views updated May 29 2018


FESTIVALS. Early modern festivals and celebrations may be classified in several different ways: as religious, civic, or courtly; as annual or in honor of unique occasions; as popular and folkloric or as elite and learned; and finally, according to whether they constituted celebrations of the religious and social order or were subversive of it. None of these categories is entirely discrete, for there is considerable overlapping of tone and circumstance. The final distinction, that between "establishment" feasts and subversive ones, is the one most fundamental for contemporary scholarship and provides the most useful basis for a general discussion.


Both civic and religious pageantry aimed at portraying the established order in a favorable light and at fostering an impression of harmony and security. The distinction between the two was not always clear.

Religious feasts and processions. With its recurring commemorations of moments in the drama of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Redemption, the Christian calendar evoked a coherent and reassuring view of human history, whatever unjust or chaotic conditions might prevail in the contemporary political and social worlds. Special church services and processions through the streets brought all classes together in recollection of events recounted either in the Gospels or in the lives of saints. When government officials took part in such religious processions, for example in that for Palm Sunday in Venice, the arrangement provided a still more encompassing picture of harmony, with the integration of the civic and spiritual realms of life. Moreover, because many cities had particular saints as patrons, the celebration of their feast days, such as St. John's Day (24 June) in Florence or the day of the Assumption of the Virgin (15 August) in Siena, was a frankly civic affair.

While most religious celebrations were engraved, so to speak, on the calendar, there were others devoted to unique ecclesiastical occasions, such as the canonization of new saints and the investiture of new bishops. The Roman Holy Years, coming every quarter century, entailed very elaborate public observances. In the Iberian Peninsula, during the Counter-Reformation and into the Enlightenment, there were occasional celebrations of autos-da-fé (literally 'acts of faith'), with the public trials of heretics followed by "reconciliations" or executions. These manifestations, chilling to our late modern sensibility, were watched by great numbers of people in a festive mood. Whatever the actual effect, the intent of the organizers was undoubtedly to strengthen religious faith and ecclesiastical institutions.

State occasions. The basic aim of purely civic pageantry was to present a majestic and harmonious view of the state and to cultivate a pride of citizenship in both participants and spectators. For the state as for the church, processions were probably the most effective form of festive manifestation. When a monarch or ruling prince or the ruling council of a republic rode at the center of a colorful parade that included local guilds and confraternities, and perhaps also foreign ambassadors or, as in trading cities like Lyon and Antwerp, the representatives of foreign merchant colonies, all dressed in costumes of office or in collective "livery," one could infer a just equilibrium not only between church and state, or among social classes, but also among the nations of Christendom. Sometimes, as when new popes paused in their inaugural procession to St. John Lateran to accept the friendly greetings of Rome's Jewish colony, even non-Christians were integrated into a harmonious view of the world.

In the late Middle Ages it became customary for new monarchs to make grand, ceremonial entries into their capital cities. In the streets they might find decorative structures built by the city fathers or by organized social groups such as guilds. Such structures often bore inscriptions, and sometimes there were also stationary scenes called tableaux vivants ('living pictures') in which immobile human actors represented biblical, mythological, historical, or allegorical scenes. More rarely, actors recited verses to the monarch, who paused to listen. These manifestations were intended not just to assure rulers of the populace's loyalty but also to remind them of their own obligations toward the city. At one point in her 1559 progress through London, Queen Elizabeth I is said to have stated in answer to a display, "I have taken notice of your good meaning toward mee, and will endeavor to Answere your severall expectations." Thus entries and other civic processions tended to confirm the intangible political contracts underlying early modern societies. There is no doubt that they were often a significant force for social peace.

The style of entry decorations changed with the progress of classical revival in the Renaissance. Vernacular inscriptions gave way to Latin ones, and the principal street decorations became triumphal arches and other temporary structures imitated from the buildings of ancient Rome, or from architectural treatises. Allegory fell into relative disfavor. The Latin inscriptions and temporary paintings on entry arches alluded most often to history, above all to the history of classical Rome, either republican or imperial. These changes reflect a general shift in taste but are also instrumental in that shift. Artists and literary figures who planned the architecture and iconography of structures erected for entries belonged quite often to the avant-garde, and their work was influential in various realms. This was true not only during the initial phase of classical revival in the Renaissance but also during the subsequent development of the baroque style and sensibility in the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Thus the planner for decorations of the 1635 entry into Antwerp of Cardinal Ferdinand of Austria was the celebrated painter Peter Paul Rubens (15771640), who also did the engravings for the published account.

