Abstract: Although it is often said that holidays are made for children, the fact is a considerable amount of socialization and acculturation must first take place before some definite conclusion emerges in the mind of the young celebrant. Indeed, the “meaning” of holidays can be quite baffling for the young person.
One way a child finds understanding is by associating the symbols and rituals of celebration with concrete, everyday explanations rather than pure fantasy. In other words, childhood meaning of holidays heavily relies on the mundane. The following essay, based on a set of interviews of a five-year-old girl (the author’s daughter), supports this observation. The interview focuses on the reading of a convenient sample of children’s books (essentially fairy tales) about “American” holidays. In the mundane act of reading the concrete, mundane meaning of holidays emerges.
At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.
– Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Land of Story-Books” (1885)
When my daughter Christine was five years old, I read to her ten children’s books about holidays typically observed in the United States. The books, consisting of a convenient sample obtained at the children’s section of our town’s public library,2 were read out loud in two sittings. Before and after each reading, I asked Christine questions in order to assess her understanding about the holidays being considered. I was especially interested in comparing and contrasting her prior knowledge with any new impressions she gained from the books. This process was a simplified version of “working back and forth between texts and contexts” (Darnton, p. 262).
The texts were in essence fairy tales, whereas the contexts represented the holidays as well as my daughter’s understanding of them. Christine’s “understanding,” it should be emphasized, was that of a kindergartner’s. She was just beginning a formalized program of rational education. Consequently, her intellectual forms of expression and cognitive abilities were at an early stage of development. On the other hand, the illustrated children’s books coincided with what was for my daughter a familiar mode of communication, one consisting of visual imagery. Likewise, the fairy-tale motif was for her quite familiar and comfortable. Although the texts were of a fantastical nature, Christine resolutely chose to find concrete, mundane explanations for celebrating holidays.
For many young children, fairy-tales and the moral accompaniment are a common reading fare. Such texts provide emotive, non-rational narratives, all perfectly suitable for any discussion about holidays, considering their religious or quasi-religious aspect.3 Moreover, based on the age of my daughter, her spiritual maturation was at the beginner’s level. Childhood religious development, it has been noted, has three distinctive stages: (1) fairy-tale (preschool, ages one to six), (2) realistic (juvenile, ages seven to twelve), and (3) individualistic (adolescent and post-adolescent) (see Harms).4 Presumably, holiday meaning, since it has direct and indirect religious overtones, has its “fairy-tale stage” of development. At this level of maturation, it would seem, children would approach holidays as actualized fairy tales. But what I learned is that it is in the actualization, the thinking and doing, that the fantastical becomes a concrete, mundane moment.
This activity of reading books about holidays, invariably, involved acculturation. As noted by Jack Zipes, fairy tales “play a significant role in the socialization process” (p. 160). But this exercise also consisted of an interpretation and analysis of cultural texts, through the eyes of a girl.5 As Arthur Asa Berger points out, literary theorists make a distinction between analysis and interpretation, with the former focusing on how the text is put together and the latter involving the application of theoretical concepts to the text (pp. 18-19). A child operates at a much lower level of intellectual sophistication, simply evaluating narratives and illustrations for pleasure and morality. In other words, the young person judges a story book by whether or not it is interesting and categorizes its characters as either good or bad. Thus children, too, not only adults, analyze and interpret cultural texts. But the question of children’s reception will always be risky to determine (Zipes p. 170). For example, it is difficult to know exactly when a child reader starts entering into “contracts” with writers “by which, although illusion is held to be the object of the exercise, no one is actually taken in” (Hughes, p. 545). Perhaps this suspension of disbelief takes place sooner than we might otherwise suspect. Or maybe the very young person “ducks” the whole process, whereby the fantastical becomes so literal it translates into the concrete, mundane.
