Friday, October 15, 2010

Ancient Celebration

It’s deceptively light and easy, this word “celebration.” It rolls around inside our heads and flows frivolously off our tongues, carrying with it images of joyous gatherings and popping champagne corks. It forms the happy face bookends to segments in our lives—or those of others: expectant beginnings, poignant endings. Ultimately, it is a social act, one that validates shared beliefs and values. It is something that we can do alone but choose to do with others, drinking in the emotional impact that only collective communion can give us. Celebration provides us with the opportunity to escape the humdrum of our daily existence, taking us into multi-sensory, fresh experiences. In doing so, we satisfy many of our higher human needs: social contact and acceptance, the exploration of knowledge, and the pursuit of aesthetically pleasing imagery. We come away refreshed and fulfilled, our thirst satiated until the next opportunity comes along.

But why do we so enthusiastically embrace these opportunities? In short, because we are programmed to party. Scientists have discovered that humans seek out ritual activities. For example, we like to associate ourselves with sacred symbols, whether they are religious icons or football team logos. We act differently when in sacred spaces, whether they are churches or hockey arenas. We recognize and respect the differences between formal activities and casual ones, whether they are weddings or picnics. We appreciate traditions, whether they are ancient costumes or social customs. We are less stressed when participating in repetitive or rule-governed activities, whether they are daily ablutions or the controlled nine innings of a baseball game. Finally, we respond with emotion to human performance, and the more emotion generated, the more our decisions and actions are influenced. When all of these components of ritual coalesce in just the right way as in a well-executed celebration, we overcome social distance and are more inclined to take group action.

Emile Durkheim, sometimes regarded as the founder of sociology, first theorized that performing rituals created and sustained “social solidarity.” Anthropologist Victor Turner further defined the communal spirit generated by social groups participating in rituals with the term communitas. He discussed this concept in his many writings but one statement best explained it. “Is there any one of us who has not known this moment when compatible people—friends, congeners—obtain a flash of lucid mutual understanding on the existential level, when they feel that all problems, not just their problems, could be resolved….?”

It did not take long for our ancestors to discover this universal human trait and for leaders to use it to convey messages to their own people and to the rest of the world. Two powerful examples should serve to illustrate the extremes to which leaders—both modern and ancient—have gone to send messages in this form. In 2008, China’s leaders reportedly spent in excess of US $40 billion to stage a political coming-of-age party, the Summer Olympics, including over $100 million on the Opening Ceremonies. In addition, sixty-three companies spent an average of over US $70 million each to be a part of the message. Broadcasting giant NBC alone spent $894 million. Almost twenty-three hundred years earlier, King Ptolemy II of Egypt spent the equivalent of over US $200 million to stage a single dinner as part of a large festival that demonstrated the power of Egypt to the world, and supposedly hundreds of times that to stage what might very well have been the most extravagant parade ever seen.

History is rife with spectacular events and all have something to tell us. Indeed, many were defining moments for the civilizations that spawned them. Over the coming months, I will review a lot of these and discuss what made them special and what their legacy was.

I hope you enjoy this journey.


  • Rabinovitch, S. (Aug. 5, 2008). Beijing Games to be costliest, but no debt legacy. Reuters. Retrieved November 24, 2008, from
  • LeMay, Paul. (April 17, 2008). The corporate bottom line comes to the Olympics. The Vancouver Sun. p. A19.
  • Karecki, M. (1997). Discovering the Roots of Ritual. Missionalia.
  • Alcorta, C.S. and Sosis, R. (2005). Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Human Nature, Winter 2005, Vol.16, No.4. pp. 323-359
  • Guthrie, C. (2000). Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from
  • Durkheim, E. (1965). The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. New York: Free Press.
  • Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. pp. 44-48.

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