Electric Folk Religion (Christmas in Baltimore)


Christmas used to get me down when I was young; not so much anymore. I bucked against the minoritarian status I felt it imposed upon me. Maybe it had something to do with the anti-Semitism at the WASP-y  prep school I ultimately managed to leave after the 8th grade. In New York, Jewish minority status wears itself much more lightly, and Christmas just doesn’t seem to matter in that bad kind of way that it once had for me. I can now enjoy a little distance.

My father (z”l) always liked the lights in Hampden, a working class neighborhood in Baltimore. They used to call you “hon” there without a trace of irony. Now I can only wonder what it must be like to live in one of those row houses at this time of year. It must be like getting pickled in light, illuminated, electrified outside and inside. Christmas can be a thing of wonder, alien and strange. It’s a wonderful devotion.

What academic discipline and theory would provide the most interesting way to understand this kind of phenomenon? I’d go to the cultural anthropologists and to Bourdeiu, for both a little ethnography and a little theory. It must take months and months to prepare and then weeks to set up this kind of installation. I’d love to get a sense of how people in the neighborhood think about and what they say about what they are doing, and to see how these individuated understandings mash up into larger social wholes and schemas. This is, in part, what Pierre Bordieu meant by a “habitus,” a term I like a lot, especially in this case, with its associations with “habit” and habitat.”

Religion-Christmas looks like something.

“This paradoxical product is difficult to conceive, even inconceivable, only so long as one remains locked in the dilemma of determinism and freedom, conditioning and creativity…Because the habitus is an endless capacity to engender products –thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions– whose limits are set by the historically and socially situated conditions of its productions, the conditioned and conditional freedom it secures is as remote from a creation of unpredictable novelty as it is from a simple mechanical reproduction of the initial conditionings” (Pierre Bordieu, Outline of A Theory of Practice, p.95).


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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