Words from the Wise: A theory of festivity

David Turner comments on our cultural obsession with being festive.



David Turner comments on our cultural obsession with being festive. | Lena Smith/THE CHIMES

David Turner, Writer

David Turner comments on our cultural obsession with being festive. | Lena Smith/THE CHIMES

One of the things about us humans is that we are a festive bunch. We like to celebrate, and we celebrate all sorts of things — college degrees, the birth of a child, a new job and the weekend. You name it and we find a way to be festive with it. We even have festivals for strawberries and lobsters. And we are now in the season of Christmas, yet another time marked by festivity and revelry in lights, gifts, carols, repast, “white elephants” and funny sweaters. While opportunities to exercise your festal spirit will be in plenty these next few weeks, have you ever considered whether you are good at being festive?


That question does seem a bit odd, doesn’t it? Isn’t festivity just something we do, not something to think about? You might be right. Nothing muffles the wassail more than someone who wants to analyze it. Even so, I’ve found a measure of genuine cheer during the holidays by reflecting on festivity.

A few years ago, I came across a book that offered some wisdom on this topic: Josef Pieper’s, “In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity.” Pieper calls attention to the element of affirmation in festivity. Affirmation, he says, is an essential part of festivity. It involves saying yes to some aspect of creation by celebrating something that has already occurred or something that is still hoped for. That notion of affirmation seems to fit nicely with Advent. We look back to the coming of Christ in Jesus, and we look forward to when he will come again.

But affirmation also occurs in a broad range of human activities: at the Sundance Film festival with movies, at Coachella with music and during the summer in Maine with lobsters. In each of these festal occasions, people are seized by good and affirm, celebrate and praise it. Another way of saying it is this: Festivity is a time when people attribute worth to objects. Our human tendency for festivity, it turns out, signals our human tendency for “worth-ship,” or worship. But in our festivity we must tread carefully with these objects in creation, for these are ornamental parts of life, capable of giving enormous pleasure and celebration, yet nevertheless subordinate to the giver of these gifts.


Pieper has helped me to be mindful that occasions for festivity are opportunities for worship. The enrichments of Christmas should be festive opportunities to affirm what is good in creation. Such festivity will range from distinctly religious activities such as lighting Advent candles and singing carols to more “earthly” activities such as giving presents, decorating trees and sipping eggnog. All of these are occasion to direct praise to God by saying yes to his unnecessary gifts in creation.

Might I suggest you ennoble your worship to the giver of good gifts this Christmas by taking time to look for areas in his creation you can affirm? Let your festivity include singing carols loudly with others, clinking goblets full of delicious drink, staring at a beautifully decorated tree, sitting in a room full of lit candles, listening to Handel’s “Messiah,” reading aloud with friends one of your favorite Christmas stories, carving ornaments from blocks of wood and taking walks in the quiet of the night. This way of being festive puts us in tune with creation, which in turn produces praise, renewal and genuine cheer. 

0 0 votes
Article Rating