity.
Now, sure, we can use this day to do thing that better ourselves. There’s a whole litany of New Year’s Resolutions, most of which fail, but it’s a thing. Yet it’s a thing that’s determined by the calendar of the ritual cycle. It’s recuperated, and at a time when we’re not exactly thriving, as most of America is just about ready to be battered by cold, ice, wind, and darkness. Not the sort of conditions conducive to self-improvement.
“In the organization’s struggle against class society, the combatants themselves are the fundamental weapons: a revolutionary organization must thus see to it that the dominant society’s conditions of separation and hierarchy are not reproduced within itself. It must constantly struggle against its deformation by the ruling spectacle.” — Debord
I love this quote above, because it so very well describes a participatory mode of ritual. See, I really don’t think the problem we face is one of ritual or spectacle. These are just tools. Spectacle can dull the senses, but it can also open eyes – it gets attention. And ritual, well, it’s the basis of the social contract. It also gives us the opportunity to commune, with each other and the world around us, because the material reality of the world is in fact cyclical. It can be a means for gathering and reunion, as opposed to separation and alienation.
But first we have to understand them. You can’t swim to shore when you don’t even know you’re drowning, and until you understand the nature of water you can’t understand what drowning even is. So don’t consider this a rant against ritual and delight, against time spent with people you want to spend time with, doing things you enjoy doing. Eat, drink, laugh, make music and love, and set time aside for doing just that, for there will be other times when such is not available.
Ritual, that’s what we do – it’s participatory, and hence co-creative. And what we make, that’s the spectacle. Maybe if we can be a bit more mindful of such, we can ritualize in ways that aren’t against our best interests, and maybe we can make something that’s truly worth gazing at.
December 1, 2015 @ 8:56 am
It would be an interesting exercise to do a similar deconstruction of the UK’s yearly rituals. Reflecting on your piece they seem much the same as the USA’s in most respects, which probably says a lot about the relationship between the existing and previous Ruling World Orders.
The chief divergences and replacements would be –
Guy Fawke’s or Bonfire Night. November the fifth, our own fireworks celebration (for obvious reasons we don’t do Independence Day) steeped in pagan ritual with a disturbing patina of half forgotten anti-Catholic history which only serves to further disinter the vaguely pre-Christian roots of what is ostensibly a fire worship ritual. The bonfires and fireworks defiantly dispelling the dark of winter. Interestingly this tradition, like Halloween, also contained an element of teaching children to beg. A bundle of clothes in an old pram would be wheeled around affixed with a leering Guy Fawke’s mask (now, thanks to Alan Moore, a sigil more often associated with V and the Anonymous movement) with perhaps a hand written cardboard sign saying ‘penny for the guy’. The money then collected from intimidated grown-ups in the street by bands of feral urchin highwayman would be spent on fireworks. (In the days before their sale was prohibited to minors).
Remembrance Sunday. Another November ritual. Two minutes silence. Bright scarlet paper poppies gathered as wreaths on war memorials and pinned individually on the sombre dark overcoats of our leaders gathered at the Cenotaph. Thanking the few. Sometimes co-opted as a covert celebration of just wars (aren’t they all?). The occasional white ‘peace’ poppy visible as a soft left middle class riposte.
The various National Days simultaneously secular and religious, dressed in saints colours. St David for Wales, St Andrew for Scotland and St George for England.
St Patrick’s day in the UK increasingly, like Halloween, adopts the razmattazz of the American version due to our hunger for the cultural appropriation of the New Empire via film and TV and the fact that Brits never turn down a chance to dress transgressively and get drunk. We can’t do Thanksgiving but, disturbingly, have recently adopted Black Friday and Cyber Monday (or perhaps we should refer to it here as Clippothic Monday).
Anyway. Loved your piece especially for this –
“…a ritual that can be used for détournement. For example, going as the Halloween ritual itself: the “trick or treaters” bring along a door, and put it up in front of someone’s house, so when they open their door, they just see a door… which then opens, allowing the trick-or-treaters to give away some candy and remark fancifully on the costumes of the people they just visited.”
There’s something quite William Burroughs about the transgressive nature of that particular detournement. I so want some kids to actually do that next Halloween.
December 1, 2015 @ 10:04 am
Do you have any concrete evidence in mind when you descibe Guy Fawkes as being “steeped in pagan ritual” or having “pre-Christian roots”? This is just me harrumphing because I tend to look askance at the tendency to categorise any ritual (or, similarly, supernatural) tradition in Western society that does not form part of official Christian (or Jewish) liturgy or doctrine as being in some sense “pagan”, even when there’s no discernible or plausible link to an often very remote (best part of a thousand years in this case) pre-Christian past, indeed even in some cases where the practices in question are flagrantly Christian in origin.
Specifically, for the roots of the identity-affirming ritual of burning an effigy of a token representative of a hated and feared rival Christian sect on a bonfire as a symbolic substitute for an actual person, do we really have to look any further than the wider practices of early modern western European Christianity? And for the survival of the ritual (with the later addition of fireworks and the still later subtraction, in most cases, of first the effigy and then the bonfire) despite the gradual leaching away of the sectarian content, do we have to look any further than it being a jolly thing to do?
Dismounting from that hobby-horse, Burns Night is definitely one to add – a far more highly ritualised and enthusiastically celebrated “national day” than any of the national saint’s days, though not being Scottish I won’t attempt to sum it up.
And then of course there’s the ritual calendar of Northern Ireland, where that sort of thing is a full-contact sport…
December 1, 2015 @ 10:57 am
“Do you have any concrete evidence in mind when you descibe Guy Fawkes as being “steeped in pagan ritual” or having “pre-Christian roots”?”