Children’s books focusing on holidays could be classified as a type of nurturing material. However, pictorial fairy tales made by adults for children are actually artifacts of two cultures—the child’s and the adult’s. Presumably this kind of material culture will help expose part of the child’s “inner life,” yet paradoxically the authors and publishers belong to the adult world. The fact remains, if used by the child then this adult-produced material will certainly shed light on the child’s world. But we can only make assessments after consulting with children and hearing their interpretations. Material culture for children, which is mass-produced in a commercial manner, cannot effectively expose the “inner life” of its users if it is studied in isolation from only the adult viewpoint (see the essay “The Material Culture of Childhood: Research Problems and Possibilities,” Schlereth, pp. 87-111).6
There is the famous passage about culture being “webs of significance” spun by humans (Geertz, p. 5). While much has been offered about the “webs,” less attention has focused on the spinning process (Biersack, p. 80). If the celebration of holidays is part of our “webs of significance,” then exactly when does the spinning take place? Even if the study of culture were reduced to “attempts to diagnose human meanings” (Carey, p. 56), human meanings do not begin at adulthood. Although explanations are offered to answer the “what” and “why” questions pertaining to American holidays (see Santino ), much less attention has been devoted to how holidays formulate in a child’s thinking process.7 Although each individual is born into a world with a rich tradition of holiday celebration, it hardly explains how any person makes a given holiday his or her own. Despite the adage that culture is not “taught” but “caught,” there is nonetheless a continual spinning process. Culture is actually taught, but the teaching is at times subtle and seemingly hidden. Children’s books on holidays, whether didactic or entertaining, provide “how to” information and indoctrinate the young reader with the “routinization of play” (Kanter, p. 205).8
In the exercise with my daughter, I wanted to focus on the entire calendar year of holidays. Unfortunately, this was not feasible because many of the library books about holidays were above Christine’s grade level. Yet, the convenience sample of reading materials did enable us to focus on Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Independence Day. The books read were as follows: Snoopy and the Great Pumpkin (Schulz ); Pumpkin Painting (McKinney); The Story of the Pilgrims (Ross); Joy to the World: The Story of Christmas (Anastasio); Fat Santa (Cuyler); Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (May); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Seuss); A Charlie Brown Christmas (Schulz ); Winnie the Pooh’s Easter (Talkington); and Henry’s Fourth of July (Keller).
Due to her limited background knowledge, Christine was ideal for this study of American holidays. Up until that time, most of her life had been spent abroad. Consequently, her awareness of American holidays was lower in comparison with other American children her age. She had just recently experienced her first Halloween, which included having her own carved jack o’ lantern and doing an abbreviated form of trick or treating. The previous November 11, in St Petersburg, Russia, she joined some German children on a nocturnal march with paper lanterns on sticks to mark St Martin’s Day. Afterwards, an official of the German Consulate presented candy, marking Christine’s closest experience to Halloween until our return to the United States.
Also, Christine identified Christmas more with the Russian gray-coated Father Frost (as well as his Snow Daughter) and less with Thomas Nast’s red-coated Santa Claus. She had never watched the film “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” nor had she ever gone to a shopping mall to sit on Santa Claus’ lap. Her Easter experiences in Russia included two kinds of decorated eggs: the American (brightly painted from dissolved chemical tablets in bowls of water) and the Russian (simply stained brown from the homemade dye produced by boiling onion skins). Christine was unfamiliar with Independence Day and missed her first chance to see Fourth of July fireworks when it rained her first year back in the States. She had never watched a Charlie Brown program on television.
The children’s books, I was certain, would provide at Christine’s level explanations for why we celebrate certain holidays. The fairy tale motif, I reasoned, would provide her the kind of fantasy world I assumed children associate with the holidays. Instead, I found that Christine gravitated toward concrete, mundane interpretations. Even when she was staring at a page filled with colored illustrations of a fantastical event, she almost always opted for a mundane explanation. Here was an intriguing interplay between the everyday and the exceptional.
Transcripts of the Interviews
OKAY, CHRISTINE, WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT HALLOWEEN? A special day.
A SPECIAL DAY? WHAT ELSE? I don’t know.
[Snoopy and the Great Pumpkin was read, followed by the picture book Pumpkin Painting.]
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT HALLOWEEN NOW? WHAT IS HALLOWEEN? A day off. [In the books there was no mention of Halloween being “a day off.”]
A DAY OFF? WHY DO YOU SAY IT IS A DAY OFF? I don’t know.
AND WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT PUMPKINS WITH FACES ON THEM? Funny.
FUNNY? WHY? Because they look funny.
AND DO YOU LIKE PUMPKINS THAT WAY OR NOT? Yes.
WHY? Because they are colorful.
BECAUSE THEY ARE COLORFUL? Yeah.
AND WHAT ABOUT COSTUMES? WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT COSTUMES? It looks like they are for Christmas too.
THEY LOOK LIKE THEY ARE FOR CHRISTMAS TOO? WHY? I don’t know.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO WEAR A COSTUME? Yes.
