It's tradition: Students examine cultural significance of holiday celebrations, rituals in American Studies course

It's tradition: Students examine cultural significance of holiday celebrations, rituals in American Studies course

A senior seminar American Studies course challenges students to examine celebrations, holidays and rituals in American culture.

At breakneck speed, Kelsey Bozarth can rattle off the names, artists, and historical relevance of most popular Christmas songs.

The Rowan University senior wouldn't quite call herself a holiday song expert. But, she says, "I do think I know more than the average person does."

Take "Angels We Have Heard on High," written in the 18th century.

"Many might not know that the end of the song, ‘Gloria, in excelsis Deo,' means "Glory to God in the highest," says Bozarth. "It has a very upbeat melody. Most people sing these older songs, but may not necessarily know the full meaning behind them."

How about "White Christmas," written by Jewish composer Irving Berlin?

"It makes Christmas feel like a dream," Bozarth says. "It's the most frequently recorded song in history."

And "Blue Christmas," popularized by Elvis Presley?

"It's a song of loss and rebellion, of a teenage romance gone bad," she says. "It went along with major changes for Christmas in the 1950s. At that time, the holiday became more affected by media and popular culture."

Bozarth attributes part of her extensive knowledge to her grandfather's love of holiday music, particularly Bing Crosby's "Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas Song)."

The rest of her knowledge? That was gained this semester when Bozarth completed a hefty research project on the impact Christmas songs have on people's experiences of the holiday for her American Studies course, "Holiday Celebrations and American Culture."

Taught by Professor Dianne Ashton, the senior seminar challenges students to examine the celebrations, holidays and rituals in American culture. Among the topics the class examines are: how do rituals express the cultures that surround them and give them meaning?; how do rituals respond to cultural changes?; and, how do rituals reflect American values?

'A natural outgrowth'

The course is a natural outgrowth of Ashton's own research. A professor of Religion Studies and founding director of Rowan's American Studies program, Ashton is the author of Hanukkah in America, which will be published next fall by New York University Press. The book explores how a holiday that historically hasn't been a hugely important day on the Jewish calendar has gained in popularity since the late 19th century.

Holiday celebrations and rituals, Ashton says, break up the monotony of our lives, giving us something that connects us with those we love and with a greater community of Americans.

Plus, she says, "They're fun, aren't they? How much can we spend our lives doing the same things every day?"

Students, Ashton says, embrace the class and the research projects, which offer an opportunity to give scholarly treatments to traditions, holidays and rituals close to their hearts.

Students' studies this semester have included topics as vast as the tradition of "keeping kosher" at Passover to New Orleans jazz funerals to the American ritual of going to the prom.

"One of the things I love about this course is that it's a topic students can really wrap their minds around," says Ashton. "They can embrace the subject matter in real ways and really do quality analytical work.

"So often, when they study history, they learn dates. But they don't really examine how history affects everyone's lives. In our class, we talk a lot about rituals and how families shape them and make them more meaningful to each other."

Academically rigorous

According to Ashton, the rigorous, writing-intensive class requires students to complete essays each week and to write book reviews on topics related to holidays, celebrations and rituals. Students also lead class discussions on all readings, which focus both on American history and the methodology of anthropology, as they relate to celebrations and rituals.

"In the course, students are really pushed to become better writers," says Ashton. "It's an enormous amount of work. And it prepares them to take their original research to the highest levels."

Ashton's class, says Rowan senior Ashley Hyland, has helped her view rituals--her family's and widespread institutional rituals--in different ways. Hyland, an elementary education and American Studies major from Sicklerville, researched the American prom ritual this semester.

"One of the books we read talked about how we don't really think a lot about the meaning behind our rituals," says Hyland. "My research demonstrated that the prom used to be a ritual, a rite of passage, a coming of age. It's not so much like that anymore. Now, there's more emphasis on the materialistic aspects of it and less emphasis on it as a rite of passage into adulthood."

Every Christmas Eve, Bozarth and her family members gather around and sing "Mele Kalikimaka," complete with hula-in-your-own-way choreography. It's something silly, she says, that keeps the family together. Her grandfather, who passed away in 2009, started the tradition.

"When we first started doing it when I was a young child, I would be like, ‘This is kind of weird,'" laughs Bozarth, of Burlington Township.

"But now, I can't imagine a Christmas without it. It's something that really brings the family together.  It's tradition. Now that my grandfather is gone, it's important for us to continue it in tribute to him.

"Singing with people, particularly family members, can produce a feeling of togetherness, of unity."