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Where Do Festivals Come From?


During my preparations for a semester of studying abroad in Italy, I came across a list of the festivals celebrated annually in Rome and elsewhere. What struck me upon examining this list of festivals was the fact that the majority of them are religious festivals. Obviously, this is not the case for American culture, where many religious holidays have become secular holidays. Is festivity, then, inherently connected to worship or is this concept simply traditional to specific cultures?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a festival as “a day or period of celebration, typically a religious commemoration.” Furthermore, from the Latin festivus comes feast, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an annual religious celebration” or “a day dedicated to a particular saint.”

In Leisure, the Basis of Culture, the esteemed philosopher, Josef Pieper, asserts that the festival is akin to the act of worship:

The most festive festival that can be celebrated is religious worship or “cult”, and there is no festival that does not get its life from such worship or does not actually derive its origin from this. There is no worship “without the gods,” whether it be Mardi Gras or a wedding. This is not intended to be a prescription; rather, it is necessarily so. The statement is made with certainty: a festival that does not get its life from worship, even though the connection in human consciousness be ever so small, is not to be found.

Pieper points out that if a festival is used only as a break from work, it only exists for the sake of work. It is a celebration of work itself rather than the authentic celebration of blessings received. Similarly, if we rest merely for the sake of work or health, we do not experience true rest. Because our complete human existence is deeply rooted in worshipful celebration, our lives would be meaningless if the world of work claimed our entire human existence.

Celebrations which honor specific groups or events with no religious connotation aren't fully holidays. They're not the holy days for which festivals were intended. Holidays like Labor Day carry significantly less satisfaction and meaning than do religious festivals, because they are concerned with giving us mere "breaks" from our work, while days like Sundays and the Christmas season are specifically marked as times of worshipful festivity.

Worshipful festivity best fulfills the very purpose of human existence. And if culture thrives on worship, we must return to it.


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