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Blog

What is a festival?

Joy and Matthew Steem

picCookXmasLites131212wAdamsDorchester_0083w Cold is cold: the undersized parsnip-like fingers and toes of children offer no more resistance to Jack Frost’s ravages than anybody else’s. But still, there is something to the burning cold ears of winter days that makes Christmas special. Indeed, it was usually during those particularly nasty December nights that my folks would decide to go for a family stroll through the highly celebrated, candy-cane decorated, light bejeweled, oversized Charlie Brown blow-ups neighborhood of the city. The dazzling lights, sights and sounds distracted me from the sting of ice’s tongued lashes at my triple-sock layered toes. Singing Santas, dancing reindeer, plump penguins and jolly gingerbread people cookies abounded from yard to yard, all proclaiming “‘tis the season to be merry.”

Except one.

Near the end of the block was an acetic yard that boasted one solitary green flood light, casting a Spartan hue on a drab and droll snowman cut-out: “Keep Christ in Christmas,” it read in faded and boring black block print.

It was in front of that house in particular where I would be reminded of the gelid condition of my nose and toes. Fingers clinched inside my stinky little second-hand gloves, toes futilely furled inside too-big boots, and frozen bits of snot clinging around my chaffed nostrils, I never understood that snowman or his sign; it seemed he was trying to keep more out of Christmas than in it. He reminded me of the physical cold that all the other yards temporarily charmed me out of thinking about. Rather than seeing a protest to consumerism, I saw that snowman as a stolid, legalistic killjoy. I saw no invitation to a deeper, fuller and longer lasting refuge from the cold, whatever form it would take throughout my life. I never knocked on those peoples’ door and I most likely mistook their intentions, but I wonder how many other folks may have mistaken their intentions, too? What exactly were their intentions; I suspect maybe even they didn’t fully know.

Josef Pieper, the highly celebrated German Catholic philosopher of the 20th century, has much to say about our approach to festivals like Christmas. If I understand Pieper correctly, there is little room for a life of pure asceticism if Christ is our centre. For the believer, a festival is time taken off in celebration of something compellingly extraordinary and transcendent. Festival then, is not merely a time of vacating or ceasing from the daily tasks of utility; it is not just relief from labour meant to restore and reinvigorate us back to our employment; it is not a time to preoccupy ourselves out of true contemplation by giving ourselves to the consumptive force of consumerism; it is none of these things. Instead, we celebrate the festival of Christmas because the incarnation is the ultimate contrast to the cold of the world. On the metaphorical block of Christmas bedecked yards, ours is the most inviting one. Not because it is the most charming, but because it is the most lasting and real. It is the gloriously warm reminder that our meaning does not come from our ability to acquire things; it comes from the acknowledgement there is something intrinsically good about our God-breathed life. We have festivals because we have something to celebrate. So my prayer this season? That amidst the cold, our hearts will find the warmth of true festival that Pieper invites us to celebrate.

For more information on Pieper’s idea of festivity, a good place to start is In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity.