Why your Ward Christmas party was a religious ritual

After you’ve stuffed yourself with Christmas dinner, you can further speed grandma’s afternoon slumber by telling her that your dinner represented something called “commensality” — the social context of eating and drinking. Yes, yawn! But bear with me.

Because food is such a basic and powerful symbol of human existence, its use as a symbol of social, religious, and political ideology is widespread. As one scholar notes, food and drink represent “a peculiarly powerful semiotic device,” something that can powerfully “[bear] the load of everyday cultural discourse.” Because food is so mundane, its role as a semiotic device transcends class and culture. But precisely because it is mundane we sometimes forget the meanings carried by food. A humble family meal, Thanksgiving dinner, fast food, ritual feasting, State banquets: all settings where food symbolizes something more than just nutrition.

December_2006_Standard_of_ur1The ancient Near East (my intellectual home) provides many examples of commensality. In the Mesopotamian “Early Dynastic” period (ca. 2900-2350 BC), for example, royal commensality — mega state feasts — was used to support the elite classes’ position in society: by emphasizing and elaborating social distinctions, reinforcing intra-group bonds, and distinguishing the elite group from others. Just such a mega-feast is shown on the famous Royal Standard of Ur.

Politically-motivated commensality probably seems like a world away from the experiences with food that exist in the lives of most contemporary Mormons. Mormons may be vaguely aware of ritual feasting in some biblical contexts (such as the annual Israelite festivals or the Last Supper, and of course the Jewish kashruth laws and the Word of Wisdom remind us of the religious dimension of food), but we make a mistake if we expect “ritual” feasting to carry overtly cultic signifiers. The diners at the court of Ur were probably not entirely aware of their participation in a social “ritual.” In the same way, Mormons are probably ignorant of the power of food and commensal rituals in their own religious lives.[1]

Elite commensality in the ancient Near East served to reinforce a social hierarchy. In the New Testament and Early Christianity, commensality appears to be more egalitarian, at least superficially. Communal eating was a feature of the Corinthian church, one designed to be shared by rich and poor Christians alike (although as 1 Cor 11 demonstrates, this did not always work out). The Lord’s Supper has covenantal value among believers who come together as rich and poor, black and white, male and female, to seal a renewed compact with Christ. Thus, Christian commensality seems of a different kind to the conspicuous consumption of the Near Eastern court.

And yet if we dig a little deeper we see that the Holy Communion (the Mormon “Sacrament”) does in fact draw borders between groups in a way akin to royal feasting. The uninitiated and the unworthy are not supposed to partake, and if they do, they do so with the realization that this is a ritual that is not rightfully theirs. The simple act of partaking of bread and wine (water) becomes a symbol of a spiritual “elite,” binding believers together and to God, and separating them from “the world.” It is also an act of redistribution, something the Mormon sacrament prayers make clear. God — the king at this banquet — is presented with gifts by his court (the believers): they promise to always remember him and to keep his commandments. He then promises to let them “have his Spirit to be with them,” the greatest of all Christian gifts. His glory becomes theirs: “this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39).

Of course, Mormon commensality is often much less lofty than this, but no less meaningful. The family table becomes the family altar, the place of communion for the “basic unit of society.”[2] The Ward Social, complete with pot-luck dinner, is a delightfully low-brow assertion of Mormon community. Even the staple foods — jello and funeral potatoes — whilst often mocked, have become fond symbols of Mormon culture, the culture of a “peculiar people,” “not of the world.” Food strengthens groups bonds and demarcates it from others. It’s as old as Ur.

Family reunion picnics, post-Priesthood Session ice-cream socials, and Thanksgiving dinners are further symbols of social communion. Food has even become a historical (and thus for Mormons, religious) hobby. Pioneer food is held in great reverence and Pioneer cookbooks grace many Mormon homes. The consumption of Pioneer food may make the Mormon closer to his literal or spiritual ancestors.[3] And interesting recipes involving cracked-wheat ready one’s belly for the coming day when survival will rely on the consumption of one’s prophetically-commanded food storage. Cracked-wheat parties as a Ward social? The anthropologists lick their lips.

A more formal, much expanded version of this stuff — complete with crazy Akkadian words — is being submitted to a volume on Mormon perspectives on ritual.

1. Meditations on Mormon food include Linda Hoffman Kimball (ed.), Saints Well Seasoned (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), and James Hill and Richard Popp, “Toward a Mormon Cuisine,” Sunstone, May 1988, 33-35.

A somewhat related topic are the food and feasting metaphors contained in Mormon scripture. See Richard Rust, “Taste and Feast: Images of eating and Drinking in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 33/4 (1993), 743-752.

2. See Janene Wolsey Baadsgaard, “Mealtime, Family Time,” Ensign, Sept. 1998, 22. President Ezra Taft Benson said, “mealtime provides a wonderful time to review the activities of the day and to not only feed the body, but to feed the spirit as well, with members of the family taking turns reading the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon” (“Strengthening the Family,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, 51).

3. In 1973, the youth of the church were shown how they can even reverently eat as Joseph Smith ate (Mary K. Stout, “From a Nauvoo Pantry,” New Era, Dec. 1973, 42). Recipes include potato pancakes and rusk.