In addition to inaugural entries into their capital cities, some rulers were honored with triumphal processions in other towns of their own dominions or those of friendly foreign princes. The undisputed champion triumphator during the Renaissance was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (ruled 15191556), who periodically traveled in state through his possessions and vassal states in Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, and the Low Countries. Popes also occasionally made ceremonial journeys entailing grand urban entries, as when Pope Clement VIII traveled north from Rome in 1598 to take possession of the duchy of Ferrara. Queen Elizabeth I of England, during her long reign (15581603) staged a number of "progresses" through her kingdom. French kings as well, for example Charles IX in 15641566, sometimes made state tours of their provinces. Noble brides traveled in triumphal processions from their homes to those of their husbands, as, for example, when Marie de Médicis proceeded from Florence to the French court in 1600.

During the Renaissance, several particularly poignant occasions for pageantry and popular festivity were furnished by what we might now call "summit meetings," that is, conferences between rival sovereigns, or between sovereigns and popes. Of these the two best remembered are the meeting between the young kings Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais in 1520, and the prolonged consultations of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII at Bologna in 15291530. The first meeting, which antedated the main thrust of the classical revival, was marked by chivalric ceremonies and entertainments. At Bologna, there were triumphal entries and then, months later, a papal coronation of the emperor, the last such ever to take place. After the crowning, pope and emperor rode together through the streets of Bologna under a single canopy. This striking image, which seemed to herald an era of peace, soon became known all over Europe through a series of engravings.

The great political upheavals in western Europe during the late sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth centuriesreligious wars in France and the Low Countries, the troubles of the Fronde in France, the Civil War in England, the Thirty Years' War in Germanywere not favorable for great displays of pageantry. In 1660, however, the young Louis XIV made a grand entry into Paris with his new queen, Marie-Thérèse of Spain, and the next year the recently restored Charles II of England traversed London from the Tower to Whitehall on his way to be crowned. These two major events were recorded in elaborately printed "festival books" with much finer engravings than had been found in similar publications of the sixteenth century. Following decades saw the publication of many more such books.

Royal and dynastic weddings. Just as some celebrations partook of both the religious and the civic realms, others had both civic and courtly elements. Thus royal and other dynastic weddings usually involved joyous entries of brides into their husbands' cities. If the marriage sealed a political alliance, as when Duke Cosimo I of Florence married the daughter of the Spanish viceroy of Naples in 1539, or when the future Louis XVI of France married the Austrian Marie-Antoinette, daughter of the Holy Roman emperor, in 1770, decorations for the urban entries of the brides often had political themes. Such weddings were, however, also accompanied by ever more elaborate series of "closed" entertainments whose only evident purpose was the display of magnificenza (wealth and generosity) for the pleasure of elite audiences. That seemingly frivolous purpose was in fact politically important for rulers in increasingly absolutist regimes.

Courtly entertainments. The diversions offered by princes to aristocratic audiences became more varied and more lavish as courts grew larger. It was a very long way from the small ducal court of Urbino immortalized by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528) to the large body of French aristocrats who gravitated around the palace of Versailles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the end of the early modern period, the variety of courtly entertainments had become very large, including tournaments and other forms of chivalric combat (now largely feigned), organized hunts, fireworks, banquets, concerts, ballets, and dramatic performances of many different kinds. Although commercial theater was already becoming important, several major theatrical genresthe neo-classical commedia erudita (learned comedy) of the Italian Renaissance, the Italian opera, the comedia of the Spanish Golden Age, the classical comedies and tragedies of seventeenth-century Francewere born or perfected in part at court. Dance genres such as the French ballet de cour and the English masque were virtually confined to courtly circles.

