Author Archives: Yash Gupta

Christmas Traditions: Movies and music

AF is a USC student who grew up in New York City before moving to Los Angeles for school He is a White American whose grandparents are religious but whos direct family isn’t. Here he describes his family’s Christmas traditions when it comes to watching movies and listening to music:

AF.) I’m not from a Christian family, but we celebrated Christmas. [It’s] Just a nice time that you get to come together and give gifts to each other, and it gives kids something nice to look forward to, and I enjoy it. So, yeah, there are a couple of things that we do every Christmas. Obviously, we do, like, the setting up the tree and doing the lights, and we have special ornaments that go back like decades and decades. But more specific to our family, I’d say, are a couple movies that we always, or at least almost always, watch. One of them that we always watch is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and that one I have a sweater referencing a line from there. We use the lines for the movie year-round, saying stuff like “shitters full,” and so it definitely lives in our head rent-free. And then another one that we usually watch is Die Hard. My mom is very, very opinionated that it is a Christmas movie, and it’s also just a great movie, and whenever Christmas rolls around, you can be inundated with too much, like, Christmas content, and Die Hard feels like a little bit of a break from that because it’s an action movie. And then, the music that we always listen to, we definitely always listen to the Vince Guaraldi trio. We usually watch A Charlie Brown Christmas at some point, but me and my sister used to, and this is not generally super true now, but we used to always listen to this one muppet song, “One More Sleep Till Christmas.” It was just Kermit singing about how everything feels good because Christmas is almost here, and everyone is just a little bit nicer. I think I definitely adopted that sort of approach to Christmas as well, so big, big song for us.


For many Americans, Christmas has become not only a religious holiday but also a cultural and consumerist one as well. Here, AF shares parts of his Christmas traditions with his family. I think his family’s choice of films is quite interesting, as one was clearly “meant” to become a regular watch at Christmastime, and the other is an action movie that coincidentally takes place at Christmas. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a staple, including music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio, following children’s character Charlie Brown putting on a Christmas pageant. Die Hard is an action movie starring Bruce Willis as a police officer thwarting a terrorist takeover of a high-rise building. Charlie Brown represents the institutional image of Christmas, one full of traditional imagery and themes, while the other is a violent action movie only loosely tied to the actual holiday with sparse use of Christmas imagery and music. I would argue that the viewing of Die Hard as a Christmas tradition is a transgressional tradition that pushes against the institutional expectation of the Christmas season. Through this, AF’s family takes some of the agency of Christmas tradition back from capitalist and religious institutions. However, AF’s family still seeks to enjoy institutional tradition through the viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Pre-Show Rituals

AF is a USC student who is describing his experiences performing musical theater in his high school located in New York City:

AF.) So I was a musical theater kid back when – unfortunate [sic] – but there were a couple rituals that we did before shows and one of them was, just before the curtain went up on the show, behind the curtain – backstage – everyone would get into a circle and everyone will link hands in a big circle and do something called passing the pulse. It was to start to get us in like the right frame of mind where you squeeze the person’s hand to your left or right and then you go in one direction and everyone, when they feel it, squeezes the next person in the same direction and you have to keep on doing that until it makes its way all the way around the circle or gets lost along the way, which happens sometimes. After that, everyone started yelling, and they would sing the shot song that was like, “shots shot shot shot shot shot shots” loudly for the audience to hear. They weren’t able to see whatever was happening, but they would hear everyone yelling shots backstage.


AF discusses two rituals here, one being “Passing the Pulse” and the other being the recitation of the song “Shots” by pop duo LMFAO.

Passing the Pulse is a common game played by students of drama to both calm the mind and promote mindfulness between actors working with each other. The name of this game and the situation it’s performed in make it a form of sympathetic magic. As a model proposed by Frazer in The Golden Bough, sympathetic magic seeks to reproduce phenomena by performing a ritual that resembles those phenomena. Here, students are seeking to sync mind and body with one another through the ritual of propagating a hand squeeze between each other. 

The recitation of the chorus from the song “Shots” could be an assertation of ingroup versus outgroup dynamics. The ingroup is the student actors, and the outgroup is the audience. By not explaining the ritual or why they are performing it, the students are priming the audience and themselves for a performance where the students are leading the experience for both groups.

