Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Culture: implicit importance, explicit traditions

I am amazed by culture.   It stands among bread, agriculture, the wheel and tamed animals as one of the greatest of human achievements.   These seem like fairly dry reasons for loving culture: it looks good on the human resume; it’s a keystone for our ideas about history and science and art.   I think culture is great because somebody put a bracelet on   me.

My bracelet is decked out in the barber shop spectrum: red and white strands arranged in a double helix.   Tied in a knot.   At a glance, it’s pretty mundane, but the person who gave it to me said that I’m not allowed to take it off, even when I bathe, until the end of March, or when I see a flowering fruit tree.   It’s a Bulgarian custom.   Not being Bulgarian, I felt privileged to be admitted into some small part of that culture.

But isn’t it a great idea, though?   Celebrate springtime!   Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day; these holidays seem over-large, over commercialized, and in the case of Valentine’s Day, prejudiced against single people.   Remember grade school, when you couldn’t bring candy unless you brought it for the whole class?   It’s just like “Hug somebody of the same sex” day here at Whitman: we’re making up an excuse for everybody to feel loved, wanted or appreciated.   In some cases, awkwardly.

We’ve become experts at this.   Christmas has become so perfunctory that the gifts we really like are the ones we know the identities of before we open the wrapping paper.   The New York Stock Exchange uses the Christmas shopping season as a barometer for consumer confidence.   Is this still culture?

But when I was bedecked with string, I didn’t wonder how much my benefactor dropped for a hundred lengths of it.   When I was a little kid, Christmas was awesome because I was so small, the presents seemed so big and my parents seemed infinitely magnanimous.   Now that my age and economic status has changed, I look at the season differently, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some kid having the time of his life on the 25th.   That kid is celebrating the season with fresh eyes, just as I’m celebrating spring a little differently.

There’s still a grain of culture in Christmas, and Halloween, too: another kid is stuffing himself sick with Jolly Ranchers and miniature Snickers bars, and there’s nothing his mom can do to stop him.   But the bulk of culture’s power to reinvent the mundane: to make us see the world a little differently: is in the little things.   Take St. Patrick’s Day, when everyone, black or white, big or small, is Irish.   It almost sneaks up on you.   For anybody not wearing green, it did sneak up on them.

Fun culture doesn’t have to come from someplace else, though.   Most towns and cities have little festivals or fairs that break up the working year.   The Farmer’s Market is the obvious example.   There are a lot of people who support these kinds of cultural initiatives fervently, but what about the rest of us who happen across them by accident, or just make a point to show up for the fresh corn?

One of the things I’ve noticed, though, and object to, is the way I sometimes see people try to invent or establish culture.   I’ve mentioned “Hug someone of the same sex day” already, and it seems like a good place to begin a discussion of what I’ve come to see as the modern equivalent of so-called “Hallmark Holidays”: tiny observances that come to us through fliers that end up littering the bottom of the recycling bins by the post office, or through chain e-mails.   There is always some do-gooder who doesn’t understand why this is ridiculous, so I’ll explain it: you can’t make culture up.   The Farmer’s Market is a great forum for farmers to sell their goods, and towns love it.   Christmas is an agreed-upon time when people celebrate the birth of Jesus, regardless of whether or not they actually believe.   There’s even a reason for Halloween.   The point is, these observances have precedents, some of them going back thousands of years.

Culture doesn’t have didactic purpose.   Or, at least it shouldn’t: I’m wearing a string around my wrist because for somebody, handing out bracelets in the spirit of spring is implicit where they come from.   Culture is just that: it’s implicit.

We’ve become jaded about the holiday season.   Buying presents has become almost obligatory, but there are little joys that make us look forward to even the most perfunctory of holidays, and that’s what amazes me.

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