During the Renaissance the occasions for grand entertainments were relatively few, mainly weddings, baptisms of heirs, Christmas, and carnival. Later, at least in large courts, entertainments were commissioned more frequently and might last several days. The French court at Versailles, the largest and most magnificent in Europe from the 1660s to the French Revolution, set the standard in such things. One famous and well documented fête of 1664 may serve as an example. By command of the young Louis XIV, the Plaisirs de l'île enchantée (Pleasures of the bewitched island) were devised by the duke of Saint-Aignan to last three days, 79 May. A rather loose unifying theme was taken from the sixth, seventh, and eighth cantos of Ludovico Ariosto's immensely popular chivalric epic Orlando furioso (15161532; Madness of Roland). Saint-Aignan had as collaborators the playwright Molière (16221673) with his troupe of actors; the lyric poet Isaac de Benserade (1613?1691), the musician Jean-Baptiste Lully (16321689), and the stage architect Carlo Vigarani (d. 1693). On the first day, the king and some of his courtiers paraded in "Ariostean" costume and then competed in a run at the ring. Louis was disguised as Ariosto's hero Ruggiero. There followed a ballet and a banquet punctuated by the appearance of marvelous stage "machines" or automata. Molière's play La princesse d'Élide (The princess of Elis), interspersed with pieces of music and ballet, was performed the second day. The third day featured still another ballet and an exhibition of fireworks, fused into a sort of "pyrotechnic opera." Further entertainments, including the playing of two more comedies of Molière, ensued during four more days. The Plaisirs were commemorated in handsome publications.


While religious and civic festivals have attracted the attention of historians of art, literature, and ideas, the festivals of misrule have recently held a particular interest for anthropologists, semioticians, and social historians. An indisputable ancestor of festivals in the latter category can be seen in the ancient Roman Saturnalia, during the celebration of which the social order was temporarily turned upside down as slaves wore their masters' clothing and were served by them at table. The Saturnalia were doubtless seen by Romans in power as a safety valve for the release of popular resentment against social injustice. Whether they served only that purpose or were also a force for reform or revolution is a matter of historical speculation, as is also the effect of early modern feasts descended from them.

The Feast of Fools and Abbeys of Misrule. The Feast of Fools (Latin Festum Stultorum, French Fête des Fous, German Narrenfest ) was long celebrated in religious communities shortly after Christmas. A reversal of hierarchy was effected through the election of a young cleric or monastic as "bishop," and sometimes things held sacred were made fun of in mock masses. The actual church authorities were understandably uneasy with such frivolities. In the sixteenth century and later, some towns also had lay organizations of young men known as "abbeys" or "kingdoms" of misrule. These groups elected "abbots" or "kings" and participated together in various lighthearted activities during Christmas and Carnival. In Renaissance England, on a higher social plane, a court lord of misrule was sometimes appointed for yuletide celebrations, or "revels." Thus George Ferrars, holding that appointment from the young King Edward VI, staged a mock triumphal entry into London in January 1552.

Carnival. The most important feast of misrule by far was that of Carnival, celebrated just before the onset of Lent. It was a period of "licensed transgression" enjoyed by all classes of society. A measure of its popularity can be seen in the curious fact that carnival celebrations persisted in some Protestant areas of northern Europe that had ceased to observe Lent. Italian Carnival parades sometimes had elaborate decorated pageant cars. In Rome, such parades often flattered reigning pontiffs, as when that of 1536 recreated the ancient triumph of Paulus Aemilius in allusion to Pope Paul III. In Florence and Venice, where the parades were sometimes planned by well-born young men in companies analogous to the abbeys of misrule, there might be a less reverent tone.

Carnival in Italy was also the principal occasion for the production of neoclassical comedies, and in Germany there were special Fastnachtspiele (Carnival plays), most memorably those of Hans Sachs (14941576). In France, during the next century, the celebration was also a favored time for the performance of Molière's comedies. At the Stuart courts in seventeenth-century England, allegorical masques might be written and performed for Shrovetide, the three days preceding Ash Wednesday. Unlike the generally apolitical Italian and French comedies and German Fastnachtspiele, which made fun of typical human faults, the English compositions often carried ideological messages supporting the divine right of kings.

