Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Festivals and Feasts

Festivals and Feasts, in secular society, communal celebrations involving carefully planned programs, outpourings of respect, rejoicing, or high revelry, established by custom or sponsored by various cultural groups or organizations. Such secular celebrations differ from religious festivals and feasts in that the focus is not on the significance of the rituals of holy days of a particular faith but on the public honoring of outstanding persons, the commemoration of important historical or cultural events, or the re-creation of cherished folkways. In some parts of the world, however, particularly in Latin America and southern Europe, traditional secular festivities follow attendance at religious services.
The origin of communal celebration is a matter of conjecture. Folklorists believe that the first festivals arose because of the anxieties of early peoples who did not understand the forces of nature and wished to placate them. General agreement exists that the most ancient festivals and feasts were associated with planting and harvest times or with honoring the dead. These have continued as secular festivals, with some religious overtones, into modern times.
The beginnings of many secular celebrations are linked to historic happenings. Noteworthy examples include the discoveries of Christopher Columbus and other early navigators and the creation of new, independent nations from former colonies. A particular event may spontaneously generate a national festival, celebrated only that one time, as in the case of the coast-to-coast jubilation over the January 20, 1981, release of the American hostages after 444 days of captivity in Iran. The nationwide manifestation of relief and joy was a festival of freedom.
Secular festivals and feasts have many uses and values beyond the public enjoyment of a celebration. In prehistoric societies, festivals provided an opportunity for the elders to pass on folk knowledge and the meaning of tribal lore to younger generations. Festivals celebrating the founding of a nation or the date of withdrawal of foreign invaders from its borders bind its citizens in a unity that transcends personal concerns. Modern festivals and feasts centering on the customs of national or ethnic groups enrich understanding of their heritage. Contemporary festivals related to regional developments, such as westward expansion on the North American continent, aid the local economy by attracting visitors to a pageant of historic authenticity that also fulfills an informal educational function.
An infinite variety of harvest festivals exists in every hemisphere. Harvest and thanksgiving festivals are an inheritance from the ages when agriculture was the primary livelihood. Among the most attractive are the harvest-home festivals of England where parish churches are decorated with flowers, fruits, and vegetables in the fall, and harvest suppers climax a happy event. A popular type of harvest festival in the United States is that featuring a special crop, such as the National Cherry Festival in July in Michigan. Exhibitions of flowers are among the most beautiful of harvest festivals. Outstanding is the international Floralies held throughout the summer every five years since about 1837 in Ghent (Gent), Belgium. The festival traces its origins to the Roman Floralia, a spring rite honoring the goddess Flora. In 1980 the Floralies was held in North America for the first time, in Montréal, Canada, under the auspices of the International Association of Horticultural Producers.
Days of thanksgiving are celebrated in many lands and at various times of the year. Thanksgiving Day, as celebrated in the United States, now a traditional family feast, is the nation’s oldest celebration of gratitude, dating from the early 17th century. Canada’s Thanksgiving holiday is held on the second Monday in October. The Virgin Islands observe a Thanksgiving Day (October 25) to rejoice in the end of the hurricane season.
The most important festivals of respect honor the dead. Such festivals have been observed for centuries, and many modern peoples continue age-old customs to honor national heroes and the deceased members of their own immediate family groups. In the Far East the festivals of the dead include family reunions and ceremonial meals at ancestral tombs. Mexicans observe November 2 as El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with celebrations in cemeteries made colorful by offerings of flowers, earthen pots of food, toys, and gifts, along with the burning of candles and incense. In the United States the custom of honoring dead heroes on special days began in 1868 with the decorating of the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War. A quiet tone is characteristic of the approach to the general Memorial Day and the Confederate Memorial Day celebrated at different times in different southern states (see Memorial Day). Both community and family observances reflect a spirit of reverence and remembrance.
