Friday, January 8, 2072

The Point of Pointless Rituals

An idea doesn't need to make sense to be popular.


Why do we torture ourselves each new year by making promises to ourselves we won't keep?

Now that my lengthy vacation is over (and I can continue updating this hallowed space as the fine purveyor of humanity's oddest propensities), I have a trick question to ask the lot of you: Have you ever wondered why we create so much excitement over days like Thanksgiving,  Christmas, New Years, and a myriad of others? Why do we make new year's resolutions we're going to break anyway? It's only ONE day right? So what exactly is the excitement for? I got asked this a LOT while on vacation. There is a point to all these rituals. Allow me to explain:


What are Rituals?

Rituals define a core instinct in humans where we tend to establish a meaningful psychological connection with what is otherwise a rote and repetitive act. Rituals evolved out of millennia of cultural development as man discovered himself. Much of this was incidental, rather than intentional, since many rituals in and of themselves provide no real evolutionary advantage.

For example, the celebrating of April Fool's day doesn't make us any less foolish. Christmas day (which is considered a day of giving) doesn't really solve our poverty or family problems. Celebrating Thanksgiving doesn't make us any more or less thankful than we were the day before or after. Celebrating New Year's day seems pretty ridiculous on the surface, since the new year doesn't actually occur on that day, not until 6 hours into the following day anyway.

So why do we do these things?

When we were far more primitive creatures, our slightly larger brains not only meant that we could conquer the earth for the sake of survival, but it also provided us with the capacity for whimsy, art, and expression. This is something no other animal on this planet has ever truly displayed. Humans are the only animals that we know of that have behavioural characteristics that have no really meaningful evolutionary role, aside from uniquely identifying us as human.

Rituals started out as accidental discoveries in our otherwise banal primitive existence. We had a method for hunting and gathering that worked. We didn't engineer this method right off the bat. Much of it was through trial and error. When one method was found to produced the most desired result, we simply stuck to it. This effectively defined our existence for millennia.

Then one day, when we were going about our usual hunting and gathering, one of us made a mistake, or made a discovery that either spawned a new way of doing the same regular thing we did everyday, or created a new method altogether. Some of these new methods had no real purpose, but they were fun to do (or otherwise appeased our idea of how the world worked). So we kept on doing them—for hundreds of millennia. Eventually, rituals were born.

As such, rituals evolved as a way of guaranteeing the same desired result every single time. For example, when we were hunter gatherers, we didn't discover the value of cooked meat until one of us tasted the flesh of a burned animal after a forest fire. This is how we invented cooking. Similarly, because of our limited understanding of the world, we felt that shouting at a solar eclipse for example, frightened away a wolf god. This is how we invented religion.

Over millennia, we repeated these methods, ad infinitum, (perhaps, even ad nauseum), some of which have survived to this day. There are two main reasons why a ritual would survive from the days of our primitive existence to this very day. Rituals like cooking survive because they have a real evolutionary advantage. Cooking kills harmful micro organisms in certain food, while enriching its taste. This meant that we got sick far less, and lived longer, heartier lives.

However, rituals like religion have no evolutionary advantage, but they survive anyway. They survive because they have more of an emotional (perhaps even psychological) value than a practical one (even where practical value was supposedly attached to them). The reason for the survival of such evolutionarily independent rituals has to do with a curious human trait:

The Cultural Meme

Rituals are elements of human culture. So what are elements of rituals? They are ideas that spread and evolve like biological organisms. Any idea that exhibits this type of behaviour is called a "meme". For example: Cooking is a meme that changed human culture forever. In fact, the meme has grown and evolved so ubiquitously, that is now what we rightfully describe as a culture. A culture is basically a geographically isolated meme. That's why we have Asian food as distinct from Italian food. Each of those cultures consist of many different cooking memes.

I hope you're following me so far.

Despite the ubiquity of the cooking meme, there are still some cultures that the meme has yet to infect. So up until recently, some cultures that existed in isolated parts of the globe, still ate raw meat. However, once explorers (or missionaries, or both) went to these various cultures and introduced things like Kentucky Fried Chicken, they infected that culture with not only the cooking meme, but the southern fried chicken meme as well. Now they cook with 11 herbs and spices, effectively creating their own spin on a meme that originated in the American South.

Every cultural fixation started out as a meme. Past times like Baseball, Basketball and Gridiron Football are unique to American culture. However, due to the advent of cable television and the internet, sports like Gridiron Football have become culturally relevant even outside of the United States. That's how rituals that appear to have no point can spread to other cultures. Like a vile contagion, it just needs a fertile set of minds to which it can take hold and spread.

This is why we have fads that come and go like seasons. They are simply memes that had a relatively short life span. If you lived in the 1970s, then you will remember the pet rock craze that swept America. Today, the cultural memes of bell bottom pants and Disco music have all gone the way of the Dodo bird. These days, memes have an average life span of about 3 - 6 months, before being replaced by newer ones, due to the globalising impact of the internet. However, some memes stick around for a long time. Let's consider one such popular meme:

The Christmas Meme

A lot of people (both Christian and secular) question the necessity of Christmas celebrations as though there was something intrinsically wrong with it. Christians either say that Christmas has been polluted by commercialism or that it should not be celebrated (citing dogma) while secularists never fail to remind us that Christmas is a pagan ritual (as if that was important).

Both of them are right (in their own respective axiomatic schools of thought). However both are missing the point. Christmas isn't popular because of its religious underpinnings. In fact, Christmas celebrations predated Christianity by thousands of years. Many different cultures celebrated the end of the year with pomp and circumstance. Depending on which part of the world one was from, it was called different names, like the Saturnalia, Hannukah and Kwanza.

However, it was the same meme.

What we know as Christmas is actually a popular end of year celebration meme that was widespread in the old pre-Christian world that was eventually adopted by many religions. The very word "Christmas" came from the Christian hijacking of the meme sometime in the 4th century AD, blah blah blah, you've read this a million times before on a hundred other blogs.

However, despite the religious hijacking, the celebration is still significant, not because of the religion, but because it is a valid ritual celebration of the human experience. A similar spring celebration existed before Christianity came about and called it "Easter". These celebrations are an essential part of human culture as they are what differentiate us from the Morlocks on planet Cygnus X who celebrate the same thing by riding fire breathing dragons into a volcano.

Of course, I'm kidding. The Morlocks don't even know we exist.

The important thing to understand is that the reason you put up a Christmas tree, decorative ornaments, lights, and gift exchange is not because it has any religious or secular value. You do it because it is something that you really enjoy doing, at a particular time of the year, with particular people in a particular way. You enjoy doing it because it is a ritual with cultural value.

If you disagree, then you're a hypocrite and I'm going to show you why:

The Madness of Everyday Rituals

We have been enjoying pointless rituals from the moment we were toddlers. (Image Source)

Many of us wear business suits to work when they don't really help us to perform our jobs any better. Still, if you showed up to work at a bank dressed in short shorts, slippers and a bold Hawaiian T-Shirt, then someone might escort you off the property. Why? Because the ritual of working at a bank involves wearing a business suit to portray the impression of conservatism.

Do you have children? How many of you read them a story before putting them to sleep at night? Do you have to read them a story before putting them to bed? Absolutely not. However, for families that practice this ritual, your kids thoroughly look forward to that bedtime story, even if they've heard it a thousand times. They're not enjoying the story as much as the ritual.

Have you ever taken a final exam in college? How many of you stayed up the night before poring over your books one last time before walking into the exam the following morning? Did you know that over 90% of what you put on your exam paper was stuff you learned long before the exam? The ritual of late night studying before an exam has no real pragmatic value whatsoever. You only do it because it gives you the peace of mind you think you need to pass.

Are you male? Do you stop to let a woman driver pass first if you meet at an intersection? Do you open doors for women if you both meet at an entrance at the same time? Have you ever offered a woman your seat on the bus? Did you have any intention of sleeping with any of these women? Most of the time, probably not. So why do you do it? You're certainly not doing it just to be a gentleman. You are doing it because it is a ritual that is accepted by our society.

Are you female? Do you ever catch yourself changing your hair style once every few weeks? Do you doll up just to go to the supermarket? Do you ever occasionally find yourself having the need just to dress up and look really pretty while going on a date with a guy you have no intention of sleeping with? Do you put on make up to go to work even when it isn't necessary? Why do you do this? It is not simply because you are feminine. It is another ritual you enjoy.

