Youth Culture Killed My Dog (Part 1)

There was  a time when grown adults would go door to door in crazy costumes on Halloween, demanding treats. It was called mumming.*

Now we (we meaning twenty-first century Americans) call it trick or treating, and only children do it. Depending where you live, children might not do that any more, and it’s possible that the custom  will die out like wicker man or the Jackson lottery. But if anyone’s going to do it, kids will.

I once went to a boar’s head festival—a deliberately anachronistic reenactment of an early modern (ca. 1600?) Christmas celebration. It had a lot of things that make customs quaint, including songs, costumes, and processions. And it was pitched at adults, as boar’s head festivals traditionally had been. Imagine, now, that you have the job of explaining to aliens your own (twenty-first century American) Christmas customs. The children hang their stockings by the chimney with care. The children leave a plate of cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph. The youngest child puts the star on the tree. The children go to bed early so they can open their presents in the morning.

Obviously there are some things about Christmas that grown ups still do, and it’s not so unusual for childless households to trim a tree, exchange presents, or perhaps sing carols or venture to church. But it’s almost impossible to trim a tree or even speak of Christmas without invoking “Christmases long, long ago”: the Christmases of childhood. Truman Capote’s lone Christmas story is called “A Christmas Memory” and is no less nostalgic or sentimental than the title implies (worth reading but warning: pdf). An old lady with a wreath on her door cannot overwrite that fact that literally only children believe in the primary figure in America’s largest and most important secularo-religious festival. Stop bluffing: Christmas is for kids.

Easter, on the other hand, is partially the central holy day of the Christian calendar and mostly the day when a giant bunny hides chocolate eggs for children.

I received more valentines between the ages of five and eleven than I have in all the other years of my life combined; and, unless you are an import model, you did to.

What happened here happened to baptism first. Two thousand years ago (or almost), if you wanted to get baptized you got your grown-up body dunked in water; after a couple centuries, babies were getting dunked. Theoretically baptism was done at an earlier age in order to offer salvation even to the very young, but certainly another factor has come into play; if you can avoid getting soaking wet in your clothes while everyone you know watches you sputter water out your nose, probably  you will take that out. It’s much easier to get the very young to do your ritual for you; the very young can’t object, and although babies do traditionally object to being baptized (crying while “Satan leaves the body”), babies object to all sorts of random things, like tummy time or taking naps, regardless, so no one takes them seriously. Some denominations still practice adult baptism, but they are in the minority, and are considered weird by mainstream America. Why would any sane adults take part in a ritual when they could send their children as proxies?

I’ve been mentioning Christian rituals, but of course this is not a Christian-specific occurrence. Bar and bat mitzvahs may represent the assumption of adulthood, but as the concept of adulthood got modified to apply to eighteen-year olds, or (of late) to thirty-year olds, the mitzvah age stayed at twelve or thirteen. Once you have the power to prevent a culture from making you stand in front of everyone and stumble through the Torah reading, you will no longer do it. If it wasn’t happening to a tween, it wouldn’t happen at all.

This is the nature of custom and ritual, that they’re sort of embarrassing and unpleasant. If it weren’t embarrassing and unpleasant, you’d just do it every day, which is why even if you call your Morning Coffee Ritual a Morning Coffee Ritual, it doesn’t count as a folk custom. Ritual is what culture employs its power to force you to do. The absolute limit of the power of culture to impose a ritual on you is college graduation, the last time in your life you will ever put on a funny costume and march in front of everyone while people applaud. By the time you get your MFA, the school just mails it to you.

Culture obviously had more power in the past. A hundred years ago (for example), if a close relative of yours died, you would wear a special costume for approximately a year, followed by another year during which you wore a different special costume; and all that time every letter you wrote would be on special paper purchased for the occasion. Now you wear a special costume for a couple of hours on one day. It’s probably the same costume you wear to job interviews, or possibly to work. From two years to four hours, that’s the magnitude by which the power of culture has diminished

So culture used to have more power and in part it used that power to force people to participate—to participate, somewhat circularly, in culture. There’s a coercive aspect to it, sure, but it’s also the case that a culture with more power is more persuasive. It’s simply less humiliating to participate in something that you actually believe in. If you are deeply into Mariolatry, and only if you are deeply into Mariolatry, you won’t feel like a goon marching around with a statue of the Virgin on a papier-mache throne (e.t.a.: apparently Mariolaters do not call it “Mariolatry,” but you get what I mean).


Look at this loser! It’s March!

Baptism got shifted to children first because it involved something objectively unpleasant (getting dunked, possibly in very cold water); for everything else, a weakening culture made activities that might otherwise be enjoyable look humiliating. Just to make this clearer, using a still-extant custom: there is one day per year, and only one day, when you can wear sequined glasses made in the shape of a four-digit number while blowing a paper noisemaker and not be mercilessly ridiculed by everyone who sees you.

Gradually, adults stopped dancing the may pole. They stopped playing the Abbot of Unreason. They stopped riding tricycles in fezzes.

We’re left with a threadbare remnant of culture; but this means we are only humiliated when we try to explain it to those alien anthropologists. “Tell me about your Earth customs for the day known as Thanksgiving ,” the alien will say; and you’ll answer, “Well, first we eat dinner with family, which we do every day; but this is slightly different because we eat turkey, which otherwise we only do sometimes. And then we watch TV, which we do every day; but this is slightly different because we watch a parade, which we don’t usually do, or a football game, which we only do like once a week.” The alien is rolling its eye stalks at you, but you answer is still better for this holiday than for every other holiday, when your answer is that your custom, as an adult, is to purchase a Hallmark card and then get drunk.

But you wouldn’t actually admit any of this to the alien; it would be too humiliating. Instead you would talk about the only things you could talk about, the rituals that children go through and customs they enact as proxies for us. Children are too young to feel the humiliation of public shame, and they are too weak to avoid their fates even when the shame strikes. When they put on a Christmas pageant, they are not merely playacting the story of Jesus in a manger, they are also playacting the concept of a contemporary culture. They are not only pretending to be shepherds and wise men, they are pretending to be you and me.

[Continued, more or less, here.]

Postscript: A friend pointed out the missing piece, which is the gamut of wedding customs. This is a fair cop. Our culture lost everything but weddings.

*Technically mumming can also refer to similar activities on other holidays, and is perhaps not the most analogous practice to trick-or-treating; I just don’t know the gerund for whatever the analog is. Another related adult halloween practice is souling, or going door to door offering to pray for the dead in exchange for treats.

Of course you could also go door to door around Christmas time wassailing, and singing Christmas carols outside a house in the expectation that you’ll get some hot chocolate is probably still practiced in some areas.


  1. I think looking for things where it is obvious that culture is employing its power to make you do is the exact opposite of how we should look at it. The areas where culture is most powerful are the ones where we don’t even consider it as culture having us do something, we just think of it as normal life. Defining ritual as only things which seem antiquated and uncomfortable and which people no longer believe in is not how an anthropologist would look at a foreign culture, nor is it how we should look at our own. Off the top of my head, rituals which adults still engage in non-ironically: wedding ceremonies, dating, going to church, going to parties/bars, bar-b-ques, etc. Each one of these has their own sets of appropriate clothes and activities and rites which would not necessarily be appropriate elsewhere. Perhaps I’m not fully understanding what you mean by ritual. You are correct that there are many cultural customs that we primarily force upon children. It does not follow that these are the only cultural customs we have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The idea that culture has an overt, self-conscious component may be an invention of late-eighteenth / early nineteenth century romantics nationalists, but it’s an idea we’ve had for a few centuries and we’re probably stuck with it for a while. History will remember Aztecs as the guys who cut people’s hearts out after playing basketball with their elbows, and not as the guys whose family structures were x and who maintained eye contact in y ways.

      It’s clear that the largest part of culture is, iceberg style, invisible. And even the visible part has some adult portions. Weddings are probably the best example, but singing Auld Lang Syne while kissing a drunk on New Year’s isn’t nothing. (There are mores about dating, and even BBQs, but I think these are much closer to the invisible end of the spectrum.)

      But I think the trend is to move a large and unprecedented amount of visible culture onto the shoulders of children. Note that weddings are forbidden by law from being foisted onto children, and are too lucrative to abandon wholesale. But any custom where you have to consult books about the “right” way to do something (there are more wedding invitation rules than any normal human known), any custom that has secret taboos for the cognoscenti to zing you with (“best wishes!”) is a weirdly moribund custom.

      The main point, though, is just the trend. If in twenty years we make the flower girl and ring bearer act out a wedding while the bride and groom cower behind a barrier, I will consider myself vindicated.


      1. >But any custom where you have to consult books about the “right” way to do something (there are more wedding invitation rules than any normal human known), any custom that has secret taboos for the cognoscenti to zing you with (“best wishes!”) is a weirdly moribund custom.

        Or as you have pointed out in numerous other posts, a custom that has been designed to be confusing so that members of the out-group cannot easily impersonate in-group members. And these are often far from moribund, but are instead rapidly evolving. See America’s quickly shifting taboos on which words are okay to describe various minorities/designated victim groups.

        Anyhow, I agree that many customs that people presumably used to believe in now exist only for children to play act at.


  2. Actually I rather think the point of Christmas is to invoke “Christmases long ago” it’s a ritual that allows you to think back to those mythical Christmases of your childhood, or even recall the stories your parents or parents parents told of those days. It sort of connects you to them through time. The reason perhaps it’s changed so much over the years is (outside of crass commercialism, which was clearly a thing even in Dickens) is that it is largely an oral history, not a written one. These are the tales we have passed down by word of mouth. Many of the rituals have undergone significant change and (as you know) are largely adopted and inherited from our pagan forebears.

    I find myself rejecting many modern attempts at dress-up rituals as meaningless. The ubiquity of the “ugly sweater” contest around the winter holidays only serves to drum up sales of otherwise useless, valueless items. Although if recent market research is to be believed, millennials may be pushing back on a similar symbol – the diamond.

    I have a good friend who engages in most of the (Christian) holiday traditions – and much like me, he’s a child in an adult body. I mean that in the best way. Tree trimming – check (and bring your kids). Halloween party (bring the kids early on, or get a sitter if you plan to stay late – but come in costume – there will be a contest and awards). Easter – bring friends – and invite strangers or people you know have no place to go. Point is – these sorts of rituals take _work_. These days people have prioritized other things.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have an aunt who tends to blame these types of things, and almost everything, on Protestants holding mass in vulgar languages. She would say it’s a slippery slope from not learning a liturgical language, to Easter just being chocolate bunnies, stupid hats, and a slightly fancier meal than usual. So the cure for all this, as with all problems of cultural decline discussed on the internet, is to make people learn Esperanto…maybe as a ‘special occasions language.’

    Liked by 1 person

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