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McCallum: Changing Rituals

(Host) While educator, commentator and writer Mary McCallum loves the holidays, this year she's beginning to think there may be a direct correlation between our growing appetite for material goods - and a diminishing sense of ritual.

(McCallum) This month, the two biggest holidays of the year stand as bookends on either side of us. We've left the Thanksgiving feast behind and Christmas looms large.

Just how large is easy for anyone with a television to see - as we're reminded daily that Gray Thursday, Black Friday, Shop-Small-Business-Saturday and Cyber Monday are over, and there aren't that many shopping days left - ka-ching!

The push toward Christmas began back in October - already a dim memory - and won't end before the year does. But it's not only the mad dash of unbridled consumerism that confounds me. I've recently realized that the act of gathering with family and friends to celebrate and give thanks has taken on a new shape. And that shape is a far cry from the one depicted in Norman Rockwell's iconic painting called Freedom From Want - in which an idealized version of the American family of the 1940s celebrates the holidays at a traditionally laden dining room table.

And starting with the table itself, things really have changed. For one thing, not everyone feels required to sit at one for the meal. It's not uncommon for a few impatient souls to fill their plates before all the food is even out, grab seats and tuck into their food like it might be their last. Some guests wander around carrying plates of food while others park themselves near the television. These days, that inspired Rockwell moment, when the perfectly roasted and redolent turkey is brought to the table and admired by all before being ceremoniously carved, is often just a quaint and vaguely sentimental holiday footnote.

A friend described her own Thanksgiving experience at a local gathering. While the food was marvelous, she said the affair lacked, well, gravitas. Only a smattering of the guests gathered to eat together while a larger group was seen shouting and throwing around a football outside the dining room window. Others stood in clusters throughout the house, talking and sipping, seemingly unmindful of turkey, trimmings or the carefully set table. Then there was the little blue glow emanating from the lap of the young woman next to her who peered into a smart phone beneath the table while emailing a photo of the meal to a distant someone.

My friend is forward thinking - but she missed the shared tradition of communal gratefulness - and I too prefer uniting around the table to mark the occasion with a few words of thanks.

But this year, as I contemplate the changing contours of ritual, I'm resolved to consider whether there might be some value in our holidays becoming less ceremonial and more informal - that it may be okay for some guests to play football or send a text while others dig in.

But when it comes to the turkey, I have to draw the line. I want the real deal - a juicy burnished bird that crowns the meal - and no substitutes will do.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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