  1. Ronan, you are a mind reader. Over the last week, we’ve had six meals with other families – friends from the ward, people we home teach, neighbors, a pizza party to watch the BYU football game – and just last night I was thinking about how much I’ve enjoyed being with all those people and how food was a part of the event. The simple act of breaking bread together signifies friendship.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    I like to remember that the Sacrament actually originated in the early Church as a part of an actual meal, called the agape or “love” feast.

    We attended a pizza party to watch the Las Vegas Bowl, too–probably a very Mormon occurrence.

    Ronan, tell us about this forthcoming volume–who is doing it and where will it be published?

  3. at AAR/SBL this year there was a whole session on eating at the tombs, apparently Roman Christians relatively early on began celebrating the Eucharist directly with their dead, at the site of their inhumation. Even without the explicit funerary overtones, I see the Eucharist as a sacred meal that binds the living to the dead as well as to each other.

    We go through phases, the wife and I, of wanting to begin to celebrate a fuller meal of communion but suspect we would soon be outed as religious freaks. I look forward to reading the full piece.

  4. Ronan, this is a wonderful post. Food is one of the major things my family does whenever we get together (preparation (with much fanfare) and the actual eating).

    I love the aspect of the Eucharist that is being discussed. I think that with the end of re-baptism and the casting of the sacrament as a re-baptism, much of the communal aspect of the ritual has waned. Zebedee Coltrin described the Sacrament of the Lord’s supper at the Kirtland School of Prophets:

    …the sacrament was also administered at times when Joseph appointed, after the ancient order that is, warm bread to break easy was provided and broken into pieces as large as my fist and each person had a glass of wine and sat and ate the bread and drank the wine; and Joseph said that was the way that Jesus and his disciples partook of bread and wine. (Minutes, Salt Lake City School of the Prophets, October 3, 1883 – Hat tip to Kris for sharing this with me).

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    My understanding is that when the GAs have the sacrament at their Thursday meetings, instead of tearing the bread into itsy bitsy pieces they tear it into quarters so that they have a more substantial piece.

  6. After fifty years of weekly church-going and sacrament-taking, my views were realigned recently by reading John 13-17 in light of our sacrament ordinance.

    A theme of Jesus’ words in that upper room where he introduces the ordinance of bread and wine was his hope for love and unity among his followers:

    “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

    “A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

    “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knows not what his lord does: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.”

    “These things I command you, that you love one another.”

    “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me. And the glory which you gave me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:”


    When young, I struggled with the instruction to “remember Jesus” during the sacrament. I knew only so much and could repeat it in my mind only so many times before wandering to other thoughts or fidgeting. Now I am remembering his words and his hopes for his saints. Our itsy piece of bread isn’t much of a meal with our fellow-saints, but we can use it to ponder our common journey and remind us of the love our Savior would have us feel for each other.

    Passing the tray along the bench is a fleeting service, but we can use that act to remember our Savior’s desire that we feed and otherwise succor each other.

    Some months ago, I inadvertently said aloud, “Thank you,” to the Deacon who handed my a tray. We don’t usually do that (as my wife reminded me). But we can think it, and think of all the other kindnesses shown by our fellow saints as we participate in the meal that Jesus wanted his disciples to share with each other.

  7. the 1835 D&C, section 101, urges that marriages among the LDS occur at a “public meeting, or a feast.” I think that’s Cowdery’s articles of marriage, but i’m feeling too lazy to go check. i miss the great feasts of the near east. our Georgian friends (caucasus) love to tell us about wedding and funeral feasts there that stretch for 2-3 days. As soon as you wake at the table from your wine-enhanced slumber, there’s another plate of food waiting for you. now that’s community.

  8. This year our ward did the very Unconventional thing for Christmas. We had a ward Christmas Breakfast Party.

    All you can eat breakfast followed by a family christmas skit and a special appearance by Alvin and Chipmucks (assisted by a cannister of helium.)

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    A meaningless aside to follow:

    I just got back from my sister’s. I see her a couple times a year – she lives a few hours away. Anyway – we had with our ham some red jello with assorted fruit suspended (I’m never sure how this is done – wouldn’t the fruit sink to the bottom of the unset gelatin?) (scrumptious, btw), and,- significantly,- potatoes. As the potatoes come to the table, I’m astonished to hear Corinne announce “these are the funeral potatoes.” Here’s the strange thing: in spite of being raised in the church, in the Western U.S., until the Mormon brackets bit I’d never heard of funeral potatoes. And now, within days, funeral potatoes again! And from a member of my immediate family, no less! Hey, I’ve read the Celestine Prophecy and some CG Jung – what’s the chance that this is only coincidence? Clearly God is trying to tell me something!


  10. I think that the term “funeral potatoes” came from women my age (48) or so. Our own mothers used to make funeral potatoes and take them to everything, and it was a joke with women in my age, who would have been too cool and hip, we thought, to do such a thing. I think we were probably also the ones that started the jokes about jello– at least my mother took the jello salads seriously and got a bit cranky when I would tell her they were tacky. But now even KSL’s cooking segment on the news has done a bit on funeral potatoes (which we’ll be having for dinner here in awhile.) To make the jello salad with the fruit in it you let the jello set up for awhile, but not all the way, then add the fruit, if I remember right. I may make funeral potatoes now, but I draw the line at jello salads.

  11. Your mention of “conspicious consumption” caught my eye as I am getting more and more concerned about the effects it is having on our planet. But I won’t write my whole rant here. Why read the book when you can see the movie…