WHAT KIND OF COSTUME WOULD YOU LIKE TO WEAR? One that has a hood.
ONE THAT HAS A HOOD? WHY? Just because I like it.
WHO IS THE GREAT PUMPKIN? The one that don’t even come.
THE ONE WHO DOESN’T EVEN COME? Yeah.
IS THAT GOOD OR BAD? Good, because it was probably nighttime.
SO IT WAS GOOD THAT THE GREAT PUMPKIN DID NOT COME BECAUSE IT WAS PROBABLY NIGHT TIME? Yeah.
WOULD YOU WANT HIM TO COME AT NIGHT TIME, THE GREAT PUMPKIN? No. [Said with hesitancy in the voice.]
YES OR NO? Yeah. [Barely audible, also said with hesitancy, and a shy nod of the head. It seems that she would really like to see the Great Pumpkin, but at the same time she is afraid because the setting is outdoors in the dark.]
YOU WOULD? Okay.
* * * * * * * * *
OKAY, CHRISTINE, BEFORE WE READ A BOOK ABOUT THANKSGIVING I WANT TO ASK YOU A QUESTION. WHAT IS THANKSGIVING? Ummm… [Deep thinking.]
WHAT DO YOU DO ON THANKSGIVING? You get a party ready.
YOU GET A PARTY READY? Yes.
AND WHAT DO YOU DO AT A PARTY? You invite friends.
YOU INVITE FRIENDS? WHAT DO YOU EAT AT THE PARTY? Thanksgiving food.
THANKSGIVING FOOD? Yeah.
WHAT KIND OF THANKSGIVING FOOD? I don’t know.
LIKE WHAT DO YOU EAT ON THANKSGIVING? Turkey.
TURKEY? ANYTHING ELSE? No.
OKAY. SO WHY DO PEOPLE HAVE A PARTY ON THANKSGIVING AND EAT TURKEY? Because they wanted to make, to pretend like it’s a birthday party.
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF THE PILGRIMS? No.
[The Story of the Pilgrims is read. This is the traditional tale of English settlers in North America being offered agricultural tips by the Indians and later reciprocating by inviting the Indians to a harvest feast.]
OKAY, CHRISTINE, WE HAVE READ THIS BOOK ABOUT THE PILGRIMS, THE STORY OF THE PILGRIMS. WHO WERE THE PILGRIMS? Ummmm….
DO YOU KNOW WHERE THEY CAME FROM? From a place that a person wouldn’t let them go anywhere.
A PLACE THAT A PERSON WOULD NOT LET THEM GO ANYWHERE? No, not to the church.
OKAY. AND WHERE DID THEY GO WHEN THEY LEFT? In a boat.
AND WHERE DID THE BOAT TAKE THEM? To a land where the Indians were.
TO A LAND WHERE THE INDIANS WERE? AND WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THAT LAND? I don’t know.
DO YOU REMEMBER? WHERE DO YOU LIVE? Ohio.
NO, BUT WHAT IS THE NAME OF YOUR COUNTRY? Bowling Green Estates. [The name of the apartment complex where she lives.]
WHAT IS THE NAME OF YOUR COUNTRY? Ohio.
NO, AMERICA! HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF AMERICA? Yeah.
OKAY, SO THAT IS WHERE THE PILGRIMS WENT, TO AMERICA. SO WHAT DID THE INDIANS DO? They made a party.
THEY MADE A PARTY? DID THE INDIANS HELP THE PILGRIMS? [She nods her head.]
HOW DID THEY HELP THEM? Make corn on the cob.
THEY HELPED THEM MAKE CORN ON THE COB? Yeah.
ANYTHING ELSE? No.
AND WHAT DID THE PILGRIMS DO AT THE END OF THE STORY? They ate.
THEY ATE? AND WHAT IS THAT CALLED? A feast.
A FEAST? AND WHAT DO THEY CALL THE SPECIAL DAY? I don’t know.
YOU DON’T KNOW? DO THEY CALL IT THANKSGIVING? Yes! [Said with much enthusiasm.]
OKAY, THEY CALL IT THANKSGIVING, VERY GOOD.
* * * * * * * * *
OKAY, CHRISTINE, NOW WE ARE GOING TO READ SOME BOOKS ABOUT CHRISTMAS. DO YOU KNOW WHAT CHRISTMAS IS? Another holiday.
