Mason Faculty Members Offer Perspectives on Seasonal Issues

Posted: December 20, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

George Mason University faculty offer some perspectives on issues and themes that come to the forefront this time of year: traditions and family relations, gift-giving, personal health and goals, and the desire for world peace.

Building Family Holiday Traditions

Everyone has family holiday traditions, whether elaborate rituals or a “standing agreement not to recognize Santa Claus,” says Margaret Yocom,professor of English and expert on folklore. “Family holiday traditions give us both roots and wings—roots to know who we are and where we come from, and wings to help us imagine where we’re headed,” she says. “In our families, the places we first learn about tradition, we negotiate continuously about which strands of tradition we keep and which ones we allow to shift. It’s important to see tradition as a provocative blend of continuity and change, because if traditions didn’t shift a little bit, they would lose their meaning.”

Scrooge Rekindles the Holiday Spirit

We seem to crave familiar stories during the holidays more than at any other time, says theater professor Rick Davis, and traditional holiday shows like A Christmas Carol and The Nutcracker help fill the bill. These shows become almost like secular church services that provide a predictable, affirmative, comforting experience that helps interpret and reinforce the sometimes elusive “spirit of the season.” They fulfill the audience’s “hunger for narrative,” Davis says. “For many, these annual shows are stories that give shape and meaning to a world that is sometimes confusing, and in a way they confirm our sense of reality rather than challenging it.”

Holiday Season Is a Good Time to Reconnect with Unlikely Family and Friends

In modern times, the holiday season has become a time for family, friends, and kinship and a time to renew ties and bonds, some of them involving people who live in far-flung places. Especially this season, in an era when the meaning of words like “family” and “marriage” are hotly contested, it seems good to mark the diversity of forms of kinship and family in America, according to Roger Lancaster, professor of anthropology and director of Cultural Studies.

“For example, at my own kin gatherings in North Carolina, some of the most feared and loathed forms of family—same-sex couples, unmarried straight couples, interracial pairs, single mothers, divorced men and women, and even those for whom ‘coupledom’ holds no charms—will rub elbows with more conventional heterosexual nuclear families. I don’t think my own extended kin networks are exceptional. Even in rural, fundamentalist settings, people sculpt out zones of tolerance at Christmastime. It doesn’t seem such a far step to spread the good cheer of the season to other times of year—to understand the diversity of living arrangements and kinship in terms of benign variation, not as examples of moral decline.”

Give the Gift of Math

If you’re looking for children’s books to put under the tree this year, consider one with a mathematics theme. These books make perfect gifts, says Patricia Moyer-Packenham, professor in the College of Education and Human Development. Geared toward elementary schoolchildren, they introduce math skills such as pattern recognition, counting, and measurement. They encourage children to solve problems under the guise of stories about dividing cookies among friends or balancing rows in a parade. “Children learn mathematics through the use of language,” and these storybooks provide a “natural way for parents and children to begin a discussion about math.”

Holiday Tasks Fight Extra Pounds

“As holiday preparations begin to fill our days, walking the stairs, carrying laundry, and vacuuming are all great ways to incorporate a fitness routine into our daily activities,” says Robert Ruhling, professor of health, fitness, and recreation. Raking leaves and shoveling snow also are great exercise. “But be wary of the type of snow in your area. In heavy, moisture-laden snow, don’t scoop the sidewalk—take off the top level and attack the snow in stages until you get to the sidewalk. If you’re lucky enough to have dry, powdery snow, use a broom to sweep it away.” Then take a walk around the neighborhood as a reward for a job well done.

Keep Resolutions in Perspective

A new year seems like the perfect time to resolve to eat healthier, quit smoking, and exercise. But it’s unrealistic to think all these changes can happen on Jan. 1. Judy Palmore, coordinator of health education services, advises making one change at a time. “Trying to do too much too quickly may be setting yourself up for failure,” she says. If a resolution turns out to be unrealistic, revise it and try again. “Don’t quit. Allow yourself a few lapses, accept the temporary detour and get back on the road to good health,” she says. “Change is an ongoing process, and moderation is the key to good health.”

Where Is the Peace This Year?

During this season of peace, the United States continues to wage a tragic and unnecessary war in Iraq, according to Richard Rubenstein, professor in the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. “Tragic, because tens of thousands of lives have already been lost, with uncounted civilian casualties,” he says. “The key to peace in Iraq, according to the U.S. government, is the national elections in January, but the elections have been scheduled over the protests of 17 political parties, including representatives of the entire Sunni community.”

Rubenstein argues that conflict resolvers know that elections do not produce legitimate governments in seriously divided nations, especially when conducted under the guns of an occupying power. “The January elections are mere window-dressing for the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq. They will not stop the present insurgency from continuing to spread,” he says. “Men cry peace, peace, but there is no peace. Only when Iraq has genuine self-determination, free of foreign domination, will peace come to that unhappy land.”

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