I am watching a television documentary about a tribe in the remote highlands of New Guinea. They wear feathers and smear mud on their faces and put shells through their noses. They live in a world of magic and animal spirits and ancestors that walk among them. Up until a few years ago they were practicing cannibals. They are so very different from us.
And yet as I watch them playing with their children and laughing with their friends over a meal, it is clear the difference is only superficial. They are full members of the species that built the cathedrals and walked on the moon. Given patient training, there is no reason to believe that one of them couldn't work on a nuclear submarine or play in a great orchestra, just as I could probably eventually learn to shoot an arrow a hundred feet up a tree and bring down a monkey for dinner.
The film shows them gathering for a ceremony. Families drift in from the surrounding valleys, and soon everyone is painting themselves red and donning feathered masks and reed penis sheaths for a great dance. I am struck with the oddness of their strange rituals, and how seriously they all sit around making their preparations. Everyone knows what to do, there is no questioning. No one laughs at the people painting each other, or asks why they should wear these particular items. Life as a subsistence hunter-gatherer must be hard, and yet everybody takes time out from their food-gathering and child-raising and hut-building to go get dressed up for two days of dancing. Men, women, and children drop everything they're doing, put on special clothes, and perform ritual motions. Children join in, too. Toddlers stand on the fringes looking on. Their elders show them what to do, and soon they're hopping around with the rest. After two days of rigidly-defined dance steps and rituals, the ceremony is over. The magical masks that transform the villagers into demons and heros become again pieces of wood. Everyone washes off the paint and goes home.
Watching the rituals of somebody else's culture is like observing animal mating behaviors; peacocks strutting their stuff or rams butting one another. Such a lot of energy spent on non-productive activity. It is strange, absurd, and inexplicable. And yet of course I understand perfectly. The Papuan ceremony may be strange to me, but ceremonies in general are as familiar as air. Every human society in the world practices them. and we perform the rituals so automatically that we do not even ask why.
A few months ago I bought a small dead tree, hauled it into my home, and hung colored lights on it. For a few days, my family took great pleasure and satisfaction in having this dead tree in our living room. We performed specific rituals before it. A week later, I took it all apart and cut the tree up for firewood. Why did I do that? What inspired me to perform those apparently absurd actions?
Of course, there are legends associated with the ceremony - the birth of Jesus in this case. But this explanation does not suffice for a number of reasons. First, we are not Christians. Second, even if we were, there is no evidence to suggest that Jesus was born on that day; the holiday was not invented until centuries after his death, when the Church wanted to preempt a pre-existing druid holiday marking the winter solstice. Third, even if we were druids, why would putting strings of electric lights on a dead pine tree enhance the day? Fourth, the calendar was changed centuries ago so we're not even celebrating on the same day our ancestors did. Fifth, it's a fire hazard and rather a bother and pine needles can be found months later, lurking under the carpet. So why do we do these ritual actions every year?
The answer of course is tradition, which means: because we always have. We do them because we did them when we were kids - our parents showed us how. Our parents did them because they did them as kids. We do them because everyone around us is doing them at the same time. We do it because it's the season for doing it. Men wearing red suits stuffed with pillows ring bells on street corners, special songs are piped through shopping malls, and people in San Diego paint frost on their windows. Why? Because it's the time to do these things again. It's a need we have, something innate to being human, like hunger or lust. Perhaps if nothing else it just marks the passing of the seasons. We know another year is past because it's time to get out the tree lights again.
It's not just Christmas. Why do people dress up as rabbits and deliver painted eggs to each other? And what is the symbolism of putting on costumes and trading candy around the neighborhood? We're taught that the holidays give us the opportunity to reflect on their meaning. But if they ever had meaning, it's lost in the mists of time. Now what's special is the link with the past: remembering other years when we performed the same meaningless rituals.
When we're milling around in a Christmas tree lot, we are exactly like the Papuans busily painting each other red. No one questions why we're doing it or asks for instructions. Everyone knows what to do. It's time to start getting ready to do it again - and if we don't, something bad might happen. We'd offend the gods; we'd lose touch with the past; we'd become culturally deprived.
As I watch the Papuans having their holiday, I wonder how they feel about the ceremony. Who reminds them that it's time? Do a couple of hunters walking home say, "What are you wearing to the big dance next week?" "Oh, same as last year: red paint, feathers, mask, and a four-foot reed on my dick." Or is it the women, so often the guardians of the culture: "Honey, it's almost time for the dance. Can you get the masks down out of the attic?"
But don't get me wrong. I'm no Scrooge crying humbug. I love Christmas and cherish the mornings when my son has stumbled sleepy-eyed and tousle-headed to the tree to see his presents. He's happy. He doesn't know why there's a dead tree with lights and glass balls in the living room, and neither do I. But we've always done it.
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford