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Fight for Your Right to Party

4 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

When it comes to the holidays, I’m like the little old lady in the well-worn joke. She goes to a restaurant, finishes her meal, then presents the waiter with two complaints: one, the food was awful, and, two, there wasn’t enough of it.

Call me a purist, but as Christmas approaches, it’s worth noting that the ancient and traditional idea of a holiday did not include attempted murders over PlayStation 3 or CNN advisories on how to beat “holiday stress.” According to anthropologists, human festivities–probably going back to the Paleolithic era–featured the universal ingredients of feasting, dancing, costuming, masking and/ or face painting, for days at a time. These things didn’t happen indoors, within the family circle, but around bonfires, in the streets or on the “dancing grounds” of prehistoric civilizations. Holidays bonded whole communities together, not just families.

Few, if any, cultures have ignored the human imperative to celebrate. When 18th and 19th century European explorers fanned out across the globe, they found colorful and ecstatic festivities everywhere–among the hunter-gatherers of Australia and the North American plains, the horticulturists of Polynesia, the village peoples of India. Recently discovered cave art from England shows what the archaeologists call “conga lines” of female dancers from at least 10,000 years ago.

From a modern, workaholic perspective, our partying ancestors were wasting precious time. Even supposedly nonjudgmental anthropologists can get a little antsy when they contemplate the caloric expenditure that went into assembling costumes, cooking up treats, crafting musical instruments and rehearsing dance steps, not to mention the festivity itself. In 15th century France, 1 out of 4 days of the year were given over to festivities, usually honoring saints’ days, while the English had, in addition, their “church ales,” wakes and fairs. Work was something you did when you had to. Holidays were what you lived for.

Most of these traditional festivities were religious, as Christmas still faintly is. But the line between religion and recreation can be a fuzzy one, since in so many religions–from ancient Dionysian worship to modern-day Brazilian Candomble and storefront Pentecostalism–the best way to contact the deity or deities is to get up and dance and sing and shout. The climax of the ritual celebration was not a drunken stupor but ecstatic union with the gods.

So why are we left with such wan and infrequent holidays today? The answer, simply put, is that in one historical setting after another, traditional celebrations were deliberately suppressed. The ancient Roman élite slaughtered worshippers of Dionysus with as much zeal as when, in later years, they went after Christians. Reformation Protestants criminalized carnival. Wahhabist Muslims, the ideological antecedents of al-Qaeda, battled ecstatic Sufism.

One reason for suppression was a fear that festivities could get out of hand and even lead to revolution. This fear was not unjustified: the carnival tradition helped fire up the French revolutionary crowds as well as uprisings of slaves and colonized peoples from the Caribbean to West Africa. When the Industrial Revolution took hold, holidays were eliminated in favor of the new work ethic: people were increasingly expected to labor all day, six days a week, and spend the Sabbath in sedentary prayer. A few traditional- style festivities survived–Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Rio and carnival in Cologne. But by and large, sometime in the past 300 years, the music stopped.

Yet something so deeply rooted in human culture is not easy to annihilate. The repressed just keeps on returning–in, for example, the rock ‘n’ roll “rebellion” of the ’50s and ’60s and what I call the “carnivalization” of sports events in the ’80s and ’90s, when fans began dressing in team colors and costumes, and performing dancelike activities like the “wave.” Then there are all the festivities that have emerged spontaneously: the Burning Man Festival, the Berlin Love Parade and Halloween as an occasion for grownup revelry. We seem to be impelled, almost instinctively and even in the absence of surviving traditions, to create occasions for communal joy.

So here’s my modest proposal for holiday reform. Forget the PlayStations, the Barbie-mobiles, the catalogs and camp-outs in Wal-Mart parking lots. Give, if you will, to the needy, and let the pine trees live. Instead, rent the local V.F.W. hall or a hotel ballroom, deck it with boughs of holly, and invite the entire town for a vast blowout. O.K., it won’t bring world peace. But if we have this primordial capacity for collective joy, why not put it to use?

Ehrenreich is an essayist and the author of the forthcoming book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy

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