ANOTHER HOLIDAY? AND DO YOU LIKE CHRISTMAS? Yes! [Said very enthusiastically.]
WHY? Because you get presents.
BECAUSE YOU GET PRESENTS? Yeah.
AND WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT CHRISTMAS BESIDES PRESENTS? Because you have the Christmas tree! [Also said enthusiastically.]
A CHRISTMAS TREE? WHY DO WE HAVE CHRISTMAS TREES? So it will look pretty!
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE ABOUT CHRISTMAS THAT YOU CAN THINK OF? No.
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF ANYONE WHO WEARS RED? Yes.
WHO? Santa Claus.
WHO IS SANTA CLAUS? A person who gives you toys and presents.
A PERSON WHO GIVES YOU TOYS AND PRESENTS? WHY? Because he wants you to be happy.
BECAUSE HE WANTS YOU TO BE HAPPY? That is all I can think of.
THAT IS ALL YOU CAN THINK OF? WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST, HALLOWEEN OR THANKSGIVING? Halloween.
AND WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST: HALLOWEEN, THANKSGIVING, OR CHRISTMAS? Hallo—a Christmas! [She starts to answer Halloween, but catches herself and answers with Christmas instead.]
[Joy to the World: The Story of Christmas is read. This book is about the story of Christ’s birth, focusing on the star, the stable and manger, the angels appearing to the shepherds, the wise men from the East, etc.]
AND SO WHAT IS THE STORY OF CHRISTMAS? A nice story.
WHAT? A nice story.
AND WHAT IS THE NICE STORY ABOUT? Christmas.
YES, BUT WHAT IS CHRISTMAS ABOUT? A nice, nice holiday. [Said with emotional fervor.]
A NICE HOLIDAY? BUT WHAT DID THE BOOK SAY ABOUT CHRISTMAS? That there was no Christmas tree. [In the book there is not a Christmas tree, but the book never specifically stated that there was no Christmas tree.]
OKAY, AND WHAT HAPPENED IN THE BOOK? I don’t know.
YOU DON’T REMEMBER? BUT WHO WAS BORN? Jesus!
OKAY, SO WHAT IS CHRISTMAS? A day a baby gets born.
A DAY A BABY GETS BORN? Yeah.
AND DID ANYONE GIVE GIFTS IN THE STORY? Yes! [Said with enthusiasm and smiles.]
WHO? The shepherds.
THE SHEPHERDS? WAS IT REALLY THE SHEPHERDS? Yeah.
OKAY. IT WAS PROBABLY THE WISE MEN. Yeah, the wise men.
[We read Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer.]
WE JUST READ THE BOOK RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSE REINDEER. Yeah.
WHO WAS RUDOLPH? The red-nosed reindeer.
WHY IS HIS NOSE RED? Because he can see.
BECAUSE HE CAN SEE? Yeah.
AND WHAT DID RUDOLPH DO IN THE STORY? He pulled the sled.
SO WHY DID SANTA ASK RUDOLPH TO BE THE ONE TO GUIDE THE SLEIGH? Because he has a red nose.
AND WHAT DOES A RED NOSE DO? It shows him where to go.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO MEET RUDOLPH? Yeah.
WHY? Because I read it in a book.
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN RUDOLPH? HAVE YOU EVER SEEN ANY OF SANTA’S REINDEER? Yes! In the book! [Said with a big smile.]
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN THE REINDEER IN REAL LIFE? No.
[We read Fat Santa, followed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The latter book made the greatest impression on Christine. It was obvious that she was absolutely shocked by the Grinch and his antics.]
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT GRINCH? IS HE A NICE GUY? No.
WHY IS HE NOT NICE? Because he steal their Christmas.
HE STOLE THEIR CHRISTMAS? HOW DID HE STEAL CHRISTMAS? Because he took the Christmas tree.
WHAT ELSE DID HE TAKE? All their toys.
DID SOMETHING NICE HAPPEN AT THE END? Yeah, he began to be a nice person.
HOW DID HE BECOME A NICE PERSON? Because he don’t know how to stop Christmas.
AND SO WHAT DID HE DO WITH THE TOYS THAT HE TOOK? Because he decided to bring them back.
WAS THAT A GOOD THING? Yes!
WOULD YOU LIKE THE GRINCH TO COME TO YOUR HOUSE ON CHRISTMAS? No!