Not a shred. Though I’d be surprised if some kind of ancient fire ritual to defy the cold and darkness of winter didn’t predate it. Have you ever been to the Lewes, Sussex bonfire night revels?
December 2, 2015 @ 9:23 am
I’m with Aylwin here – nothing at all to suggest that Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night is “steeped in pagan ritual”. It started as a consequence of the events of 1605 and the celebration was put in statute by the Observance of the 5th November Act.
December 2, 2015 @ 3:13 pm
It’s odd though, isn’t it, that the statute has survived unrepealed from 1605 to the present day. I personally find it remarkable that the bonfire festival persists in popularity in England despite most people being unable to explain the circumstances or describe the events and motives of Guy Fawke’s and his co-conspirators beyond some vague notion that “he tried to blow up parliament” and often wrongly assume Fawke’s himself was executed by fire.
If my ascribing a romantic ‘secret origin’ of paganism to a winter ritual involving crowds of people gathering at the burning of masked effigies on bonfires and the setting off of fireworks somehow offends some notion of historical accuracy then I apologise.
I am a dramaturge and never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
December 1, 2015 @ 12:14 pm
Burns Night is certainly much more important than St Andrew’s Day in the Scottish ritual calendar. It is distinctive in that it is not something you would celebrate as a family occasion, nor would you go down the pub for Burns Night. Instead, it is observed in gatherings of friends, or in civic / community functions. It is also less organic, for want of a better word, than the other rituals discussed: it has a well-defined structure with particular readings and speeches, centered around a ritualised act of eating. In this it is most similar to a Catholic Mass.
And of course in parts of Scotland we also have the Orange marching season, just as in Northern Ireland but with less violence. (The inherent bigotry and hard, hate-filled wee faces of the Orangemen are much the same on both sides of the Irish Sea, however.)
One could also consider the various sporting seasons. These impinge upon the national culture to a greater or lesser extent depending on the sport, but one of the most culturally interesting is Wimbledon. The UK has a tiny number of actual tennis fans, but Wimbledon is a national event, dominating the media and followed by huge numbers of people who never pay a moment’s notice to tennis the rest of the time. This is doubtless frustrating to British tennis stars who can win all the tournaments they like, but no one in their home country cares because they haven’t won Wimbledon. Indeed, the leading British players crashing out (they always, always say “crashing out” for some reason) of the tournament is a key element of the ritual, one which Andy Murray recklessly and selfishly sabotaged in 2013 by having the gall to actually win.
December 1, 2015 @ 11:09 am
Well, the retailers have done their best to introduce Black Friday over here, but it doesn’t seem to have really caught on with the general populace.
We also get various so-called Bank Holidays, which are basically just days off work (for almost everyone) which don’t always have a particular religious or historical reason.
For example, there’s the August bank holiday Monday, which is the traditional time at the end of August when Brits sit in traffic jams all day for the chance to sit by a beach in the rain, eating terrible sandwiches.
John G Wood
December 2, 2015 @ 6:25 am
My thoughts reading this were scarily close to Anton B’s, even down to my favourite moment being the Halloween ritual trick or treaters.
The only thing I’d add is that Bonfire Night – once a distinct thing – seems to have diffused into “firework season”, which runs from the end of October to mid November. You rarely see kids with guys any more, probably because of the mentioned changes to the law. That and the arrival of trick or treating are two things I’ve really noticed changing in my lifetime.
December 2, 2015 @ 7:49 am
I’m glad the American style Halloween has more or less replaced Bonfire Night in the UK these days.
Though not a Christian myself I was never comfortable with the state sanctioned anti-Catholic rhetoric imbedded in the Guy Fawke’s story. Alan Moore did a good retcon of the Guy Fawke’s mask as an avatar of situationists and anarchists; while V the movie and subsequently Anonymous (via Warner Brothers merchadising) cleverly repositioned the image as a more United States friendly ‘freedom fighter against state rule’ which, ironically, could be embraced by left and right.
As a kid I was more enticed by the idea of Halloween which I saw in countless imported American TV shows and movies. (The trick or treat scene in Meet Me in St Louis is a particular favourite) A winter festival that takes ownership of ghouls and ghosts with sanitised and creative images of horror and death and also lets you dress as your fave superhero to transgress your neighbours property and get given sweets to go away seemed much more fun.
December 2, 2015 @ 8:18 am
May Day is all but forgotten, except in the deepest rural areas of England. Danny Boyle payed lip service to the Maypole dance during the pastoral section of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. It is quite possibly the only “truly pagan” ritual co-adopted from Spring festivals: Floralia (ancient Roman), Walpurgis (Saxon), and Beltane (Celtic). Morris Dancing and village fetes are probably the lasting survivors of what had been an important fertility ritual. It coincides with International Workers Day, and the formidable military parades in Moscow’s Red Square.
December 3, 2015 @ 12:20 am
I feel as if I should try to do Australia, but I’m not sure I can do it justice.
December 3, 2015 @ 5:47 am
Give it a go. Are there any indigineous seasonal celebrations or are they all imported?
December 3, 2015 @ 5:04 am
I propose adopting the epiphet ‘pigfuckers’ as a handy catch-all term for the ruling class.
December 3, 2015 @ 5:45 am
Warmongering pigfuckers has a nice ring to it too.
December 3, 2015 @ 10:51 am
Yeah, that’s kind of what i was going for. 🙂
December 3, 2015 @ 10:52 am
Also, it fits nicely with a particular reading of Daleks in Manhattan.