Keeping the faith through souvenirs
Although it may not seem like much, the small wooden figurine grandma brought back from the Holy Land has been blessed. She gives the souvenir to her grandchildren knowing she has done her job: deliver God into their lives.
A recent study led by Hillary Kaell, an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Concordia University, and published in the Journal of Material Culture looks at why and to whom people give souvenir gifts – an area of study that little is known about. For her research, she chose to focus on Christian American women between the ages of 55 and 75 who travel to the Holy Land and who make souvenir purchasing an important part of their pilgrimage.
“Crucial in this endeavour is how pilgrims negotiate the fluid line between commodity and religious object,” says Kaell, who mentions that according to the Israeli Census Bureau, more than 60,000 Canadians travel to Israel and the Palestinian Authority each year — most of whom are Christian pilgrims. “They imbue commercial souvenirs with divine presence therefore creating powerful tools for ‘softly’ asserting religion in their families’ lives. Giving these souvenirs becomes another way to bolster faith.”
Kaell based her study on ethnographic research conducted on the road in the Holy Land and then at pilgrims’ homes after they had returned. Conversation interviews were held with 99 pilgrims and 34 industry professionals, the majority of the interviews consisting of pre- and post-trip conversations with pilgrims from five groups (three evangelical and two Catholic), as well as participant observation with two of these groups in the Holy Land.
What she found was that the gifts the women bought in the Holy Land were classified into two major groups: those undirected, for acquaintances, and those directed for family, especially children. These women expressed how they felt responsible for perpetuating their faith in the family — driving many of their religious behaviours, such as praying for their children, organizing baptisms and taking grandchildren to church.
The purchase of the souvenirs in the Holy Land becomes an extension of this behaviour. By giving the gifts the women hope to spark an interest in religion. If the children are reticent to accept religious gifts, the gifts are delivered as souvenirs. The women believe that once accepted and displayed the Holy Land gift can open a way to a conversation with God, which fulfills the pilgrim’s desire to pass faith down to the next generation.
“These women are very capable of harnessing the ability to portray the gifts as souvenirs sometimes and religious gifts other times,” says Kaell. “A souvenir as a divine-presence-filled gift can circumvent the problem of having a religious gift rejected —whether the child understands the true significance of the gift or not. The key is that a very important reason for their pilgrimage has been fulfilled.”
This study is a component of a larger book project that will be published with New York University Press.
• Cited research
• Hilary Kaell's profile page
• Department of Religion