The Proper Way to Celebrate Holidays

According to a Nielsen survey conducted a few years ago, the 5th and 7th biggest beer-drinking holidays in America are Christmas and Easter respectively. That year, Americans consumed 59,393,752 cases of beer at Christmas and 53,458,630 cases on Easter. I find this strange because Christmas and Easter are the two seminal feasts on the Christian calendar, yet we are living in the most secular era of American history to date. Are Christians buying most of this brew? Is beer an integral component of religious celebrations? Is this simply a function of all holidays being hijacked by shameless advertisers? Perhaps most importantly, what does a holiday mean now? As is so often the case, history provides an indispensable context in which to consider these questions today.

The people of the ill-named “Dark Ages” had an understanding of the word “holiday” that illuminates it and sets it in stark contrast to supposedly enlightened American notions about holidays. The word holiday derives from the Old English term “halig daeg” meaning “holy day” or “Sabbath.” In the fourteenth century, the word had the connotation of both a religious festival and a day of recreation. The latter word is also interesting. A halig daeg was a day for re-creation, being created again. But, what is a festival? In Roman times, the festivalis was associated with particular public ceremonies performed at the temple. The word “festival” is related to the word “feast” which in 1200 AD meant a religious anniversary characterized by rejoicing. This is why the Liturgical Calendar is filled with “feast” days when we Catholics recall with joy and gratitude the many heroic lives and poignant events of our shared past.

Given the acumen of medieval monks in the high art of potent potables, it is not difficult to imagine a good deal of tippling going on at such celebrations. Yet, what strikes me is the link between festivals and religious ceremonies from Roman times down to our own. This fact provokes two questions. First, how is it that we find this odd overlap between the secular and the sacred in our own time when the secular is often advanced to the point of excluding the sacred? We do not allow religious expressions in the public square, but the public square has found a profitable use for religious holidays. Give people a reason to buy beer at a reasonable price and, apparently, they will do so with gusto. A second question is what does a holiday mean in America today?

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Plato might be a good place to begin. In Laws, his last text, Plato has this to say about festivals:
But the gods, in their compassion for the hardships incident to our human lot, have appointed the cycle of their festivals to provide relief from this fatigue, besides giving us the Muses, their leader Apollo, and Dionysus to share these festivals with us and keep them right, with all the spiritual sustenance these deities bring to the feast. (653d)
The phrase “keep them right” is integral to understanding not only what a holiday is, but how it ought to be observed. I will consider this phrase a bit later in this essay. The words “spiritual sustenance” point to an explicit link between festivity and religious activity. Indeed, festivals are divinely appointed for the good of humanity who, without such occasions, become exhausted with the vicissitudes and necessary disciplines of life. Still, what does all of this have to do with beer?

For this question, I turned to German philosopher Josef Pieper, who gave much thought to festivity, particularly in a wonderful book called In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Pieper asserts that festivity serves no utilitarian purpose. Instead, it is activity that is meaningful in itself (re-creation). Thus, festivity presupposes two things: first, a festival is not inactivity, simply a day off to spend slouched in a heap on the couch for hours on end, or meandering, bored, through clothing stores with no more intentionality than a dandelion seed on the wind. The second presupposition in Pieper’s thesis is that we know what activity meaningful in itself is.

Yet, Pieper doubts that we do know this. He contends that even a labor-free society cannot be festive because that liberation would be at a time when we no longer know, according to Hannah Arendt whom Pieper is quoting here, “of those other and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom deserves to be won.” Pieper’s reflections leave us wondering whether we are even capable of authentic festivity anymore. Is Christmas now just a day to tear open gifts, play with the kids a while, and end the day stuffed and half-drunk in the soft embrace of the La-Z-Boy? This is a markedly different theory of festivity than that of pagan antiquity and medieval Christendom.

Festivity: A “Yes” to All That Is
Humanity finds many good reasons to celebrate: a marriage, a new baby, graduation, landing the job. But, Pieper asserts that festivity is different than mere celebration. It goes deeper.
Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself … everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist.
In this context, beer has its rightful place in feasting. Without this context, the festal occasion is reduced to a mere pretext for guzzling beer. There is little joy in it. Are the consumers of those 60 million cases of brew consciously affirming “the reality of things?” How many are drinking alone, even among family? Or, worse, because of the brokenness of the family? It seems that Americans often celebrate holidays in a way that suggests a fleeing from reality, rather than a joyful affirmation of it. Such celebrating is not authentically festive at all.

New Year’s Eve particularly strikes me as a time when a sort of horror vacui rears its head like a fearsome specter over the people of this nation. There is a degree of frenzy in the feasting, a collective, “Whew!” released to the heavens, after a year of holding one’s breath in a nihilistic expectation of the worst. So often on this holiday, I have heard the exclamation around 12:01 am, “Well, we made it!” “Did you ever have serious doubts?” I often silently wonder in response, smiling wryly while tipping my glass, joyfully imbibing another delightful draught from my pint o’ Guinness. What I want to say in response is this: “And, suppose you hadn’t made it another year? After all, at some point you won’t. Does that negate the whole thing for you? Are you ‘stress drinking,’ like Jason after narrowly passing through Rock Wandering, or like Noah who miraculously escaped the flood? Or, are you raising the glass gladly, giving exuberant thanks for the gift of life, however many years it lasts?” The man celebrating an escape, like Jason or Noah, gets drunk to relieve the tension. The man who is truly feasting, or feasting truly, is already drunk. The authentically festive man is, in a sense, inebriated with the joy of being. The celebration, whatever particular circumstance engendered it, is simply the communal manifestation of that deep joy which cries out, “Yes! It is good to exist!”

