Researcher’s New Book Explores Symbolism of Fourth of July and Other American Holidays

By Tom McLaughlin

Ah, the Fourth of July.  The national holiday is the unofficial high-water mark of the summer season, gloriously marching in with endless displays of patriotism – parades, picnics, waving flags, a bevy of tasty treats, just to name a few – all decked out in red, white, and blue.

Clark explains that children actually learn cultural values and ideals by participating in the sensory elements of holiday rituals.

The time-honored celebration is then punctuated with the unmistakable sounds of fireworks exploding in the nighttime sky.

Participate in any Independence Day celebration, says Cindy Dell Clark, and you will experience an annual ritual steeped in sensory input.

But more than that, explains the Rutgers University–Camden researcher, children actually learn cultural values and ideals by participating in the sensory elements of such holiday rituals.

“Children can learn values from what they hear, what they taste, and what they touch, and from how their bodies feel in the midst of celebration,” says the associate professor of anthropology, who has studied the social dynamics of American holidays for nearly 20 years.

According to Clark, her research shows that children don’t experience holidays – and their related symbols – exactly as adults do; the poetry allows kids to have distinct interpretations.

Clark explores the oft-ignored cultural symbols of holidays – which she regards as “the quintessential displays of symbolism in American culture” – in her eye- and ear-opening new book All Together Now: American Holiday Symbolism Among Children and Adults (Rutgers University Press, 2019).

“This book really is a big breakthrough in terms of how children learn cultural values,” says the Villanova resident. “Sometimes the most important findings are the ones staring you in the face, but you have to shift your vision a little to see it. That’s what happens here.”

Clark recalls that her research started fortuitously with a focus on Christmas and the symbolism of Santa Claus. She soon began to look systematically at all holidays and realized the consistent ways that children processed various sensory metaphors – “the poetry of the holidays” – through their active participation.

Clark posits that her book is a breakthrough in terms of how children learn cultural values.

“There is a great deal of abstract learning that takes place, much like learning poetry,” says Clark. “What it says about the way humans learn is that we are as much poets as we are logicians.”

Beginning with Memorial Day, notes the Rutgers–Camden researcher, summertime is ripe with sensory experiences for children that cultivate a bold sense of freedom. For instance, she says, celebrations often include swimming, which enables them to “move in a way that normally isn’t possible on land,” and usually take place in an unrestrained outdoor environment.

“They are out of school and free from the demands of a schedule,” she says. “There are no table manners and they can get up and run around.”

In some instances, she says, celebrations juxtapose elements nurturing feelings of freedom in children with those that bombard their senses in an unpleasant way.

For example, amid the pomp and circumstance of parades, children will experience – and gradually learn to endure – blaring fire engine sirens. She routinely observed these “barrage of sounds” trigger a startle reflex in children, who plugged their ears and hid behind their parents.

Similarly, children regularly cried from the sounds of fireworks, described them as “scary,” and compared them to war-like explosions.

The Rutgers–Camden researcher has studied the social dynamics of American holidays for nearly 20 years.

“What happens is that children viscerally learn that sacrifice and freedom, these values so highly esteemed in American culture, go hand in hand,” says Clark, adding that she studied these phenomena across different social classes and ethnicities, and never once did parents leave the celebrations when tots cried from loud eruptions.

Clark maintains that the nature in which humans learn through poetic symbols has largely been neglected in social science due to a predominant focus on the acquisition of logical thinking.

She hopes that her book will help shift the conversation to how children learn culture as poetic interpreters apart from deductive reasoning.

“Culture is already built into the symbols that we use and children and adults both take unconscious meaning from them,” she says. “But this research shows that children don’t experience holidays – and their related symbols – exactly as adults do; the poetry allows kids to have distinct interpretations.”

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