The most subversive activity of Carnival probably lay in the custom of "masking," which permitted the social classes to mingle promiscuously in the streets and even to express seditious sentiments under the protection of anonymity. Church authorities periodically forbade masking, but it was tremendously popular. Carnival activities in general became less important during the baroque period and the Enlightenment, although they are still lively today in a few Catholic cities such as Cologne and Venice. It would be hard to prove that they were lastingly subversive of dominant institutions, although their spirit often stood in opposition to official ideology.

See also Carnival ; Games and Play .


Anglo, Sydney. Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy. 2nd ed. Oxford and New York, 1997. A solid study of English royal pageantry through the coronation of Elizabeth I in 1559.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Boston, 1968. Translation of Tvorchestivo Fransua Rable (1965). An influential book whose contraposition of popular and official culture has affected scholarship in the history of festivals, along with that in several other domains.

Béhar, Pierre, and Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, eds. Spectaculum Europaeum. Theatre and Spectacle in Europe. Histoire du spectacle en Europe (15801750). Wolfenbütteler Arbeiten zur Barockforschung, Band 31. Wiesbaden, 1999. A wide-ranging and systematic study of civic and courtly festivals for most of the early modern period, with some coverage also of religious celebrations. Unusual amount of attention to festivals in smaller countries or linguistic areas.

Bergeron, David. English Civic Pageantry 15581642. Columbia, S.C., 1971. A systematic study, with attention to lord mayors' shows, royal entries, and progresses.

Bryant, Lawrence M. The King and the City in the Parisian Royal Entry Ceremony: Politics, Ritual, and Art in the Renaissance. Travaux d'Humanisme et Renaissance, 216. Geneva, 1986. A careful and clear study of the evolution of royal entries into Paris through that of Louis XIV in 1660.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Rev. reprint. Aldershot, U.K., and Brookfield, Vt., 1994. See particularly the chapters "The World of Carnival" (pp. 178204) and, for changes in festive practice made by Protestant and Catholic reformers, "The Triumph of Lent: the Reform of Popular Culture" (pp. 207243).

Jacquot, Jean, ed. Les Fêtes de la Renaissance. 3 vols. Paris, 19561975. The proceedings of three pioneering colloquia on Renaissance festival studies.

Mitchell, Bonner. The Majesty of the State: Triumphal Progresses of Foreign Sovereigns in Renaissance Italy (14941600). Biblioteca dell'Archivum Romanicum, 203. Florence, 1986. A systematic narrative.

Muir, Edward. Ritual in Early Modern Europe. New Approaches to European History, 11. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. A study in the current school of ritual scholarship that is both synthesizing and original. Much about Carnival and other popular festivals, as well as about ecclesiastical and civic pageantry.

Strong, Roy. Art and Power: Renaissance Festivals 1450 1650. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984. Excellent analyses of selected festivals at the Habsburg, Valois, Medici, and Stuart courts.

Watanabe-O'Kelly, Helen, and Anne Simon. Festivals and Ceremonies. A Bibliography of Works Relating to Court, Civic and Religious Festivals in Europe 15001800. London and New York, 2000. A partial but vast bibliography of printed festival books and relevant news bulletins for virtually the whole early modern period. This is the starting place for primary research.

Wisch, Barbara, and Susan Scott Munshower, eds. "All the World's a Stage": Art and Pageantry in the Renaissance and Baroque. Part 1, Triumphal Celebrations and the Rituals of Statecraft. Part 2, Theatrical Spectacle and Spectacular Theatre. Papers in Art History from the Pennsylvania State University, Vol. 6. University Park, Pa., 1990. Includes several focused studies on Renaissance and baroque celebrations and a highly useful "Bibliography of the Literature on Triumph" (Part 1, pp. 370385) covering studies for the early modern period as well as those for ancient and medieval times.

