“Tradition is the illusion of permanance.”- Woody Allen
Have you ever wondered why so many Westerners, secular and religious alike, have put such a valued emphasis on Christmas family traditions?
Every year as December rolls around, I am constantly bombarded by the diversity of ideas with regards to the meaning of Christmas and togetherness. When you ask your friends or family members what some of their favourite traditions are and why, most of the time they are somehow related to annual rituals of putting up a tree, creating an advent wreath, baking tasty holiday treats together, and possibly enjoying a delightful Bailey’s coffee by a fireplace with those whom you are closest with, while dreaming about the snowflakes falling in Southern BC mainland.
Ok, so perhaps that is just my idea of what Christmas looks like; but in all seriousness, many people define this holiday as a time to gather around with their loved ones and feel a common sense of belonging, wherein meaning is generated through what Emile Durkheim refers to as the “collective consciousness” (Allan, 2011, p. 84).
This type of shared and social cohesion can be understood into two parts: cognitive and emotional (Allan, 2011, 84). Although Durkheim acknowledges that rational thought does create a sense of collective consciousness, he puts more emphasis on the role that emotion and culture have in determining the collective (Allan, 2011, p. 84). The ritual-processes that occur, in that moment of consciousness further generates and facilitates a shared understanding and meaning amongst individuals who partake in such practices (Allan, 2011, p. 84).
Depending on the community and family an individual is apart of, the type of social solidarity that occurs can differ. The first type is known as Mechanical Solidarity, this is where the division of labour is almost non-existent, and the values and meaning of culture is relatively the same for all individuals (Allan, 2011, p. 88). The second type is called Organic Solidarity, this is something that we as a Modern Western Society experience on a daily basis (Allan, 2011, p 88). Although the values and cultural rituals may be similar to that in a Mechanical society, the division of labour is extremely high as modernization and innovation continue to progress (Allan, 2011, p. 88). Furthermore, people become more diverse in how they may approach their rituals and practices, as the society becomes more individualized and less collective in some ways (Allan, 2011, p. 88).
The sharing of rituals, and rationale within the Christmas season amongst family members and friends creates a sense of social solidarity (Allan, 2011, p. 87). This sort of solidarity consists of three particular components: individual subjectivity in where the individual member feels a sense of belonging to the group; the constraint of individual desires and functions depending on the collective; and lastly the interdependence and coordination of the individuals and social units for the greater good of the collective (Allan, 2011, 87). So how does Durkheim’s theory of social solidarity fit into this delightfully, romantic and consumer-based Christmas analogy you ask?
The traditions and the meaning of Christmas differs per family and community. An example is when I have visited various families over Christmas and noticed how different their rituals can be from my own family’s Christmas practices. In some ways, I had to learn about their traditions in order to be considered part of their collective consciousness in that time and place. If I refused to partake in some of those traditions, I would be seen as an outsider to the group and a potential threat to their social cohesion, thus not sharing in that social solidarity with them, this can be an example of the need for sameness as described in Mechanical Solidarity (Allan, 2011, p. 88). If the family or group was open to modifying or changing some of their traditions due to the changing elements within that society, as they embrace diversity in how Christmas rituals are acted upon, that kind of social cohesion would be identified as Organic Solidarity (Allan, 2011, p. 88).
Overall, there can be a reflection of both types of solidarity depending on the social-cultural type of society in which the group or family is apart of. Who knew that Christmas would encompass both types of solidarity? So next time you partake in some of the Christmas rituals, think about why or how this relates to your sense of social belonging within the collective conscience as you gather together with loved ones this season.
Allan, K. (2011). A primer in social and sociological theory: Toward a sociology of citizenship. Los Angeles: SAGE/Pine Forge.