NO, WHY? Because I don’t want him to steal our Christmas tree.
BUT ISN’T A CHRISTMAS TREE KIND OF DUMB? No!
WHY? I don’t know.
YOU DON’T KNOW? WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE? Because it has ornaments.
[For our final book about Christmas, we read A Charlie Brown Christmas.]
SO WHAT WAS THIS STORY ABOUT? Charlie Brown became to like Christmas.
HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? Somebody told him.
WHAT DID LINUS TELL HIM? The book we have.
YES, IT IS IN THE BOOK. WHAT DID LINUS SAY ABOUT CHRISTMAS? That Christmas is fun.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE CHRISTMAS TREE? WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE CHRISTMAS TREE? That it needs somebody to love it.
WAS IT A GOOD TREE THAT CHARLIE BROWN GOT? Yeah.
WAS IT LITTLE OR BIG? Little.
AND WHAT HAPPENED AT THE END OF THE STORY? It got big.
HOW DID IT GET BIG? Because they put lots of ornaments on it.
OH. AND WHY DO WE HAVE CHRISTMAS TREES ANYWAY? Because so it can look decorated.
BUT WHY DO YOU DECORATE A TREE FOR CHRISTMAS? So, uhm, I don’t know.
SO DO YOU WANT A CHRISTMAS TREE? Yes.
WHY? Because I love Christmas trees in houses. Christmas trees in houses, I love it.
BUT TELL ME WHY DO YOU LOVE IT. I don’t know.
* * * * * * * * *
[We read Winnie the Pooh’s Easter. In this story Christopher Robinson leaves a very large painted egg in a field. When it is opened another egg is found inside which in turn can be opened, and so forth. There is an egg for each character. This is Christopher’s Easter present for everyone in the Hundred-Acre Wood.]
AND WHAT DOES THIS BOOK TELL US ABOUT EASTER? That there [are] sometimes eggs inside the other egg in another and another and another.
AND WHAT KIND OF EGGS ARE THEY? WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE? Big eggs. And they are the same color.
WHAT COLOR ARE THEY? They’re red and white and blue.
SO ARE THEY PAINTED? Yeah.
SO HAVE YOU EVER SEEN EGGS THAT ARE DECORATED? No.
YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN DECORATED EGGS? HAVE YOU EVER DECORATED EGGS FOR EASTER? Oh, yeah!
OH, YOU DID? Yeah, in Russia. That Easter. [She only remembers the previous Easter, but she had decorated eggs in Russia for three Easters in a row.]
RIGHT, OKAY. AND WHY DID YOU DO THAT? Because we wanted to eat them.
OKAY, BUT WHY DID YOU MAKE THEM PRETTY? Because it would be like Pooh and Piglet and everybody. [It would look like the eggs of Pooh and Piglet and the other Hundred-Acre Woods characters.]
I SEE. WHAT IS EASTER? I don’t know.
DID YOU EVER GET ANYTHING NICE FOR EASTER? No.
DID YOU EVER GET A BASKET? Yeah!
YEAH? AND WHAT WAS IN THE BASKET? Eggs.
AND ANYTHING ELSE? No. Oh, yeah, oh yeah! You can hide them somewhere and the other two [Christine’s sister and mother] will come and try to find them.
SO WHY DO YOU PLAY “HIDE AND SEEK” WITH EGGS? So they won’t know where they’re painted.
* * * * * * * * *
[We read Henry’s Fourth of July, a short picture book about a mouse family celebrating Independence Day with an outdoor cookout.]
OKAY, CHRISTINE, WE READ THE LAST BOOK, HENRY’S FOURTH OF JULY. AND WHAT DID THEY DO ON THE FOURTH OF JULY? Went to a picnic.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED? I don’t know. They sell stars of twelve different designs.
THEY SELL STARS OF TWELVE DIFFERENT DESIGNS? Yeah.
WELL, YOU KNOW, THAT’S A DRAWING THAT’S SUPPOSED TO BE FIREWORKS. DO YOU KNOW WHAT FIREWORKS ARE? No.
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN FIREWORKS SHOOT UP IN THE SKY AND MAKE PRETTY COLORS? No.
OKAY. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE FOURTH OF JULY IS, WHAT DAY IT IS? Somebody’s birthday!