Bonner Mitchell


views updated May 18 2018


Mack P. Holt

Festival, feast, fête—these are all words that derive from the Latin festum, meaning a celebration or an occasion for celebration, such as a holiday (or holy day). Thus, the history of festivals in the modern West is necessarily linked to eating and drinking, Christianity, work and leisure, and the history of rituals generally. Moreover, the history of festivals in the West from the Renaissance to the present is distinctly diverse. A cornucopia of local, regional, national, and some nearly universal festivals have existed all over Europe since the high Middle Ages. They range in scope from festivals marking rites of passage—births and marriages, for example—to feasts denoting a specific time of the calendar year—the harvest in early autumn and new millennium celebrations being obvious examples—to religious feasts such as Carnival and Easter (with Lent in between), to nationalist festivals—Bastille Day in France being the best known. The experience of European festivals is so diverse that no short summary can possibly be complete. What follows is less a comprehensive survey of European festivals from the Renaissance to the present than an essay that attempts to sketch out some of the major types of festivals and assess how they have changed over time. The principal claim made is that the functions of these festivals evolved and changed between 1500 and 2000. In the late Middle Ages most festivals served many purposes, but one thing they all shared was the ability to build and cement an idea of community. Many, in fact, delineated the boundaries of the community itself: between the sacred and the profane, between insider and outsider, or just between the orthodox and the unorthodox. Even though definitions of community, the sacred, insiderness, and orthodoxy have changed over the centuries, some of these functions have remained. What changed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, was that participation in these festivals evolved from a largely collective and social experience to one much more individual and commercial. That is not to argue that a utopian "world we have lost" has been replaced by less satisfying modern commercialism. Nor is it suggested that community and capitalism are mutually exclusive. Changes over time do help us better understand ourselves, however, as a closer look at several specific examples of these changes will make clear.


The word carnival comes from carne, meaning flesh. And as the etymology of this word in most Latin-based languages indicates, this means animal flesh, or meat, as well as human flesh. Thus Carnival has always been associated with the consumption of flesh as well as the carnal sins of the flesh—gluttony and lechery—two of the seven deadly sins for Christians in the late Middle Ages. It may seem a genuine irony, then, that Carnival's entire raison d'être was its link to Lent and the feast day of Easter itself, that link being the purification and satisfaction of sin through the sacrament of penance. Usually in the form of a three- to six-day period of feasting culminating in Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, Fastnacht, and so on), Carnival preceded the beginning of Lent in the liturgical calendar, which always falls on Ash Wednesday. Thus Carnival was a festival of the flesh that marked the transition from a carnal period of behavior to a penitential regime of abstinence from flesh altogether during Lent—both from meat and from sex, even between husbands and wives. The Lenten season lasted from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday, the single most important feast day on the liturgical calendar, where the consumption of flesh was resumed once again, traditionally in the form of the paschal lamb. Carnival was the first half of an inseparable duality, of which the other half was Lent. Carnival was a period of feasting, meaning shops were supposed to be closed, with leisure replacing work, while Lent was a period of fasting and purification. The whole was designed as a means of preparing the sinner, via confession and penance on the one hand and abstinence of flesh on the other, for the holiest feast of all, the consumption of Christ's own flesh in the sacrament of the Eucharist on Easter Sunday.

But why did clerical and political authorities condone such explicit gluttony and lechery during Carnival? How could such deadly sins be a precursor to, much less a vital part of, preparation for the sacred experience of the mass? The answer does not lie in the "safety-valve theory" proposed by some social anthropologists, whereby ecclesiastical and secular authorities allowed the masses to let off a little steam for a few days once a year to keep the lid on the boiling cauldron of social tensions that were inevitable in a hierarchical society. By letting the laity turn their world upside down during Carnival, so the theory goes—allowing gender roles, social roles, and even political roles to be reversed, with men dressing as women and peasants dressing as kings—the world would remain more or less right side up the rest of the liturgical year. While this argument may doubtless contain an element of truth, it does not explain why premodern authorities seemed to condone, or at least turn a blind eye to, behavior and comportment that would have profaned the sacred any other time of the year. A much better explanation is depicted in Pieter Brueghel's painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent. On the left side a fat and corpulent peasant is mounted astride a beer barrel, with a roasting spit for a lance on which a pig's head is skewered. On the ground beside him are playing cards, dice, and other things associated with gambling, while his assistants offer him jugs of wine, beer steins, and a grill for roasting meat. This "carnal knight" is engaged in battle with his opposite, an emaciated cleric sitting in a chair pulled by two women. His lance is a long oven paddle on which are two fish, the only allowable flesh during Lent. Beside him are the loaves, pancakes, and pretzels that made up the rest of the Lenten diet. The point of this image is not just that Carnival and Lent were polar opposites and in competition with each other, but that they were engaged in as part of a common process of penitential satisfaction of sin. The object of the feasting of Carnival was to emphasize and bring to light the entire corpus of sin from the previous year, so that it could then be eviscerated and ultimately confessed and satisfied during Lent itself. This dialectical relationship between carnival and Lent was perhaps best depicted in Rabelais's fictitious king of the Carnival, Quaresmeprenant, whose very name indicates the symbiotic relationship between the two (carême-prenant is the French name for this pre-Lenten period). Rabelais's writings are full of references to Carnival, and many writers, above all Mikhail Bakhtin, have been misled into believing that Carnival's origins lay rooted in folklore and popular culture instead of in the penitential season of Lent.

This was a festival of carnality. It was usually symbolized by some kind of stock carnival figure or effigy, traditionally the figure of a fat man, which was paraded around during a feast and ceremoniously burned at the end of it. Gluttony was the order of the day, and lots of meat, especially from fat animals such as pigs or boars, was consumed with relish, washed down by large quantities of beer in northern Europe and wine in the south. There was also a considerable amount of sexual display and insult involved. Brothels, protected and even run by local officials in many municipalities throughout Europe before the Reformation, were obviously in much demand during Carnival. And overtly sexual symbols and metaphors were explicitly displayed in many of the festivities, from the huge, fat sausage that was carried through the streets in Königsberg and the even more graphic phallus that was paraded through the streets of Naples, to the more common sexual icons of cocks and bears. For this short period sexual propriety seemed to be suspended, as passions that were supposed to be tightly reined during the rest of the year became unbridled.

Carnival was also a period when other passions were unleashed: insult, envy, and anger among them. Fistfights were common everywhere and even ritualized in some places, such as Venice, where young men carried out their territorial and familial struggles under the guise of ritual. That violence might be the natural by-product of a world turned upside down should not be too surprising, and its ubiquity is yet another strike against the safety-valve theory. If women were temporarily allowed to fulfill the roles of men—to be "on top," to use Natalie Davis's wonderful phrase—or if peasants were allowed to play the role of kings, this might help eliminate enough steam in the social boiler to keep the entire structure from exploding. On the other hand, turning the world upside down might, by allowing violence and displaying alternatives, threaten the very social order the process was supposed to protect. The riot and massacre that broke out in the French town of Romans in Dauphiné during Carnival in 1580 may be the best known, thanks to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, but there were plenty of other such violent incidents that grew out of Carnival in Naples, Switzerland, Corsica, and elsewhere to suggest that this was far from an isolated episode. It is thus largely irrelevant to argue whether the function of Carnival was to reinforce the social order (the safety-valve theory) or to undermine it: it could do both.

The chronology and geography of Carnival are also instructive. Despite the claims of many scholars, Carnival does not appear to be an ancient pagan rite that was appropriated by Christianity for its own purposes (as was the case with so many Christian rituals). In fact, there is little evidence of Carnival anywhere in Europe before the twelfth century. So it appears to be entirely a medieval and Christian phenomenon. Nor was Carnival practiced uniformly throughout Europe. Most of the features described above were largely restricted to southern Europe: almost the entire Mediterranean region including Spain, Italy, and the islands, as well as most of France, Austria, Switzerland, and much of Germany. In northwestern Europe—Brittany and other parts of northern France, the British Isles, most of the Low Countries, parts of northern Germany, and all of Scandinavia—the festivities of Carnival were limited to little more than the ritual eating of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. There might have been regular Shrove Tuesday football match accompanied by some Morris dancers and other festivities here and there, but in essence, the carnality was largely missing. So how is the geography of Carnival to be explained?

John Bossy is surely right to stress that the answer lies in Carnival's foundation in and links to the sacrament of penance. The Roman liturgy of the sacrament was a largely collective and entirely public affair. Christians were required to confess their sins, as well as satisfy them before God through an act of penance, before they could participate in the Eucharist on Easter Sunday. The confession was a public one, as the sinner openly confessed his sins to the priest and to God; although he or she was not specifically addressing the other parishioners present, they obviously were able to hear what was going on. Then the priest would place his hands on the head of the penitent as a public sign of reconciliation to God and his neighbor. The act of penance to be performed afterward varied widely, but it was also intended as a public sign of contrition and reconciliation. This often took the form of public penitential processions, as large numbers of penitents collectively sought to expiate their sins through the ritual of parading through the streets of their town or village. In short, in the Roman liturgy penance was a social sacrament whose function was not only preparation for the Eucharist, but also the reconciliation of everyone in the community to each other as well as to God. It is evident, however, that the Roman liturgy's hold on the laity was not so secure the farther one ventured from Rome. Indeed, by the high Middle Ages it had already disappeared in many parts of northern Europe, and in others it had never been established at all, as local liturgies were introduced from the beginning. In most of northern Europe confession and penance had never been so public and collective as in the south. Given the communal and collective nature of Carnival itself, it is not a surprise that it tended not to catch on in most of northern Europe. Carnival was hardly resistant to exportation to foreign cultures, however, as its adoption by many Jews and Orthodox Christians makes clear. Nevertheless, it does appear that the geography of Carnival is tied to the history of penance.

Reform attacks on Carnival. That geography was seriously threatened, however, by the reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant as well as Catholic. Luther, Calvin, and most other Protestant reformers, by accepting Erasmus's revised translation of Matthew 4:17, rejected penance as a sacrament altogether, and it is thus no surprise that the carnality of Carnival became a prime target of their anti-Catholic attacks. Perhaps more surprising is how quickly many Catholic reformers also came to attack Carnival. Again, the link with the sacrament of penance is instructive, as both Protestant and Catholic reformers alike sought to transform a collective and social ritual into an individual and private practice. The innovator on the Catholic side was Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan. Borromeo's bright idea was the invention of the confessional box in 1565, which quickly put to rest the social aspects of the sacrament. With confessions no longer made in public, and with a barrier between priest and penitent to prevent the laying on of hands, the function of reconciliation to the community soon took a backseat to reconciliation with God. And with the sacrament of penance shorn of its communal and public face, there was not much point left in celebrating Carnival, especially as it invoked so many sins of the flesh.

The Catholic Church's rejection of Carnival was just one thread in a much broader tapestry of social and moral reform that arose out of the Catholic Reformation in general and the Council of Trent in particular. Like the much vaunted "reformation of manners" so associated with the Puritans and other Protestants, Catholic post-Tridentine piety had as its ultimate goal the reestablishment of the kingdom of Christ on earth through a stricter policing of moral discipline. Although Calvin's Geneva may be more closely associated with moral discipline in the public eye than Counter-Reformation Catholicism, it is nevertheless true that Borromeo's program in Milan was just as great a source of Reformation discipline as anything conjured up by the Protestants. Indeed, this was one of the principal goals shared by all reformers, Protestants and Catholics alike, which, despite their theological differences, made them allies in a war against the common enemy of carnality. And when both churches as well as the state nearly everywhere in Europe began to mount serious anti-Carnival campaigns, it is no surprise that in the long run they were successful. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in fact, Carnival was just a shadow of its former medieval self in the cities and urban areas, even in southern Europe. Although resistance was far stronger in the rural countryside, where the reach of church and state was less secure, it is nevertheless clear that the Protestant and Catholic Reformations had a significant impact on the practice of Carnival by 1700. Although the festival continued to exist, it was largely shorn of much of its carnal and virtually all its penitential functions.

