In Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery, a large theme is the notion of rituals. Think Christmas or Halloween, or related, Mischief Night. Why do we keep these (and others) and pass them on? Do we feel all holidays are important? Do we like days off? or more seriously, do we just as dangerously carry on traditions with missing the original point of that tradition (for example, how many people do you think love Christmas but are not religious at all, or celebrate Thanksgiving but do not consider violence and abuse of Native Americans, too)? What is the story asking us to do?
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Rituals, traditions, ceremonies, and other perpetually-repeated exercises or activities have been an important part of human civilization for thousands of years. Whether it was ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, Imperial China, modern America, or virtually any other region or period of human history, people have had a natural inclination towards the development of rituals and ceremonies. The changing of the seasons, with the natural ramifications that entails for agricultural production, has long been the subject of annual ceremonies. Important dates in history – the importance, of course, being a product of one’s perspective – are celebrated throughout the world, whether its Columbus Day in America (an affront to many Native Americans), Bastille Day in France, May Day in the Soviet Union and current-day Russia, or the Day of the Dead in Mexico and other countries where a day is set aside to remember the deceased. Individuals and groups select those days or events in their history that symbolize an important development, or that are chosen to memorialize those who came before them, and those dates invariably take on a celebratory importance that grows out of proportion to the underlying event ostensibly being recognized. Christmas is a holy day for Christians, but has come to be recognized as much as a day of joyful merriment and exchanging of gifts as it is for its actual religious significance. Adherents to Judaism annually recognize dates associated with their “exodus” from bondage in Egypt, and with important battles or events from ancient history.
In the small town at the center of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery, June 27 constitutes such a day. Jackson meticulously details the annual ritual, starting with the assemblage the town’s children:
“The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands.”
Next, Jackson describes the gathering of the town’s men and women, and the ritualistic manner in which they prepare for the day’s event:
“Soon the men began to gather. surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes. They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed. The women, wearing faded house dresses and sweaters, came shortly after their menfolk. They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they went to join their husbands.”
Jackson notes that this is not the sole annual ritual or ceremony in which the citizens of this town participate:
“The lottery was conducted--as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program--by Mr. Summer, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities.”
Most significantly, though, is Jackson’s emphasis on the importance of this date in the annual calendar, and that it has been around for generations: “The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago . . .”; “. . .some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year”; “There had been, also, a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.” The basics are preserved, but the specifics change with time. Just as many holidays in the United States have been threatened with reduction into mere excuses for days-off from work and occasions to party, the purpose of the June 27 lottery has devolved into a bestial exercise in population control the underlying meaning of which has ceased over time to exist. The children, mainly the boys, eagerly gather stones, the purpose of which is not yet revealed, and turn the annual stoning of one unfortunate individual into a game. Jackson’s town celebrates other dates and events, and the annual lottery has become just one more annual exercise, albeit with a horrifying climax that is subtly understood but certainly not questioned.
As the question notes, certain holidays and traditions are not universally respected. Much of human history has involved zero-sum games in which one category of individual has benefited at the expense of another. Thanksgiving celebrates the early settling of North America, but that settlement came at the expense of indigenous tribes. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, but the tradition of hauling trees into living rooms, decorating them and placing gifts at their base has come to symbolize this season at least as much, if not more, than the virgin birth. Santa Claus and variations of Santa, not Jesus, are the enduring symbols of Christmas in much of the world. Columbus Day in America recognizes the arrival of a European explorer who missed his mark by a wide margin and who represents, to Native Americans, the beginning of the end of a way of life. All of these holidays and the rituals with which they are associated remain important to many millions of people, and recognition of the other side of the equation is left to acolytes of social scientists like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.
People want to celebrate important dates in their national or religious history. They want to remember the underlying events that spawned such celebratory days. How much they retain a visceral connection to those underlying events, however, is the question. Even the celebration of the anniversaries of our births constitutes a manifestation of mankind’s innate need to recognize important achievements or events. Why not have a date to celebrate ourselves? That the meaning of many days of remembrance and celebration may have gradually lost their meaning was captured in one person’s observation that Mothers’ Day – a day to recognize and reward mothers – is frequently celebrated by mothers through avoidance of their children: It has become a day-off from parenting.
Much of this has nothing to do with The Lottery. Jackson’s quasi-dystopian world, in which population control measures include the ritualistic elimination of one unlucky person or persons from each town, village or city, takes the notion of rituals a little far, but only if one ignores the history of human sacrifice in certain cultures in ancient times and the stoning of individuals in some parts of the world today for the crime of engaging in extramarital relations. Come to think of it, Jackson wasn’t too far “out there” after all.
In my personal opinion, I believe we keep rituals for a number of reasons. Perhaps we keep them because it gives us something to do, or in the case of Halloween and Christmas, celebrate. We keep them for the next generation, so they will know what to do and keep the tradition alive.
However, I do not believe that we think all holidays are important. The intentions of holidays are good, but in some cases people are just more concerned about getting a day off.
In terms of carrying on dangerous traditions, I believe that this is a bad thing, such as the case of Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus was a bad man who didn't actually discover America at all, so I don't believe that there should be a holiday for him. But in the case of Christmas and non-religious people celebrating it, I don't believe that's a bad thing at all. Why can't non-religious people also enjoy the lights, food, good spirits and caring holiday season?
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