Ceremony: Boy Scout Court of Honor

NM is a USC student who was born and raised in Los Angeles. Here he describes his experience with the Boy Scout Court of Honor ceremonies he attended as a child:

NM.) Once a month, we had a court of honor, where — or maybe it was every few months — every six months, actually, where, basically, whatever advancement each boy scout earned would be given there. And we rented out a room at a center by the city, and parents and all of them would sit in audience chairs, and boys would stand at the front, and it would go from lowest rank to highest rank — Eagle Scout. And there would be the standard stuff, like, in the book that they earned each rank, and there would also be numerical stuff, like “Oh, this scout hiked 500 miles.” And they would also do parent achievements, like if the dad was, like, going with the kid, he would also get 500 miles. And the Eagle Scout celebration had, um, it had three candles– I forget what they represented. One was honesty or truth. One was– I forget. But they would light them. Actually, it might have been the number of the boy scout traits– a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, all the way through there. They would light one candle at a time and say, like, a trait. Like, “A scout is trustworthy,” and give an example of how the new Eagle Scout exemplified that trait, and go through the candle list. And then the Eagle Scout would give their dad a pin and their mom, like, a flower. And there was, like, a scripted speech that the troop leader would give that was just, like, generic for each scout. Oh, and there was also just like a photo reel of, like, all the different hikes and events the troop went on during that scout’s experience. 


This seems like a fairly standard instance of the Boy Scout Troop Court of Honor ceremony. Official details for such an event can be found here:

The most interesting part of the ceremony is the lighting of candles, an act that could be considered ritualistic magic. Candles are used in religion very frequently, as seen in Hinduism and Judaism, among many others, and here NM was referring to their use as described in the link above:

On my honor I will do my bestty and to obey the Scout Law, (without pause, the first candle is lit) to help other people at all times, (without pause, the second candle is lit) to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight, (the third candle is lit and the spirit of Scouting candle is returned to its holder.)

Candles here seem to be ritually lit to fortify and signify the values of the Boy Scouts. This could be viewed as a form of magic.

Folk Medicine: Sugar Water

AR is a USC student born in the USA but whose mother immigrated from El Salvador. This is her describing how her mother would treat her illness when she was young.

AR.) When I was growing up, my mom would put sugar and water, warm it up in the microwave whenever we were sick or had a cold. It would cure everything; it was a magic cup of… she called it a certain thing, I’m blanking. When we were growing up, we had an ongoing story of her pretending to be a queen, me pretending to be a princess, and with the magic cup of sugar water, it would be like the magic potion that her servants would make for the princess, me. That made me laugh a lot. 

Me.) What’s the significance to you?

AR.) It worked when I was little. Thinking back to that, it’s sugar and water, I see that now, but when I was little I believed that this was the cure for any bad cold or any sickness. She’d give me other medicines, I didn’t care about those. I was a kid, I didn’t like those. Placebos, I guess.


Here we see a form of sympathetic magic taking the form of the simulation of drinking a “potion.” Even though it’s medically clear that there are no medicinal effects of sugar water, AR is insistent that it worked at the time. While this could be just viewed as the placebo effect, folk use of placebos long predates the scientific study of the phenomena. Therefore, I’d posit that this is a form of sympathetic magic. By ritualistically drinking a “potion,” the person who is sick will magically get better. This idea is bolstered by the presented imagery of queens and princesses, mimicking European fairytale tropes.

The Formation of The Khalsa

NM is a USC student born to a second-generation Punjabi Sikh father and a White American mother. He shared a myth that his family would tell him at family gatherings about the Sikh religion:

NM.) Um, yeah so this is gonna be more of a summary than anything, but uh, so first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak, uh. Basically, uh, they were being invaded, and the people didn’t really wanna fight back because it was, like, civilians and all that. So, uh, he asked like a few brave people to come up. And he got a first person pretty readily, and he took him to the back of the tent and came out with a bloody sword. And, after that, he was like, “If we sacrifice, we can win.” And after getting three more people, coming out with a bloodier sword each time, uh, he came out and revealed that he was actually slaughtering an animal, I think it was a goat. And uh, the men were like, one of like the first Sikh warriors, and, I forget the moral of it but that’s basically it. And he went on to like, talk about the four strengths that Sikhism um, like, endorses, which is like, intelligence, wealth, and material, like the strength of your sword, and physical strength

Me.) And, like, how did that affect you and your family. Like, when were you told that? In what circumstance?

NM.) Um, just at, like, family gatherings. And, I think I was first told at like ten, and most recent time I heard it was, like, probably last year. Um, I’m forgetting the moral now but it, like, told, it was supposed to be about bravery, and I think I did internalize that, at the time. Um, yeah, uh, that’s cool. 

This narrative is a legend that describes the formation of the first Sikh Khalsa. The Khalsa was a group of warrior-saints of the Sikh religion. It is unclear whether this actually happened in the creation of the first Khalsa, but it is a common legend that is shared by believers in the Sikh religion. It’s notable that NM believed that it was the first of the ten Sikh gurus, Guru Nanak, that formed the Khalsa instead of Guru Gobind Singh, who is more commonly believed to have performed that act.

While NM is somewhat disconnected from his family’s religions, being unable to understand or speak Punjabi and not being raised religiously, he still claims to be affected by the stories he heard growing up. While many people have stopped following the religions of the parent’s and grandparent’s generations, this is an example of how that heritage still affects those people.