OKAY, WHOSE BIRTHDAY YOU THINK? I know it’s Thomas’ birthday. Thomas said so. [Thomas is Christine’s kindergarten classmate.]
THOMAS TOLD YOU IT WAS SOMEONE’S BIRTHDAY? No, Thomas said it is his birthday on the fourth of July.
OH, REALLY? DID YOU KNOW THAT ON THAT SAME DAY IT IS ALSO THE BIRTHDAY OF AMERICA? No.
IT IS? AND WHAT IS THIS RIGHT HERE? [POINTING IN THE BOOK TO A DRAWING OF AN AMERICAN FLAG.] A flag.
BUT WHAT FLAG IS IT? The mouse’s flag? [Henry, in the book, is a mouse.]
YES, IT’S THE MOUSE’S FLAG. BUT DO YOU KNOW WHAT COUNTRY’S FLAG THIS IS? America!
SO, LET’S REMEMEBER ALL OF THE HOLIDAYS WE TALKED ABOUT. WE TALKED ABOUT HALLOWEEN, THANKSGIVING, CHRISTMAS, EASTER, AND THE FOURTH OF JULY. SO WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE BEST HOLIDAY? I don’t know.
WELL, WHAT’S YOUR…? [Interrupting.] Oh, yeah, Christmas! And Halloween!
The child reader brings to the text many prior ideas, which help provide concrete, mundane interpretations. For example, when Christine referred to Halloween as “a day off” she was borrowing an adult phrase heard elsewhere in a similar context. It did not come from Charlie Brown. Also, she saw the Fourth of July as her classmate’s birthday rather than America’s. Such thinking demonstrates a sense of meaning closer to home and less abstract. New holiday experiences were compared with more familiar ones, so decorating pumpkins was compared with Christmas decorations; a Thanksgiving feast was viewed as an attempt to make a birthday-like atmosphere.
Wonder and magic were infused in some of the stories. In actuality, magic is a typical fairy-tale motif (see Huang 83). The magic figures (Indians and Pilgrims, Santa, Rudolph, Three Wise Men, Grinch), magic objects (Great Pumpkin, Easter eggs, Star of the East, Christmas tree), and magic power (fireworks, reindeer flight, a reindeer’s glowing nose, ornaments that make a scrawny Christmas tree become larger) corresponded with this motif. When asked about the existence of such magic, Christine offered proof by pointing to the mundane and the concrete, such as when she declared that she had seen Santa’s reindeer because she saw the pictures of them in a book. Rudolph’s red nose was not viewed with a sense of awe, but from a utilitarian point of view: it was on par with a household flashlight. Painted Easter eggs were useful because they are eatable, and hiding and searching for the eggs is a special time to have close interaction with family members. Although the Great Pumpkin was baffling (the jury was still out on how to decide about him), the Grinch, after his change in behavior, “began to be a nice person.” Santa sliding down the chimney and reindeer flying in the sky were accepted, not called into question, which is no different than how children take for granted technological wonders, such as flying in an airplane across the ocean or playing an interactive game on a computer. Apparently, there is no magic without the mundane.
For Christine visual sensations were seemingly of greater worth than narratives packed with ideas. The story of Jesus’ birth was noted for not having a Christmas tree, perhaps an oblique criticism or an indication of confusion. Christmas trees were deemed important because one can put ornaments on them. (The ornaments, in fact, make the small trees become larger.) The Grinch’s stealing of the Christmas tree practically made Christine speechless. The evidence suggests that Christine’s affinity with the Christmas tree was rooted in the concrete, not the sensory. As with decorating Easter eggs, the decorating of the Christmas tree is a social event, a time associated with a family activity. (Pumpkins were nice because they were mindful of Christmas decorating.) More importantly, perhaps, is the unstated function of the Christmas tree: a place where presents (toys) are laid out. The Grinch was not a nice guy because he stole the Christmas tree, and he was also not nice because he stole the toys. Without the tree, there cannot be any toys. Here the interplay between the concrete and the fantastical fuse the two as one.
The most appreciated holidays were the ones having greater significance at a personal level. Christmas was rated the best holiday because one gets presents, and presents are synonymous with toys. The unusual tradition of bringing a tree inside the home and hanging bright and colorful objects on the branches is not only memorable but in harmony with the child’s appreciation for imagery. Halloween was voted the second best holiday because, presumably, one can wear a costume with a hood. To wear a special article of clothing turns the fantastical into the concrete. There was no mention of receiving candy, but that, too, must have contributed to the holiday’s high rating. On the other hand, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July were too concrete as they simply involved eating (a feast for one and a picnic for the other), and so were not very exciting.