Are you married? Do you think that putting a ring on the finger of the person you love will make your love stronger? Do you think taking a vow "for better or worse" will guarantee that that your spouse won't break that vow? Do you think dropping thousands of dollars on a wedding ceremony is going to make you any more or less married? Of course not. You do these things because they are rituals you enjoy. It's about the dress up and pomp of it all.

The Significance of Rituals

The same degree of madness that applies to these everyday rituals also applies to Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving and Halloween and New Years eve and every single party, every single Lord's Supper, every single Saturday / Sunday worship you've been to. You're not doing it because you think it makes sense. You're doing it because it's a rote activity that you enjoy.

You enjoy it because everybody does it. We all like to participate in the banal, unglamorous, choreographed dance of society to the same cultural beat. We totally enjoy the belonging of it, the camaraderie of it, the relatability of it, even the homogeneousness of it. It's only an act of madness if you're the only one doing it (or conversely, not doing it). When everybody does it, it becomes a celebration, and is no longer considered madness. Why do we think like that? Because we assume that if everyone's doing it, it can't be that we're all mad at the same time.

This is why people become enraptured by dangerous cults. This is why young girls compromise their personal security on Facebook. This is why peer pressure works. We love to belong. In fact, a cultural idiosyncrasy is effectively nothing more than peer pressure on a national scale. That's why you are made to feel like a pariah (or even a grinch) for not celebrating Christmas.

In fact, if all your friends liked to jump off a cliff without a parachute on Tuesdays, most of you would follow, just because you'd prefer to not be alone (as opposed to finding new friends). That's why Christians still have night watch services on New Year's Eve even though it is ridiculously presumptuous to think Jesus could return at the midnight dawn of the new year.

( if Jesus would be that obvious).

That's how powerful rituals really are.

The most compelling thing about a ritual is not the ritual in and of itself, but rather how well it came becomes a cultural fixation. Therefore the pointlessness of the ritual accentuates the value of its cultural resonance. It is positive proof that an idea doesn't need to make sense to be popular. Rather, it is a measure of the permeability of the human minds that practice it.

In other words, the value of the ritual is directly proportional to the number of people who practice it. As arrogant as Americans are, they call their Baseball championships the "World Series", even though it only occurs in the United States. Well the world series isn't as significant as Christmas, since 300 million followers doesn't exactly compare to 4 billion. Christmas wouldn't be a particularly valuable ritual if it was only recognized by five people.

It's fascinating how shallow our minds work.

Comparing Rituals

Rituals permeate every single facet of human culture. In some cultures, it is ritually accepted that a bride's mother be present on her wedding night while she is deflowered for the first time by her husband. In other cultures, a young boy's rite of passage to becoming a man involves going through very painful tattoos, or enduring a series of torturous trials, such as bunking with flesh eating ants. Yet in other cultures, a woman who is selected to be married must first endure a scarring beating from her future husband and his brothers. I kid you not.

Those are all rituals enjoyed (yes, you read correctly) by the people who practice them. Those rituals, as horrific or unpleasant as they may seem, are things that are intensely anticipated by the people in the cultures that practice them. Young husbands look forward to showing off their sexual prowess to their mothers in law. Young boys look forward to their scarring tattoos and bites from deadly ants, while young women look forward to being scarred by their lovers.

We in the west have rituals that are tame by comparison, but we look forward to them with the same degree of anticipation. Jewish boys look forward to their Bar Mitzvah. Spanish men look forward to their bull run. The Dutch look forward to their icy dip in the North Sea in the middle of January. American girls look forward to their Sweet 16 birthday party. Caribbean nationals look forward to Jonkonnu and Carnival. Similarly, we all look forward to Christmas.

So why the excitement over the one day?

Black Friday deals exist year round — but people buy into the pre Christmas hype anyway, not because it make sense, but because it is a cultural ritual in the west that is widely enjoyed.