As I mentioned earlier, Plato’s phrase regarding the presence of deities at festivals to “keep them right” attests to the fact that festivals, because of their religious quality, ought to be celebrated according to certain rubrics. Authentic festivals are not free-for-alls organized for the purpose of drunkenness and debauchery (though such did occur during some ancient festivals). Such activity can hardly be seen as meaningful in itself or as an affirmation of all that is. Instead, it bespeaks a kind of tortured despair lying just below the surface of man’s daily life. This is not because there is anything inherently wrong in pleasure. Pieper describes pleasure as “agreeable enough in itself and springing from sheer vitality.” C. S. Lewis noted that God has attached pleasure to things that are good for us, such as eating, bathing and, let’s not be afraid to admit it, sex. Yet, when pleasure itself is the goal, it becomes charged with a desperate frenzy, the tenor of escape; it becomes the opposite of joyful affirmation.

The “Non-Assent” to Life
Celebrating in this manner is not festive at all and becomes what Pieper calls a “non-assent.” But, this “non-assent” to life and all that is good can be hidden under the guise of legitimate pleasure, so that, as Pieper claims, “the rejection remains for a while hidden even from the self.” Further, “this rejection may be concealed behind the façade of a more or less sham confidence in life.” Thus, festival requires a proper orientation, what we generally call a rite; otherwise, it devolves into solitary, joyless bingeing, regardless of how many people are in the room. We must look beyond the Christmas lights toward our heavenly lights.

A folk duo called The Indigo Girls wrote a song that was wildly popular in the ’80s called “Closer to Fine”:
I went to a bar at 3:00am
Seeking solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
But I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
And I went in seeking clarity
These lines capture the essence of “non-assent,” of the inversion of festive affirmation into a desperate, solitary attempt to escape the horror vacui, the fear of empty or silent spaces. Confusion and a bad headache await those who view holidays merely as a break in the grinding daily routine, an opportunity to numb themselves to the pain caused by the cavernous vacuity they sense at the core of their being. “Most men lead lives of silent desperation,” Thoreau famously observed. Why else do people seem to be getting more and more angry? It seems that most holidays are celebrated this way in America today, although why religious holidays have become part of this great “non-assent” is unclear.

With all of this in mind, it’s probably no coincidence that suicides increase at Christmas. Escapism is not true festivity, and it never works. Unlike festival, a communal assent to life, escapism (“non-assent”) leaves man with arbitrary and highly transitory “partying” resulting in deeper isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this is because the loss of true festivity means also the loss of a sense of wonder and awe, the possibility of a “something behind” the circumstance of any particular celebration, what Luigi Giussani might have called the religious sense. Affirming a supernatural reality, and man’s participation in it, was the defining quality of festivity in the classical and medieval worlds, its raison d’être. The senseless partying that takes place all over the country at Christmas is a devastating substitute for the true Feast of the Nativity, despite its outward similitude to festivity. While Christians rejoice at the Light of the World, our secular counterparts plunge themselves ever deeper into the darkness of moral relativism, practical atheism, and the transitory pleasures of baubles and beer.

Affirmation of creation assumes, in some fashion, reverencing a Creator. Music, dancing and drinking beer may be a part of festivity. But these things do not constitute the festival itself. They are the expressions of a much deeper movement of the heart and mind toward a universal “Yes!” to all that is. Reducing a holiday, especially a religious holiday, to a mere pretext for a “bender” is not festal. A rightly festive man might become a bit drunk at a festival, but if he does it will be the result of spontaneous and joyful exuberance, not an achieved goal. It will be the result of a joyful forgetfulness of himself in the loving company of others, not a doomed attempt to escape himself and his crushing sense of isolation which, by no coincidence, peaks at the time of feasts celebrating God’s most direct interaction with Man. Man’s joy is proportionate to his freedom. And, man is most free when he can face reality and be swept up in the great symphony of creation. This is the essence of festivity.

The following opening lines from a poem titled Forth Feasting, by seventeenth-century Scottish poet William Drummond capture well the joy, wonder, and affirmation of true feasting.
What blustring Noise now interrupts my Sleepe?
What echoing Shouts thus cleave my chrystal Deep?
And call mee hence from out my watrie Court?
What Melodie, what Sounds of Joy and Sport,
Bee these heere hurl’d from ev’rie neighbour Spring?
With what lowd Rumours doe the Mountaines ring?
Which in unusuall Pompe on tip-toes stand,
And (full of Wonder) over-looke the Land?
Whence come these glittring Throngs, these Meteors bright,
This golden People set unto my Sight?
Whence doth this Praise, Applause, and Love, arise?
What Load-starre east-ward draweth thus all Eyes?
May God bless us, every one, as we make our way toward that great Feast of Light. May our rejoicing be sincere, our joy be lasting, our pints ever brimming!

Editor’s note: The above image is a detail from “The Prior’s Feast” painted by William Strutt (1825-1915).


  • Tom Jay

    Tom Jay is Academy Dean at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also teaches Latin I to fifth graders. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas and also holds a Master in Humanities with a Concentration in Classical Education from UD.

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