The religiosity of the holidays was not very well understood, even though Christine was already being exposed to religious instruction at home and at church. The story of the Nativity was simply about a child being born, in which the absence of a Christmas tree was quite noticeable. When my daughter summarizes Christ’s birth as just “a nice story,” she may be having difficulty in making a personal connection. Similarly, the message she got out of Linus’ eloquent speech on the true meaning of Christmas is that “Christmas is fun.” (When first asked to summarize Linus’ message, Christine simply cited the book.) The worst crime of Grinch was not the ruining of the Christmas spirit, but the stealing of tangible objects. Easter had no religious meaning, but neither did Christopher Robin or Winnie the Pooh indicate otherwise. However, there was the giving of eggs as presents and therefore could be comprehended at the child’s personal level. My daughter’s desire to wear a costume with a hood for Halloween might suggest an intuitive understanding of the ritual aspect of liminality of holidays (Santino , pp. 120, 121, 123), as she wanted to experience the moment of being someone different. If true, it would be based on the concrete, the act of wearing exotic clothing. Likewise, there would not be any appreciable difference between a sacramental meal, a harvest festival, a picnic, or a birthday celebration, as all would be based on the mundane act of tasting and eating.
The holiday books I read to my daughter contributed in some way to her acculturation, but many books, films, and other texts over a period of time, intertwined with personal experiences and family practices, as well as special celebrations and discussions at school, are what truly condition a young person about the holidays. Such texts mediate a child’s understanding of important ritual events, which is part of the cultural spinning process of the webs of significance. What is learned here in this father-daughter reading time is the connection or interplay between the ordinary (the mundane) and the extraordinary (the fantastical). As I watch my children learn about holidays by relying on the mundane for finding their personal meaning, I find myself wondering who is teaching whom.
1 The author appreciates Jack Santino of the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University for encouraging this project.
2 The books were borrowed from the Wood County Public Library on North Main Street in Bowling Green, Ohio. It is interesting to note that in the children’s section of this library there are several shelves exclusively devoted to books and videos about holidays. The placement of these materials, actually texts of acculturation, signifies both popularity and importance.
3 I do not wish to imply that the contents of fairy tales and religious stories are one and the same. But I am certain that most kindergartners do not make any distinction between the two kinds of texts. Fairy tales are similar in method of presentation to folk tales, myths, parables, epic poems, of which all are certainly capable of conveying important truths. In this essay, when I speak of fairy tales I am mostly referring to method of presentation.
4 The fairy-tale stage of religious development is one in which the person focuses on “fairy tale” methods of expression. The realistic stage is one in which the person focuses more on characteristics and pictures of God. The individualistic stage is one in which the person tends to individualize inward religious experience. See Harms (pp. 115-119).
5 See Brekhus, where he asks, “But how would anthropology look if it more closely scrutinized the customs of the native middle-class white-suburban American?” To that, I further ask, and how would anthropology look if we studied the process of acculturation through a child’s eyes? Also, see Thu, who suggests that anthropologists take a more close-to-home approach.
6 For example, in my studies of the GI Joe action figure and the Road Runner cartoon series I consider only the adult meaning of the boy’s toy (doll) and the cartoon program, acknowledging that other studies could be devoted to the children’s meaning(s) (see Chapman  and Chapman ). Barthes (pp. 53-55) observes that most toys “prefigure the world of adult functions,” and the same could be said about holiday acculturation. However, whether or not there is the adult prefiguring, there is the child’s perspective during the process of acculturation.
7 Quite often the only child’s perspective offered is the one of the adult reminiscing about his or her childhood experiences. Such remembrances are obviously tainted. For example, there is the popular culture professor who reminisces about his Halloween noisemakers from his boyhood (see Holmberg).
8 Kanter (p. 205), in her observations of a nursery school, suggests that youth education in the United States is structured to correspond with the demands of a bureaucratic society. Furthermore, she notes that even children’s “play” reflects such tendency. In the case of holidays, there is a bureaucratization the participants must learn.
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Author: Roger Chapman is a doctoral candidate in the American Culture Studies Program at Bowling Green State University. As an adjunct instructor, he teaches American culture, ethnic studies, and history.