The Evolution of Rituals

by on Monday, 24 June 2013 Comments

Rituals and celebrations have always been a source of fascination for me. Despite growing up in Spain, my brother and I were raised by atheist parents and didn't undergo many of the common rites of passage that Spanish children did. I remember fierce little arguments with my classmates at primary school who would claim I had no name, since I hadn't undergone baptism. In Spain, not being baptised and, later on, confirmed was quite unusual for a child. There are usually large parties and celebrations involved with confirmation and I distinctly remember my friends excitedly looking forward to the gifts and the food. Though I never really envied them as such, it did occasionally make me feel left out, because, as a child, who doesn't want to have parties and receive gifts?

We always celebrated Christmas (and the Three Kings' Night) and Easter, since these celebrations are deeply anchored into Spanish culture, and looked forward to seeing the family, exchanging gifts, and all the other typical things that people do in this time of year. Holy Week (the week leading up to and ending with Easter Sunday), is curiously followed in my region of Spain by a whole week of festivities labelled "Spring Festival" which celebrates the fertility of the orchards in our region, and the rowdy, boisterous tone of the celebration often sharply contrasts with the solemn seriousness of Holy Week. A particular example of the evolution of rituals and festivals is the "Entierro de la Sardina" (Burial of the Sardine), a parade that culminates the Spring Festival and reflects the end of lent by ending in the burning of an effigy in the shape of a fish. This all sounds appropriate, except for the fact that in modern times, the parade itself has included all kinds of acts unrelated to lent, the most bizarre of which is a troupe of scantily clad and often topless samba dancers from Brazil which have become one of the attractions of the event. The big difference in celebrations between the Holy Week and the Spring Festival struck me as strange, and I endeavoured to find out more about the relationship between these two celebrations, if any was to be found.

EasterRituals are a curious thing, seeing as they are pliable and constantly evolving to fit the times. We generally think of rituals as tradition, but when looked at closely, they are quite the opposite. Tradition implies something that is immovable throughout the years, but rituals generally undergo transformation. Easter itself is a prime example. While celebrated almost universally nowadays as a Christian event, its origins are decidedly pagan. The word Easter is merely an Anglicisation of the name of the Assyrian and Babylonian Ishtar, goddess of fertility and love amongst other things. Eggs and rabbits were two of her symbols, being obvious representations of new life and the capacity to create it. Thus, in modern celebrations of Easter, the Easter Bunny carries eggs around in a basket and people exchange decorative eggs or even eat them hard boiled, as in Spain. Asides from that, other details hint at Easter's original meaning. It is logical to assume, that were the festival accurately celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus, that it would have a fixed date on the calendar. Instead, it varies from year to year according to the stages of the moon, again pointing to origins as a celebration of fertility.

How did the pagan symbolism of Easter become incorporated into Christianity? In the early days of Christianity there was conflict between pagan worshippers of the Sun God and other similar cults, most of which had resurrection myths celebrated in spring. To help winning over converts the resurrection of Jesus Christ was tied to the same time of year. Some remnants of the Sun God rituals still linger, such as the sunrise services held in many churches in Easter today.

The celebration of Christmas on the 25th of December is said to have similar pagan origins, and it is often suggested that the chosen date once again was intended to make conversion easier during the early times of the Roman Empire. The date seems to have been chosen to roughly coincide with the festival of Saturnalia, the celebration of the god Saturn, in which habits that are common in Christmas today, such as the giving of gifts and banquets with family and friends, were the norm.

Rituals and traditions that lose their original meanings and become something else entirely are by no means an exclusively Christian phenomenon. There are many practices which are often rendered obsolete or change their meaning in their modern iteration. For example, nowadays you would choose the best man at your wedding based on his personal relationship to you, without any other considerations. Back in the day, when it was much more likely that physical objections might be made by the family of the bride, the best man was actually the best swordsman, there to cut down foes should they try to intervene with the wedding, or to protect the couple while they made their escape should things get nasty. It was also customary for the best man to stand guard at the door of the couple's room during their wedding night. Here we see how a tradition very much stemming from a practical necessity, has evolved to change into a no more than a symbol of love and friendship.


Rituals are also interesting in that their origins can sometimes not be symbolic or practical at all, instead originating accidentally through random events. This is more often the case with modern celebrations such as the bizarre Tomatina festivity in Spain, in which people flock to the town of Buñol in Spain in order to pelt each other with tomatoes. Supposedly, the origins of the event can be traced to 1945, when some young men decided to join in a local parade, accidentally tripped up one of the participants, and created a ruckus. Since there were no weapons in the area, people went up to a vegetable stall and started angrily throwing tomatoes at each other, thus giving birth to the tradition.

As can be seen from the above examples, rituals are created and change in the most curious and unexpected ways, from meanings lost to time, to tactical changes. Often, we don't even remember what we are celebrating, or the reason we enjoy a particular celebration as much as we do. It might just be that, in modern-day rituals, it is more important to enjoy the action at hand than to spend too much time pondering the meaning behind it!





Sardine photo by Zarangollomurcia

Easter photo by futuraprime

Tomatina photo by Erkin Agsaran

Daniel Pagan Murphy (李大年)

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA Chinese-International Relations in 2009. He has been living in Taiwan ever since and has been working at eRenlai since 2011.

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