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Release date: Dec. 13, 2000
Contact: Nancy Seideman, Director, 404-727-0640, or

Listen To Grandmom's Stories This Holiday Season—You'll Thank Her Later

For researchers who study ritual and myth, like Emory University's Bradd Shore, the holidays represent an opportunity to observe families as they cope with the expectations of a season that is rich with both. The stories that we take away from those encounters, say Emory researchers, can serve us well later in life.

"Family holiday gatherings can be wonderful occasions. But they also can be filled with stress—families fight and feel guilty because they have certain expectations fueled by mythic images of perfect holidays pumped out by TV commercials and movies," says Shore, who heads Emory's Center on Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL Center). "It's cynical not to acknowledge the fact that family rituals may not always be successful. It's the ritual-related memories that we tend to recall from our childhood and, fortunately, like childbirth, we tend to remember only the warm after-glow, not the sometimes rocky road we took to get there."

But certain rituals that often are played out during family gatherings also may help make families stronger. Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, whose research at the MARIAL Center focuses on family narratives, says that passing stories down from generation to generation can "give children a sense of place and identity and helps them to develop a sense of 'specialness' that provides them with resilience in facing life stresses and challenges."

Duke says that sharing family myths—whether it be how parents and grandparents met and fell in love, or the amazing feats of "legendary" aunts and uncles—"evokes pride, personal history, connectedness, and feelings of specialness despite any one family's being in reality just a single star in a universe of constellations."

The MARIAL Center, which focuses on the study of ritual and myth in middle-class families in the contemporary American South, was funded last year by a $3.6 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which sponsors research on work-family issues at four other university-affiliated centers across the country. The MARIAL Center supports the research of Emory faculty, graduate/undergraduate students and post-doctoral fellows, who study a wide range of topics such as: African-American family narratives; the biological and social significance of food; adolescent sexuality; and the role of ritual in family health crises.

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