Timeless Memories and Shared Rites: the Importance of Celebrations


Every year, on the same date, at the same time, I stop my normal routine to focus on one single event: a celebration. It could be a birthday, the accomplishment of a milestone, a Remembrance Day, or a special situation that I want to remember.


Due to my cultural background -- born in South America under a heavy Christian and Catholic influence -- I am used to celebrating Christmas, Easter, Good Friday, and any other religious holiday we might have. With my family, we also celebrate western festivities such as New Year on the 1st of January, or our National Day. I have never questioned any of those events. On the contrary, I have always enjoyed them, even though the religious meaning of some celebrations has faded for me.


But, why do we celebrate? Why do we give some events a special place in our lives?


The Roaring 20s - New Years Eve Extravaganza [Photograph] https://365thingsinhouston.com/calendar/the-roaring-20s-new-years-eve-extravaganza-at-como-social-club/the-roaring-20s-new-years-eve-extravaganza/


The Origins


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "celebration" comes from the Latin celebratio(n-), from the verb celebrare, from celeber, ‘frequented or honored’, or ‘assemble to honor’. This takes us to approach the celebrations as something we honor, and the way we do so will depend on our cultural pocket, background, and personal taste; even when we share the dates as a social agreement, usually each individual participates in their particular way. Just as an example, I like to bite my birthday cake right after I blow out the candles. My sisters like to push my face into the cake right after I do my biting. And yes, we do that every single year.


The ‘assemble’ element in the meaning of celebration also leads us to an activity that might involve more than one person. The celebration, then, is collective and, in some cases, it will be also public. And the element ‘frequented’ marks the intended repetition of the honoring action. Then, we can understand a celebration as the activity -- private or public, singular or collective -- of honoring something that we consider important.


Experts are uncertain about when was the first time the word celebration was used, but there are records from the mid-15th century, which indicates it gained popularity during this period. This does not mean there were a lack of festivities to commemorate special occasions before that period. Many ancient cultures had traditions and specific rituals to celebrate, and they were usually related to natural phenomenon. One example of this is the Winter Solstice.


The Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, it generally takes place between December 20th and 23rd and marks the beginning of the winter season. With only a few hours of light, the darkest day of the year used to be welcomed with fire and light, making those elements an important symbol of its celebration.

Archaeologists have theorized about the origin of this tradition, placing it around the year 10,200 BC during the last part of the Stone Age, where men started to observe nature and its cycles. As a testimony of those beginnings there are some Neolithic monuments, like Stonehenge, which was built toward the Winter Solstice sunset. Here, people would gather to hold rituals to capture the sun on the shortest day of the year.


The Winter Solstice and Stonehenge [Photograph] www.stonehengetours.com


Another example of ancient celebration is Babylonia’s Akitu, a New Year multi-day festival to honor the rebirth of the natural world. This would have taken place around 2000 B.C. and it was a mixture of religious and mythological traditions. During these days, several rites were enacted, symbolizing the victory of their gods against the forces of chaos. The world would be cleansed and then recreated by them in preparation for the return of spring. Some historians have also speculated that the festivities were used by the monarchy to perpetuate the divine origin of their kings -- and their divine right to have control over the people -- by an act of humiliation: the king had to be stripped of his royal regalia and would swear in front of the god Marduk that he had led the city with honor. Then, a high priest would slap him and drag the king by his ears. If the monarch cried, it was taken as a sign that Marduk was satisfied and, therefore, will extend the king’s rule.

Nature, religion, and politics were the central elements for celebration and the gravitational point to maintain tribes' or even civilizations' unity. The continuous celebration of the rituals on specific days or seasons originated customs and traditions. Some of them have disappeared, but we can still enjoy others that have been modified with the time to satisfy new beliefs -- like Halloween -- or to be accommodated to new social schemes.



Vintage Halloween costumes, early 20th century. [Photograph] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gallery/2016/oct/31/scary-vintage-halloween-costumes-in-pictures


Sharing Moments to Create Memories

Collective and public celebrations are common and well-received activities. Even if we do not share the same religious beliefs or if we are coming from a different country, we would probably enjoy the time off during Christmas or Boxing Day. Also, it would be normal to give a present or share a cake to celebrate someone else’s birthday. In one way or another, we have accustomed traditions to blend with our environment.


But celebrations do not always have to be shared. We can have our private celebrations or commemorations. Because the word celebration, even though it brings to our mind a joyful experience, does not always require balloons or fireworks. Sometimes, we also dedicate time to honor our past love ones, our fallen soldiers or our heroes, with solemn ceremonies or quiet days of reflection. Celebration then becomes a more personal and intimate moment.

Either way, the idea of celebration has an important effect on our lives. It makes us feel we belong to each other and also is a reminder that everything in our life is part of a cycle. We repeat certain rites to revive a myth, to bring a memory to life. It is also a powerful reminder of what we have accomplished: we celebrate the end of a milestone to encourage ourselves to go even further.


According to the research Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life (Emmons and McCullough, 2003), “people who cultivate a daily attitude of celebration and gratitude have more energy, less stress, and anxiety, are more likely to help others."

We are also able to create our own celebrations. And for sure, we do. Each individual has unique experiences, and each of those situations can be transformed into a celebration motive. We have the power to preserve our memories by creating personal rituals and transforming them into our very own traditions.

Every year, on the same date, I stop my normal routine to focus on one single event: the day I left my country and moved to the other side of the world looking for new opportunities and a better life. I usually celebrate it with my closest friend: we review how many years have passed and the highlights of this adventure. All the experiences we have collected during those years now are transformed into memories that we do not want to forget. They are our reminders of where we came from, who we were, and who we have become.


To me, living in another country and continuing to celebrate certain traditions from my homeland makes me feel as though I am still part of them. Same with my family. Every time we gather, our ties get stronger and it allows me to bring a piece of that family to my present. Space and time disappear for that moment -- a moment when a new memory is created, encapsulating loving feelings and joy that we can evoke in the future, on the same date, repeating the same rites.

Celebration goes far beyond drinking, having parties, or balloons; its meaning goes deeper than a recurrent gathering. Celebrations are what have kept cultures and traditions alive for centuries, they are what help us to create our identity, to reinforce our sense of community, and serve as a reminder of where we belong.




References:


  • Online Etymology Dictionary. At https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=celebrate

  • History Channel: Winter Solstice, 2017. At https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/winter-solstice

  • History Chanel: 5 Ancient New Years Celebrations. At https://www.history.com/news/5-ancient-new-years-celebrations

  • Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2003 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389


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Paula Arenas

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