Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

25th Anniversary

Volume XXV Number 1
Fall 2002

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Anniversaries—Who Needs Them?

by Nancy Cassell McEntire

I cut every Day a Notch with my Knife, and every seventh Notch was as long again as the rest, and every first Day of the Month as long again as that long one, and thus I kept my Kalander, or weekly, monthly, and yearly reckoning of Time.

--Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719

Stranded on a remote desert island, the survivor of a shipwreck in which all of the ship's company was lost, Robinson Crusoe felt an overwhelming urge to mark the passage of time. He resolved each day to carve a notch in a square post he had fashioned. After seven notches he knew a week had passed. Eventually the weeks grouped into months. Alone and removed from society, he measured time.

Today's world is no desert island-far from it. The pressures of family, society, and the workplace are always with us; we are surrounded by mechanical and digital reminders of the time and date. Yet, like Defoe's hero, we feel the need to consider our days, paying attention to significant moments within them.

Anniversaries are "intensified remembering," in the words of John H. McDowell, professor of folklore and chair of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University Bloomington. Every anniversary recalls an event that has enduring meaning within the stream of our everyday lives. "When we commemorate an anniversary," says McDowell, "we are staking a claim to something in the past and implicitly arguing that it has continuing relevance to the present and even to the future."

Our commemorations of what we call significant certainly differ. Our rituals may be customary or idiosyncratic. In a single suburban neighborhood, for example, a husband and wife place a large gold-and-white sign on their lawn to announce their 50th wedding anniversary. A few doors away, a single man invites friends over for a sarcastic celebration to mark the first anniversary of his divorce. Across the street, the license plate of a parked car displays another significant date-the year, month, and day when the owner of the car and his wife first met.

According to Linda Dégh, Distinguished Professor Emerita of folklore at IUB, the variety of anniversaries celebrated worldwide is staggering. "They can be secular and vernacular, national and religious, traditional, personal, familial, spontaneous or imposed, true or imagined, political or consumer-oriented," she says. For many United States citizens, the anniversary of America's independence is a significant holiday, celebrated with cookouts, family reunions, and fireworks that range from sparklers in backyards to extravagant displays for thousands of spectators. But travel overseas in early July, and you'll quickly realize that the fourth day of that month can be just another day.

Dégh notes that immigrants to the United States, living in a country that they helped build, maintain ties to their primary homeland as well as to their acquired home. She recently participated in an anniversary event celebrating the cultural diversity of a family that emigrated from Hungary to Saskatchewan. The 90th birthday of the wife of a Hungarian immigrant led to a vast family reunion of a clan that had been scattered in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Some annual activities acknowledge the most basic truths-the turning of the earth and its changing seasons. Synchronized with the inevitable movement from winter solstice to spring equinox, summer solstice to autumnal equinox, we mark our awareness of the passage of time with predictable behaviors. At the time of the shortest days--the darkest time of the year--we light fires, candles, gather in each others' homes. We lift glasses of champagne and welcome the new year, pushing aside the gloom of winter. With the coming of spring, fertility rites associated with the rebirth of vegetation are practiced worldwide, such as the wild, abandoned revelry of the New Orleans Mardi Gras. On the longest day, June 21, people in northern regions rejoice in the fullness of the sun. In St. Petersburg, Russia, the pearly light of late midsummer evenings is celebrated with White Lights festivities including music, dance, and drama.

In the United States and elsewhere, many people look to historical events as a focus for anniversary observances. Pearl Harbor Day, V E Day, or birth and death dates of important people such as Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, or Elvis Presley allow for personal reflection and planned activities. In Illinois public schools, January 28th is Christa McAuliffe Day, in honor of the Illinois teacher who perished in the 1986 explosion of the spaceship Challenger.

The tragedies of September 11, 2001, have evoked uncountable commemorations. John McDowell is currently examining the poetry, music, and art that has sprung up worldwide since the attacks on New York and Washington and the crash in Pennsylvania, focusing special attention on Mexican folk ballads--corridos--inspired by the terrorist attacks. "I find commemorative elements in many traditional forms of expression," he says. "As a folklorist, I am especially interested in the less scripted, informal forms of commemoration, or in the ways people customize official events."

We note deaths, births, and other significant rites of passage on a personal level, too, creating rituals for each one. For many American families, a 21st birthday marks a significant transition toward adulthood, often celebrated with a night of drinking with friends and a serious headache the next morning. A 50th birthday may be a time to tease the celebrant with rude gifts. Colleagues at work may drape the office with black shrouds, imitating funereal customs. A 50th wedding anniversary, however, is a time for celebration of a successful marriage, an affirmation of commitment and stability.

Beverly Stoeltje, IUB associate professor of anthropology, has done extensive research in Africa. She points out that in Ghana little value is placed on birthday celebrations or wedding anniversaries. But the Asante of southern Ghana do "place a heavy importance on ritual celebrations acknowledging the death of relatives," she says. "There is a celebration at 40 days and again at one year. These celebrations involve many people coming together, anywhere from 30 to 1,000, with music, drums, recorded music, loudspeakers, dancing, and food in honor of the deceased."

Stoeltje observes that in America we tend to celebrate successes of institutions such as museums, programs, and universities. "We look at what those institutions have provided for us," she says. "They may have reproduced a set of values, an environment for education, or provided loving care, given us an experience that is valued in our culture."

Anniversaries do seem to be in our blood. Over the course of our lives, these dates and the activities that accompany them remind us and those around us of significant religious, ethnic, cultural, personal, and professional values. Anniversaries help us remember, intensely. They are the signposts of our lives, providing stability and community in an uncertain world.

Nancy C. McEntire is assistant professor of English at Indiana State University, where she teaches folklore and is editor of The Folklore Historian.