The timing of seasonal festivals is determined by the solar and the lunar calendars and by the cycle of the seasons. The Chinese New Year, set by the lunar calendar, and celebrated for an entire month in late January or February, is a time of gaiety, parades, and theatrical performances. Many other kinds of seasonal festivals are celebrated, ranging from the Québec Winter Carnival, usually held in February, to Beach Day (December 8), marking the beginning of the beach season in Uruguay. Historic customs are often perpetuated in seasonal festivals. An example is Homstrom (celebrated first Sunday in February), an old Swiss festival exulting in the end of winter with the burning of straw people as symbols of the end of Old Man Winter. The most famous of seasonal festivities, set by the church calendar, but secular in tone, are the pre-Lenten carnivals of Europe and Latin America and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana.
National festivals are official observances of such events as the confederation of the provinces of Canada (see Canada Day), the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the United States (see Independence Day), the adoption of a constitution, as in Japan (May 3), or the origin of the world’s oldest national flag, as in Denmark (June 15). Closely allied to this type of festival are victory celebrations. An example of an outstanding victory festival is the Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican commemoration of their defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. This festival is observed not only in Mexico but also in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities with large Mexican-American populations.
Another important type of festival is the commemorative day, celebrated since ancient Greek and Roman times, when rulers as well as gods were honored. Planned programs in the United States annually offer respect to presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., on or about their birthdays. Ecuador and Venezuela honor the birth of the revolutionary statesman Simón Bolívar, the “George Washington of South America,” on July 24. Festivals honoring the Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson, who discovered Vinland, are held on October 9 in Iceland and Norway and in the United States in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Gandhi Jayanti is a festival held in India on the birthday (October 2) of Mohandas K. (“Mahatma”) Gandhi. An honor roll assembled from worldwide commemorative days would be impressive.
Cultural festivals are popular throughout the world. Kalevala Day (February 28) in Finland is the occasion for parades and ceremonials dedicated to the Finnish national epic the Kalevala and to its 19th-century editor-compiler, the scholar Elias Lönnrot. The most famous annual festival in Wales is the Royal National Eisteddfod (see Eisteddfod) held in August to honor the finest talent in Welsh literature and music. Austria holds the annual summer Salzburg Festival of music, and Hawaii has its spectacular Aloha Festival pageantry in October and November. In addition to these examples, film, art, dance, children’s, and theatrical festivals crowd the calendars of many nations.
The festivals of many ethnic and national groups are credited with the preservation of unique customs, folktales, costumes, and culinary skills. An interesting recent development is the merging of the arts, lore, and customs of various regions in Africa in the cultural festival known as Kwanzaa (Swahili kwanza,”beginnings”). Introduced from Africa into the United States in 1977, this festival is celebrated with feasts and songs in the home for seven days and nights from December 26 to January 1. The African colors, green for the future and black for struggle, are prominently displayed. Parents play the key role in this celebration, which stresses family unity and cultural self-determination, responsibility, purpose, creativity, and faith.
Communal feasts, as occasions for eating, drinking, and merrymaking, have a long recorded history, going back to early Greece. The most famous contemporary eating and drinking festivity is the Oktoberfest, which has been held in Germany annually since October 17, 1810, the wedding day of the future King Louis I of Bavaria. It is a fall festival celebrating the best in beer, food, and entertainment.
Halloween, associated historically with All Hallows’ Eve, is now, in the United States, primarily a “trick or treat” secular festival for children. Formerly, the fun centered on playing tricks on unwary neighbors. Changing attitudes in communities resulted in Halloween becoming an occasion for small children, usually garbed in costume, to go from house to house for treats. Older children still participate, but many forfeit treats to collect funds for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
As societies change, the characteristics of their traditional festivals and feasts may alter also; new ones often emerge as others decline in popularity. Most likely, however, some festivals will remain unaltered for generations. For participants they are a tonic. For observers they offer a nostalgic experience. Certainly communal celebration—in its various forms—is part of the life-style of all peoples and makes a contribution to the living history of modern civilization.

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