Tilburg University kerst 2020

Because of corona, we celebrate the Christmas ritual more consciously and in a smaller setting

Published: 18th December 2020 Last updated: 18th December 2020

The pandemic has not only disrupted our daily lives, but also our rituals. What arrangements do we make for the holidays? Will our time-honored traditions be different this year and perhaps even permanently so? Martin Hoondert is Associate Professor of Music, Religion and Ritual at the School of Humanities and Digital Sciences and is fascinated by the changes and limitations to (farewell) rituals.

‘I’m conducting research into the impact of the corona crisis on funeral rituals at the moment. What I see is that these rituals are being transformed from large-scale, mass events, whereby, for instance, people submit photos and music to the funeral directors for a PowerPoint presentation, into small and intimate ceremonies. That is probably what will happen at Christmas and in the holidays. If we desperately want to hang on to the way we used to do things, Christmas will not be an enjoyable event, because we are reminded of what is not possible at the moment. However, organizing something completely new will be much more satisfying. Rather than including granny in your Christmas dinner via the iPad, it may be more fun to host a more small-scale event, a smaller ritual, with fewer guests, an intimate get-together, in which people can give each other their undivided attention. Or invite the lady next door. The idea is that you break out of the pattern. That creativity, a new interpretation, that is what gives satisfaction: you can create your own dot on the horizon if you feel powerless.’

But we appreciate a valuable ritual precisely because it does not change, don’t we, so that everyone can relate to it and join in.

‘Rituals offer something to hold on to, especially in trying times. But it is a misconception that rituals never change, because they do develop, following catastrophes, as a result of a slow disaster like corona, and through socio-economic or individual factors. Rituals aren’t static. People often think that rituals belong to a religion and are by definition dogmatic and subject to protocols, but they are much broader than that. No society can exist without pausing and paying attention to important events involving rituals, such as democracy and voting, or the royal family, or academia: they all have their own traditions and rituals. Memorial Day is a case in point: we also remind ourselves of the freedom that is all-important to us.

Rituals have to do with our intention to mark certain events in time and place and we give symbolic meaning and value to our stylized, formalized actions. People can experience a ritual in different ways. At Christmas, for instance: for some, it is pre-eminently a family event, for others it is a time-out, or it has a religious meaning, if only because it is the one time in a year that they go to church. Rituals can be innovated, which always involves a struggle concerning values, and that’s what makes studying them so interesting.’

Do you also see new rituals emerging in these times?

‘It is interesting to see what is going to happen with rituals that have emerged as a result of corona, such as applause for health care workers. I don’t think that that one will survive, but perhaps we will no longer be saluting each other by shaking hands or kissing, given the risk of infection. The elbow bump is more frequently used as a form of greeting, although I personally prefer placing a hand on my heart or making a namaste gesture. That elbow bump is remarkable: it shows that it is not a ritual yet because people first need to explain why they are using it. Furthermore, you also see that it is possible to suddenly get rid of traditions that were already subject to discussion, such as setting off fireworks, although the question is whether that ban may last.’

Hoondert’s research into rituals relating to farewell, commemoration, and mourning would have taken him to Srebrenica and Rwanda this year but for corona, so he is forced to work from home during this coronation period, conducting interviews with people in the funeral business. He had perceived two important trends that may continue to exist after the pandemic has been brought under control. ‘In the first place, what I already said, we are learning that events have lost a lot in terms of intimacy and authenticity. We have come to appreciate again that small settings have so many advantages. In the second place, it is obvious that the pressure of commerce on rituals clearly has disadvantages and that will probably change after corona. With Christmas, too, that has become dominated by grocery store Albert Heijn’s periodical Allerhande. Corona has forced us to reshape rituals and has also taught us to think more consciously about our values.’


Martin Hoondert has been employed full-time at Tilburg University, where he also studied and earned his PhD, since 2011. Between 2007 and 2011, he was an endowed professor there. His fascination for farewell rituals dates from this period. He studied Musicology and Theology, specializing in rituals. As an endowed professor, he has conducted research into the relationship between music and religion with a special focus on the requiem.