Ironic Religion & Ritual

That the traditional American Christmas holiday has in recent years encountered powerful cultural competitors is fairly obvious. This is evident, for instance, in legal and political battles over whether public space (and funds) should be set aside for nativity scenes. Indeed, local governments’ efforts to navigate such challenges have proved rather entertaining. In Loudoun County, VA., opening up the courthouse lawn to all-comers resulted in what one blogger described as “Christmas displays gone mad,” with a traditional nativity scene, an Atheist billboard calling Christian figures “myths,” a cryptic holiday display of the “Tree of Knowledge,” a letter dictated by Jesus himself submitted by a local resident, a crucified Santa Claus skeleton, and two signs from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In Santa Monica, CA., where a lottery determined who would have access to “vandal-proof, cage-like areas surrounded by chain-link fencing” in which to place their holiday displays, Atheists won 18 of 21 such spaces, with just two going to a coalition of churches, and one to a Jewish group.

At the same time, a number of alternative holiday practices have been embraced on a popular level, with commodified goods and services not far behind. The Festivus holiday, based upon the still popular 1990s sit-com, Seinfeld, has a fairly significant presence online, in advertisements for various businesses, in both personal (see picture above) and public holiday displays, and at least one website where one may “buy Festivus stuff.” The somewhat less well-known Newtonmas, a celebration of the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton (Dec. 25, 1642), recently popularized in the TV series, The Big Bang Theory,  is likewise drawing private devotions, and one suspects Newtonmas commodities are not long off.

When we consider the vast intra-cultural plurality that hegemonic discourse such as “the traditional American Christmas holiday” otherwise conceals, the creativity and innovation discussed above (which strikes some as “madness”) should hardly surprise us. What might take us by surprise, however, is the likely result of continued ritual practice of even the most ironic holiday traditions. If belief, conviction, and indeed one’s larger sense of “being in the world” emerge from sustained practice, that is, from what we do (as ritual theorists tend to suggest), then the American religious landscape may find itself populated with rather devout practitioners of what seem to the rest of us as pure satire.


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