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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 325-327

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Book Review

Celebrating the Family:
Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals

Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. By Elizabeth H. Pleck (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2000) 328pp. $55.00 cloth $22.95 paper

In this absorbing and richly suggestive book, Pleck explores the history of rituals pertaining to holidays, such as Mother's Day and Kwanzaa, and to special events with neither fixed histories nor fixed dates, such as family reunions or wedding anniversaries. She divides the history of ritual enactments into three phases. The first, which started in the colonial period, [End Page 325] involved "either a carnivalesque, outdoor form of celebration or a lack of attention to ritual" (1). The second, which began in the early nineteenth century, relied on sentimentality and commercialism and "centered around consumerism and a display of status and wealth to celebrate home and family" (1). The third, which flowered in the late 1960s and 1970s, involved a critique of sentimentalism. These "post- sentimental" rituals, as Pleck calls them, celebrated "family diversity as well as racial and ethnic pluralism" and treated rituals as contested terrain on which people fought cultural and social battles (2). What blunted the edge of the postsentimental ritual was its commitment to individualism, consumerism, and a therapeutic orientation.

For Pleck, the heritage of these three categories--sequential, layered, and far from neat--creates a dense cultural fabric. In all periods, Pleck shows how change emerged in response to shifts in cultural and social experience, especially shifts in family, nationalism, and popular culture. She is particularly attentive to how gender and ethnicity shaped and reshaped celebrations.

Drawing on such anthropologists and cultural critics as Abrahams, Douglas, Foucault, and Turner, Pleck sees rituals as a rich and complicated series of processes through which social groups invent and reinvent traditions. 1 In her telling, rituals are a "form of symbolic communication, a nest of symbols" (11). Pleck usually keeps her assumptions and methodological approach implicit, with the result that stories and historical change, rather than explicitly theoretical ritual analysis, remain central to her discussion.

Pleck structures her book around a series of events--Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Passover, Chinese New Year, children's birthday parties, rites of passage for children (child naming, first communion, quinceaƱera), funerals, and weddings. Yet, this list only begins to reveal how skillfully Pleck's analysis weaves together social and cultural struggles. Indeed, what gives Pleck's book considerable distinctiveness in the growing body of literature about the history of holidays and celebrations is her focus on dramas of social tension. Much of her discussion involves conflicts between the white Protestants who tried to define national norms and the racial and ethnic groups who, asserting the importance of their own stories, have imitated, melded, adapted, and challenged the rituals that a dominant culture tried to impose. Pleck also discusses how families and social groups fight over how meaning is to be infused into cultural reenactments. The book ends up as an extended exploration of the connections between family life, consumer culture, and celebration. [End Page 326] It is a reminder about the complications of the past that we often struggle to reinvent, even as we think that we are recovering it.


Daniel Horowitz
Smith College


1. See, for example, Roger D. Abrahams, Singing My Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South (New York, 1992); Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood, The World of Goods (New York, 1979); Michel Foucault (trans. Robert Hurley), The History of Sexuality. I. An Introduction (New York, 1978); Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York, 1969).



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