So I know exactly what some of you are now thinking: If Christmas is really just another ritual where where we humans celebrate each other, why not just make every day Christmas day? Well if you really think about it, the answer will quickly become obvious. If you have sex with the same person everyday for two years, do you think you'll ever get tired of having sex or just tired of having sex with that person? Your genitals probably wouldn't even last that long.

We enjoy rituals because of what they are: events based on a recurring social activity that has chronological variation. The down time between these celebratory events acts as a sort of psychological Skinner Box, allowing for serotonin levels to decrease in our brains between events, thereby behaviourally conditioning our appetite for the next time the event will occur.

That is why we have end of school year parties call proms. That is why Easter, Halloween and Christmas each occur once a year and 2 - 3 months apart from each other. That is why some Carnivals only occur during Easter. That is why we have Summer Blockbuster movie tent pole events (and not Easter, Autumn or Christmas events). The timing of the ritual increases its enjoyment by depriving us of it. The deprivation increases our longing for it. Curious isn't it?

Just ask the people who cash in on Black Friday.

Did you know that Black Friday deals are no better than the deals stores offer at the turn of the new year when they are trying to get rid of their old stock? Black Friday was designed for stores to make a massive profit markup before the Christmas break. However if you wait a few months, then you will get the same kinds of deals (sometimes better) in early January.

...minus all the crowds, of course.

Through some brilliant marketing, Black Friday became a commercial success story that totally capitalizes on shopping for Christmas. Once the hype set in, it deceptively created the false impression that the value of the deal is greater than it actually is. Now because everyone's excited about these deals, stores sometimes jack up prices to take advantage of the hype.

Black Friday, (like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, New Year's Eve balls and a myriad of other ritualized human events) is a perfect example of how commercial entities can use the power of social hype to condition human behaviour. You may not realize it, but your response to Christmas day or Black Friday is exactly identical to how you react to a project deadline. You attach the emotion of success or failure to the deadline because of its precision.

If these events were spread over a period of days instead of a single day, the hype would be far less intense and thus, commercial entities would make considerably less money. Similarly, if your deadline was not a single day, but rather a general period of time, you would be far less likely to react with the same degree of intensity to it. As such, your sense of urgency is lower.

Eventually, you will realize that you don't need to wait till New Year's to adopt a resolution. You could do it on March 17th. In fact, if you convinced enough people to make a resolution on March 17th instead of on January 1, you'll quickly realize that the date of the ritual becomes secondary to the ritual itself. Similarly, if you give gifts to family and friends regularly, then the Christmas giving becomes more like a routine chore that lacks the usual Christmas excitement.

That's precisely why there is so much excitement over Christmas day, New Year's day, Good Friday, Thanksgiving, Halloween, your wedding day, your graduation day, your birthday and similar one day ritual events. It's simply because it occurs on only one day for the entire year where everybody has exactly the same idea. That's why the Christmas and New Year's day celebrations may be the most successful cultural memes of all time. It sounds so deceptively simple, because the truth about human behaviour lies in the simplicity of human propensity.


While I unremorsefully indulged myself in another particularly rambunctious Christmas dinner, I thought to myself, don't American's celebrate Christmas twice a year, in quick succession, first with Thanksgiving?

I hope I didn't make you feel a little foolish for getting on during the Christmas break. For let me tell you, I most certainly did and I spared no expense. I enjoyed it so much that I failed to update this blog in 2 months. I mean, how irresponsible is that? In any event, if any of you number among the smug bastards reading this who are feeling proud of yourself for not giving in to the hype, then know that I won't congratulate you on your self indulgent misanthropy.

I will take no responsibility for your desire to die alone.

Even though we humans may seem like silly animals that like to do pointlessly crazy things on a fairly regular basis, our propensity to repeat a stupid thing simply for the joy of it is really a testament to the superlative intellect of the species. It's a by product of having the biggest brain in the animal kingdom. You'll never see another animal get drunk, vomit and do it again.

Yes, I'm perfectly aware of the superfluous narcissism inherent in that last paragraph, but just consider this: If we were not creatures of such shifting habit, we would not have have evolved cognitively. Habit refines us as humans. It's how good habits replace bad ones. It is how we came by these pointless celebrations. It is how we created Christmas, and consequently it is also why so many of you were born in September. Have a very Happy New Year everyone!

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

1 comment: