Tag Archives: rituals

What Rituals . . .

It’s that time again!  To name a few, it’s time to gather around the decorated Christmas tree, unwrap Christmas presents, and to eat that big turkey and all the sweets, especially pumpkin pie with lots of whipped cream.  I love the many rituals associated with the Christmas season, or at least I love the eating ritual.

Rituals are acts done in accordance with specific social customs that have become normal protocol for specific festivals.  Moreover, rituals are clothed in symbols.  Symbols are objects, acts, events, a quality, or relation that serves as a vehicle for conception – the vehicle is the form, and the conception the symbol’s meaning (Langer 1960).   That is, symbols are something tangible, being a formulation of a notion, or belief (Geertz 1973: 91).

In brief, symbols are something that stand for something else.   Paul Tillich states,

This is the great function of symbols: to point beyond themselves, in the power of that which they point, to open up levels of reality which otherwise are closed, and to open up levels of the human mind of which we otherwise are not aware (1956:107).

With the above in mind, the rituals of decorating, unwrapping, and eating are clothed in symbols of Christmas trees, presents, turkey. and pumpkin pies.  Many of these rituals with their associated symbols have nothing to do with the origin of the historical story of Jesus.  In fact, most have been added in time.   Nevertheless, the rituals and symbols give meaning to the Christmas festival itself.

This is often the case.  No matter the festival, people add rituals with associated symbols that have nothing to do with the origin of the festival.  Nevertheless, people find meaning in these rituals and symbols that commemorate certain aspects of the original event or story. 

The question is whether those who celebrate the Christmas festival will perform rituals with their associated symbols that remind them of the historical event of God coming to live among them, Immanuel?  Even more important, will they even know the original historical event and why they are celebrating Christmas with its many trimmings of Christmas trees, presents, turkeys, and pumpkin pies?

Once Upon a Time !!!

Children’s fairy tales often begin with the phrase “once upon a time” to emphasize an event that happened at a certain time in the past. Such a phrase usually gives the impression that the event never happened. In Asia Pacific, there are many “once upon a time” stories that inform culture and how the people celebrate their many festivals.

Mr IshigakiI rather recently traveled to Ishigaki, Japan.  While there, I met with Mr. Ishigaki, my cultural informant who proved to be a storehouse of cultural information. Mr. Ishigaki went to university in Naha, Okinawa, and then later studied western oil painting. He had traveled extensively and presently serves as one of the curators for the Ishigaki island museum.

Located between Okinawa and Taiwan, Ishigaki is home to approximately 45 thousand people.  As one approaches the island, one can quickly notice the beutiful beaches and farm land.

Every year on the island of Ishigaki (Japan) in the village of Kabira, the people celebrate the mayungahasi festival. Set according to the lunar calendar and celebrated shortly after the fall harvest festival, this festival means “the god who comes to visit” or the “come visit god” and commemorates the god who comes from across the ocean from “god’s country.”

come visit godFor the festival, men dress with a cloth over their face so people cannot recognize them. They speak in a different voice than normal to disguise their identity. In addition, they carry a long wooden stick, wear a straw skirt outfit with leaves at the bottom, and wear an Asian conical hat in order to receive the “come visit god” when he arrives. According to the local people, this festival has its origin in the following legend:

Once upon a time on the day before the lunar New Year a stranger dressed in a grass skirt, wearing a hat, and holding a wooden staff came from the sea to the northwest side of the island (near Kabira). He was in a shipwreck and went from house to house asking if he could eat with and spend the night with a villager. Every villager rejected the man except for the southernmost house in the village. That villager invited the man in to eat and spend the night. The next morning the man woke and said to the villager that he was not a stranger nor was he shipwrecked. Instead, he was the “come visit god” and because the family had been so gracious to him they would be blessed and gain much wealth. That family later experienced prosperity and other families regretted their lack of welcome to him. The man said he would come back and therefore every year people in the village prepare for his return.

This festival teaches us several lessons. First, it teaches how men and women often play specific roles in festivals and in the culture as a whole. Kabira has two geographic levels: an upper part associated with women, and a lower part associated with men. Years ago these two levels were distinct physical and geographical areas. The part of the village near the ocean is related to men and the part on the mountains is related to the women. The role of men and women has significance pertaining to patriarchal versus matrilineal societies and the roles that each gender should or should not play.

Second, this festival teaches the importance of group solidarity. Outside people cannot come in and participate in this festival. No cameras or recording are allowed. In the past, it was limited to people of the village. For those who have moved away they can go back to their own home.

There are often individual idiosyncrasies in the rituals of festivals. On Ishigaki, each village has its own style for this festival which is done on the same day. It is the same festival with the same story but with different individual preferences. In the past, when the tide was out, people would go to the other villages by walking on the sea bed (low tide).

Festivals originate from legends and myths.People often celebrate festivals without knowing these “once upon a time” stories. Nevertheless, these stories inform how people celebrate their festivals. Whether or not these stories are true is another issue. This is an issue worth discussing in another post.

It is interesting to note how many “once upon a time” legends and myths appear related to Biblical themes. For instance, could it be that the above story is a type of redemptive analogy left behind? Or, could it be that the “come visit god” refers to the coming of Jesus Christ as Immanuel, God with us?

Festivals and More . . .

Presently, I am taking a little R&R in the USA with family and friends.  Since December arrives next week and Thanksgiving was last week, many places, including homes, are decorating for the Christmas season.

As I look around at the decorations, I wonder where did some of the decorations come.  I also see rituals that seem new and different to the original Christmas event.  Even our own family when we celebrate Christmas have a few added rituals as seen in the photo to the right.  For many people, these new and different rituals are a natural part of their celebrated Christmas festival.  In fact, many do not even realize that such rituals were not a part of the original Christmas event.

It is strange how celebrated festivals often become filled with other rituals that have nothing to do with the reason why the festival originally began.  These added cultural rituals often add new and different meanings.   In addition, they may even take away from the original meaning so that it fades into the background.  In a real sense, we can say there are “festivals and more . . .”

Christmas TreeA few extras this Christmas season might include Santa Claus, parades, certain foods, or Christmas trees.  However, none of these should take the place of the real meaning of the festival that we call Christmas.  That meaning being Immanuel, God with Us.

We might ask ourselves, “why do people add new and different rituals to festivals?”  Maybe it is because the celebrated festival is not a part of the person’s heritage.  Or,  it is because the celebrated festival lacks relevance.  I am uncertain why.  Why do you think people add new and different rituals to festivals?