Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

What Makes a “Holiday”? A Theory of Festivity

December 18, 2018


The twentieth-century philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) explored this question seriously in a book called In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. He noticed that a lot of philosophical thinking about celebrations and festivities was shallow and wrong.

For example, Jean Jacques Rousseau had claimed a couple of centuries earlier: “Plant a flower-decked pole in the middle of an open place, call the people together—and you have a fête!” Pieper, I think right, regarded this as a “naïve simplification.” Rousseau simply didn’t know how festivities worked. So what does make an occasion festive? What makes something a holiday?

Pieper puts the matter directly: “On what grounds does a specific event become the occasion of our festival and celebration? Can we festively celebrate the birth of a child if we hold with Jean Paul Sartre’s dictum: ‘It is absurd that we are born’? Anyone who is seriously convinced that ‘our whole existence is something that would be better not being,’ and that consequently life is not worth living, can no more celebrate the birth of his child than any other birthday.” And so Pieper will argue that we can only celebrate anything if we recognize that reality is good: that birthdays are good, that weddings are good, that these moments in our life are causes for joy. In other words, only if we have a true ground of thanksgiving.

And he shows this by contrasting two extreme figures: Sisyphus and the holy martyr. 

Sisyphus is a figure from Greek mythology. He regularly played tricks upon the gods, especially the god of death Hades. Eventually, he’s punished for eternity, and his punishment consists in rolling a boulder up a hill every day, only to helplessly watch it roll back down again.

Albert Camus (1913-60), the French philosopher, was of the view that our entire life was like that. In his view, there is no God, there is no meaning in the universe, and we work and toil and suffer and strive, and don’t really get anywhere, and then we die. Camus’ view of the world is captured by the name of the school of philosophy he started: absurdism. So you might think that this absurd view of reality would be depressing…and you would be right. In fact, Camus argued that “there is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” But Camus’ view is that, if we don’t decide to kill ourselves, we commit to the absurdity of life, and we might as well enjoy it. Here’s how he puts it:

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

So that’s one vision: Sisyphus, convincing himself to smile, convincing himself that he’s happy. And this, frankly, is one view of festivity: that it’s about telling ourselves that we’re happy.

But there’s another view, radically different than the first: the martyr, the person who dies for what is right, particularly the one who dies for his faith. Pieper notes at the outset that such a person doesn’t seem like they would be happy:

When we look at the martyr, it is by no means plain that he is affirming the world in spite of everything; for after all, he is not instantly recognizable as a “martyr,” but as a defendant, a convict, a ridiculous eccentric—but above all as one who has been silenced. (Pieper 30-31)

And yet, if you think about the Church’s calendar, how many of the festivals, how many of the holidays, are about the death of a martyr? And so he concludes that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole” (Pieper 32).

This works in both directions; only if you acknowledge life as worth living and reality as good can you enjoy the small moments, and celebrate them festively; and in the other direction, our enjoyment of the small moments can often lead us to feel a love for life. Even Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged this, saying that “if it be granted that we say Yea to a single moment, then in so doing we have said Yea not only to ourselves, but to all existence.”

That’s a problem for Nietzsche, because as Pieper points out, this means that “there can be no more radical assent to the world than the praise of God” (Pieper 31). The ultimate “yes” to reality is a yes to our Creator.

You may have heard of the so-called “war on Christmas,” in which some people are annoyed at the phrase “Merry Christmas” and want the more secular-sounding “Happy Holidays,” (even though we all know which holiday we really mean). But here’s the thing: “holiday” comes from “holy day,” because so many of the holidays we care about are religious holy days. Consider the holiday of Thanksgiving. If we’re thankful on Thanksgiving, just who are we thanking?

The first thanksgivings were clear about who they were thanking. Whether we’re talking about the Spaniards’ first Thanksgiving Mass in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, or the Pilgrims’ more famous Thanksgiving in 1621, these were specifically religious acts of giving thanks to God. To be certain, there have always been plenty of others to thank, as well: for example, there likely wouldn’t have been any Pilgrims around to celebrate the 1621 Thanksgiving but for the gracious assistance of the Wampanoag Indians. So the specifically religious act of thanking God never came at the expense of thanking neighbor. But it’s this aspect of thanking God that is at the center of the holiday, and Thanksgiving just doesn’t make sense without it.

And so even the official governmental proclamations of Thanksgiving have historically used deeply religious language. Abraham Lincoln created the modern holiday of Thanksgiving, and his proclamation opened with these words:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God.

After enumerating many of the blessings that the country had faced that year—right in the midst of the Civil War!—Lincoln said: “No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

That’s the message of Thanksgiving, and in a way, it’s the message of all holidays: reality is good, because our Creator is good. So we take specific moments and specific occasions to celebrate specific aspects of this, in the way that we might point out some detail in a painting that we admire.

There are two final points that I want to make in discussing the holiday. One of the negative stereotypes of religion—and of religious people—is that of the joyless expression of the dour-faced pilgrim. For example, there’s a trend of “Puritan Christmas cards” online, imagining what Puritans might say in Christmas cards, if they celebrated the holiday (which they didn’t—Oliver Cromwell, the only dictator in the history of England, actually outlawed Christmas on account of it being too Catholic). One of them says “you make my heart dance…and dancing is forbidden.” Another: “I thought to write you a love poem. For that thought I have beaten myself with a rough branch each night hence.” And so one of the questions that everyone, religious or otherwise, should think about is what’s the relationship between religion and festivity? As we’ve seen in our brief exploration of the question, it’s only in religion that festivities truly make sense. No surprise then that the culture can be parasitical on religious holidays (like Christmas and Easter) but the attempts to create secular holidays (like Labor Day or Earth Day) fall embarrassingly flat.

The second is that Thanksgiving is the eve of a new season. If you follow the world, it’s the seasons of materialism and capitalism, buying and buying and buying and eating and eating and eating, and doing all of the things that we love to do but more, and that this finally culminates with Christmas Day on December 25th, and we all sort of breathe a sigh of relief. After all, we can’t sustain that pace. So we might have a stray holiday party or two, but the season is over. And so Christmas Day marks the end of the Christmas season.

But the Church offers an alternative, saying “that’s all wrong!” In this view, we’re about to enter into the season of Advent. The Catechism explains that in Advent, the Church “makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’” Just as you tidy up for a party, and tidy up a lot for an important party, the birthday of Christ himself, his visit to each and every one of us, should motivate us to clean house. And cleaning house involves throwing out our old sins, and making space for Christ to come in.