By Tom Jay
According to a recent Nielsen survey, the 5th and 7th biggest beer-drinking holidays in America are Christmas and Easter respectively. Americans consume 59,393,752 cases of beer at Christmas and 53,458,630 cases on Easter. I find this strange because Christmas and Easter are the two seminal feasts on the Christian calendar, yet we are living in the most secular era of American history to date. Are Christians buying most of this brew? Is beer an integral component of religious celebrations? Is this simply a function of all holidays being hijacked by shameless advertisers? Perhaps most importantly, what is a holiday? The people of the ill-named Dark Ages had an understanding of this term that illuminates it and sets it in stark contrast to modern American notions about holidays.
The word holiday derives from the Old English term “halig daeg” meaning “holy day” or “Sabbath.” In the 14th century, the word had the connotation of both a religious festival and a day of recreation. The latter word is also interesting. A halig daeg was a day for re-creation, or being created again. But, what is a festival? In Roman times, the festivalis was associated with particular public ceremonies performed at the temple. The word “festival” is related to the word “feast” which c. 1200 meant a religious anniversary characterized by rejoicing. Given the acumen of medieval monks in the high art of potent potables, it is not difficult to imagine a good deal of tippling going on at such celebrations. Yet, what strikes me is the link between festivals and religious ceremonies from Roman times down to our own. This led me to two further questions. First, how is it that we find this odd overlap between the secular and the sacred in our own time when the secular is often advanced to the point of excluding the sacred? We do not allow religious expressions in the public square, but the public square has found a profitable use for religious holidays. Just give people a reason to buy beer at a reasonable price and they will do so apparently. A second question is what does a holiday mean in America today? I thought Plato might be a good place to begin. In Laws, his last text, Plato has this to say about holidays, or festivals:
But the gods, in their compassion for the hardships incident to our human lot, have appointed the cycle of their festivals to provide relief from this fatigue, besides giving us the Muses, their leader Apollo, and Dionysus to share these festivals with us and keep them right, with all the spiritual sustenance these deities bring to the feast. (653d)
The words “spiritual sustenance” again form an explicit link between festivity and religious activity. Indeed, festivals are appointed by the gods for the good of humanity who, without such occasions, become exhausted with the vicissitudes and necessary disciplines of life. Still, what does all of this have to do with beer?
For this question, I turned to a German philosopher named Josef Pieper, who gave much thought to leisure and festivity. He wrote a book called In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Pieper states that festivity serves no utilitarian purpose. Instead, it is activity that is meaningful in itself. Thus, festivity presupposes two things: first, a festival is not inactivity; second, we know what activity that is meaningful in itself is. Pieper doubts that we do know this. Pieper believes that even a labor free society cannot be festive because that liberation comes at a time when we no longer know, according to Hannah Arendt whom Pieper is quoting here, “of those other and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom deserves to be won.” Are we even capable of authentic festivity anymore? Or, is Christmas now just a day to tear open gifts, play with the kids a while, and end the day stuffed and half-drunk on the couch? This is a markedly different theory of festivity than that of the classical world.
Humanity finds many good reasons to celebrate; a marriage, a new baby, landing the job. But, Pieper asserts that festivity is different than mere celebration. It goes deeper.
Underlying all festive joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things and the existence of man himself… everything that is, is good, and it is good to exist. (p. 26)
In this context, beer has its rightful place in feasting. Without this context, the festal occasion is reduced to merely a pretext for guzzling beer. There is little joy in it. Are the consumers of these 60 million cases of brew consciously affirming “the reality of things?” It often seems that Americans celebrate holidays in a way that suggests a fleeing from reality. New Year’s Eve particularly strikes me as a time when a sort of horror vacui rears its head like a fearsome specter over the people of this nation. There is a degree of frenzy in the feasting as though a collective, “Whew!” is released to the heavens. So often on this holiday, I have heard the phrase, “Well, we made it!” “Was there ever really any doubt?” I often silently wonder in response, smiling wryly as I enjoy another delightful draught from my pint o’ Guinness. What I want to say in response is this: “And, suppose you hadn’t made it another year? After all, at some point you won’t. Does that negate the whole thing for you? Are you drinking like Jason who just made it through Rock Wandering, or Noah who narrowly escaped the flood? Or, are you raising the glass gladly, giving exuberant thanks for the gift of life, however many years it lasts?” The man celebrating an escape, like Jason or Noah, gets drunk to relieve the tension. The man who is truly feasting, or feasting truly, is already drunk. The authentically festive man is, in a sense, inebriated with the joy of being.
The classical link between festivity and religious ceremonies also indicates that festivals are celebrated according to certain rubrics. Authentic festivals are not free-for-alls organized for the purpose of drunkenness and debauchery. Such activity can hardly be seen as meaningful in itself or as an affirmation of all that is. Instead, it bespeaks a kind of tortured despair lying just below the surface of man’s daily life. There is nothing inherently wrong in pleasure. Pieper describes pleasure as “agreeable enough in itself and springing from sheer vitality.” Yet, when pleasure is charged with this desperate frenzy, the tenor of escape, it becomes the opposite of affirmation of life. It becomes what Pieper calls a “non-assent.” But, this “non-assent” to life and all that is good can be hidden under the guise of legitimate pleasure, so that, as Pieper claims, “the rejection remains for a while hidden even from the self.” Further, “this rejection may be concealed behind the façade of a more or less sham confidence in life.” Festival without rules or governing principles, what we might call tradition, devolves into solitary, joyless bingeing. A folk duo called the Indigo Girls wrote a song that was wildly popular a long time ago called “Closer to Fine:”
I went to a bar at 3:00am
Seeking solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
But I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
And I went in seeking clarity.
I think this captures the essence of “non-assent,” of the inversion of festive affirmation into a desperate attempt to escape the horror vacui, the fear of empty or silent spaces. Confusion and a bad headache await those whose celebration is an attempted escape from reality rather than a joyful affirmation of it. It seems to me that most holidays are celebrated in this fashion in America today, although why religious holidays have become part of this sort of frenzy is not clear to me. It’s probably no coincidence that the number of suicides increases at Christmas. Escapism is not true festivity. Thus, instead of leading souls into joyful communion, it leads them into deeper isolation and loneliness. Perhaps this is because the loss of true festivity means also the loss of a sense of wonder and awe, the possibility of a supernatural reality, or what we today might call the religious sense. Affirming such a supernatural reality, and man’s participation in it, was the whole point of festivity in the classical world. Affirmation of creation assumes, in some fashion, reverencing a Creator. Music, dancing and drinking beer may be a part of festivity. But, these things do not constitute the festival itself. They are the expressions of a much deeper movement of the heart and mind toward a universal “Yes!” to all that is. Reducing a holiday, especially a religious holiday, to a mere pretext for a “bender” is not festal. A rightly festive man might become a bit drunk at a festival, but if he does it will be the result of spontaneous and joyful exuberance, not an achieved goal. Man’s joy is proportionate to his freedom. And, man is most free when he can face reality and be swept up in the great symphony of creation. This is the essence of festivity. Slainte!Share on Facebook