Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mother"s Day and the need for rites.

Tomorrow is Mother's Day in the U.S. The same celebration actually occurs on the last Sunday of May (and if that day is Whitsun then it's on the first Sunday of June) in France. It is fairly similar - basically it has become a big commercial thing in which you give your mother a present so that she does not think you don't care.


Like most celebrations, this one can be traced back to Asia Minor, Greece and eventually Ancient Rome. But no matter how different the history may be, it seems that Mother's Day is celebrated pretty much everywhere:
  • on the first day of spring in some countries (Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Yemen),
  • on the second Sunday in May in most countries (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Malta, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, United States, Venezuela.
  • on the last Sunday in May in France, Sweden,Dominican Republic, Haiti
  • or even in the winter in November (Russia), Panama (December 8) Indonesia (December 22).

In France, it was first officially celebrated during the dark years of the Vichy government (It fueled their pro-family propaganda which was included in their famous motto ‘Travail, Famille Patrie’ – Work, Family and Country) but it was considered much earlier by Napoleon.

It is also a fairly recent celebration in the US - the first national Mother's Day took place in 1914 and interestingly it has its roots in a peace and disarmament movement of women after the Civil War.

Mothering Day in the UK has yet a total different origin: it is believed that the date (the fourth Sunday of Lent, typically March or early April) was used so that young apprentices and young women in servitude could be released by their masters that weekend in order to visit their families.

Despite its various origins, it seems that today’s celebration of Mother’s Day has been mostly copied from Western countries, and the US (that’s notably the case of Asian countries). On the one hand, it is highly comemrcial, but on the other hand, it is also highly symbolic. It is somewhat a celebration of motherhood after all.

In my family we don’t tend to celebrate most official holidays and frankly, I am not big on rites, not even birthdays. Yet even though I tend not to be very comfortable with rituals on a personal level (lacking habits, I guess) – especially when they have become so commercial – I can see why they are useful and even necessary.

After all, rites have always been part of human societies no matter where and when (burial rites in pehistoric societies). They help fix and reinforce the shared values and beliefs of a society. They give people meaning at some level In effect they may not just be cultural, sociological but also political. In any case, I believe it gives structure and cohesion to a society. As a teacher, I can see why youths need some form of rites (notable some symbolic form of rites of passage), and that’s not a strictly Judeo-Christian phenomenon. Rites are very big in Africa and in Asia. Confucian philosophy is after all mostly based on the idea of observing rites.

One of my personal favorite rite is B-Days which are, I think, much more personal. They are not necessarily needed to show you people’s love (hopefully you they do) but they serve as a unifying sense of group around the common celebration of a person. I tend to think they’re more important for others than they are for the person celebrated.

When I was a teenager and a young adult I used to really hate anything even remotely ritualistic. I thought it was highly hypocritical and in many cases it is just peer pressure and the need to conform which makes people go along with traditional rites. Paradoxically, I think the Americans are much fonder of rites than most Europeans (pledge of allegiance, weddings, graduations, Halloween, etc…) I believe it is because they need national rites to unify a people with different backgrounds and traditions, thus giving them a firm sense of group identity and cohesion which they wouldn’t have otherwise. The downside may be that there may be more pressure to conform to those rites if you want to be accepted as part of the society.

On a personal level, I would add that one’s acceptance of tradition may also come with age. So even though I will never be a big fan of rites and rituals, I can appreciate them at times and see why they may be necessary –for others if nothing else.

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