The Evolution, Transformation, and Demise
of a Ritual: The Case of May Day
Mary Ann McGrath
Loyola University Chicago
Upon reflection, is it not odd that human beings, everywhere and in all ages, have engaged in the making and performing of rituals? Why have they done this, when life is full of dangers and challenges that would seem to require more practical kinds of activity? Contrary to common-sense expectation, rituals are not, in most cases, the product of affluence and leisure. (Driver, 1993, p. 8)
Rituals are part of everyday life in all cultures. They can serve as automatic decision-makers in everyday existence. They guide people in deciding when to work and when to set their work aside; what, when, and with whom to eat; how to dress appropriately in various settings; who to include and exclude in various occasions; and, generally, how to engage in full and varied social and personal lives without agonizing over each detail. Calendrical celebrations and holidays are replete with rituals that cue accompanying appropriate behaviors. Rituals present an overlay or skeletal outline for living life, and the flexibility and dynamism of this outline allows for individuality, adaptation, and evolution.
Family and community life are replete with rituals that function to provide a gratifying form of stability and structure to daily life. Any parent will concur that children love routine. In fact, many would say that children need this combination of predictability and specialness, and “ritual is routine with sprinkles and extra sauce” (Cox, 1998, p. 4).
Adults, as well, find rituals vital. Rook (1985) explored meanings given to grooming rituals by young adults, whereas Fulghum (1995) described in detail one woman's regular morning routine, which includes wearing a different bathrobe for each season and sitting quietly with her dog, Elvis. He concludes that an anthropologist analyzing this woman “would see ritual behavior of the most classic kind—the kind that gives structure and meaning to daily life. It is behavior that is regularly repeated because it serves a profound purpose” (Fulghum, 1995, p. 213).