By the late eighteenth century in Paris, for example, the rituals were already becoming more commercialized. For the elite, more conscious than ever of distinguishing themselves from the masses, there were a number of privately organized masked balls and banquets, above all the famous ball held every year at the Paris Opera. For the popular classes, there were also more restrained public masked balls, and food and drink tended to be available in great quantities outside the city walls, where taxes were lower. There were also processions of artisans' guilds, the most prominent of which was that of the butchers, who paraded a fat ox—le boeuf gras—through the streets of Paris nearly every year until 1870, the only interruption being the years of the Revolution (1790–1800). Although this is clearly evidence that flesh had not disappeared entirely from Carnival, brothels and other overt signs of sexuality were largely absent. Moreover, during the years of the Second Empire (1851–1869) Napoleon III clamped down on the celebrations even further by attempting to curtail street masking. The masked balls declined as a result, including the Opera ball, and as the suburbs were brought into the city limits, even the excesses of food and drink were no longer available. In the years after 1870 Carnival became less a social and even more a commercial enterprise. In Paris, as in many other European cities, large department stores and other commercial institutions tried to revive the festival. About all that they could sustain, however, were a few parades, as popular participation declined precipitously. By 1900 little remained of Mardi Gras in Paris except for a parade and a few neighborhood balls. The day of Mardi Gras itself was no longer either a feast day recognized by the church or a holiday recognized by the state. What had once been perhaps the single most anticipated festival in the entire calendar, with members of all social classes looking forward to its excesses, had become by the twentieth century just another workday.

To suggest that Carnival had disappeared from Europe completely is not entirely true, however, as it was revived in the New World in the late nineteenth century at the very moment it was waning in the Old. This epilogue demonstrates that Carnival could survive in the twentieth century only as a commercial venture. Both the American and Brazilian reincarnations of the festival—in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro respectively—depend on tourism to survive, and both show how far individualism and commercialism have replaced community as the focus. In New Orleans it was local social clubs, known as krewes, that in the 1870s created Mardi Gras by holding their own balls and parading through the French Quarter on Shrove Tuesday. While many of these clubs remain exclusive and parochial even at the beginning of the twenty-first century (the anti-Black and anti-Semitic elements of some of these clubs is well known), some such as the Rex krewe started selling tickets to tourists and other outsiders as early as 1872. Already by 1900 more than 100,000 tourists were flocking to New Orleans every February. The Hermes and Bacchus krewes, founded in 1937 and 1969 respectively, were devoted to tourism from the beginning and now work with the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, bringing in nearly half a million visitors at Carnival time. The city's own tourist bureau estimates that by the 1970s the two weeks leading up to Mardi Gras generated more than fifty million dollars annually in tourist revenues, roughly 10 percent of all revenues brought into the city by visitors each year. And if added to that are another twenty-five million dollars each year in locally generated revenue in preparation for the event, it is clear that the city of New Orleans, as well as the state of Louisiana, has come to rely on the celebration of Carnival in its own form of Mardi Gras as a major source of revenue. To be sure, this modern form of American Carnival may contain many more carnal elements—prostitutes and le boeuf gras are still very visible in New Orleans—and rites of inversion than its European counterparts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but it is now entirely a commercial spectacle. And the carnality is for sale year-round in New Orleans, not just during Mardi Gras.

The Brazilian Carnival in Rio de Janeiro has its own narrative, but one that moves in a similar direction. It too was transformed into a commercial enterprise via tourism, and as with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Rio began and is still structured around social clubs that hold balls and parades. Unlike the krewes in New Orleans, however, the samba schools in Brazil are less exclusive and less exclusively upper and middle class. Whereas in New Orleans the black population was traditionally excluded from Mardi Gras and forced to hold its own parades in the black quarters of the city, in Rio there has always been a more inclusive and communal atmosphere at Carnival. Nevertheless, the parades of the samba schools, like the parades of the krewes in New Orleans, have now become dominated by commercialism, each vying to outspend and outdo the others. As in New Orleans, the tourist industry is what drives as well as funds most of this activity in Rio. The major difference in Rio is its geography. Being in the southern hemisphere means that Carnival in Rio contains none of the elements associated with the end of winter and beginning of spring as in Europe; it is the end of the summer in Brazil, and the beach in Rio has proven to be just as commercially viable a site for Carnival as Bourbon Street in New Orleans. And for its participants in both hemispheres today, any association with penitence and preparation for Lent has long since disappeared; Carnival is now in the business of entertainment.


Celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of another, unlike Carnival, goes back to the pre-Christian era of the earliest societies. What constituted a year, however, varied widely from one society to the next, though most did eventually coalesce around a model that fit into the changing seasons of the harvest year. It was the Romans who first moved the West onto an exclusively solar calendar. The early Roman calendars were lunar calendars, basing the length of the year (354 days) on the cycles of the moon. In 46 b.c.e. Julius Caesar mandated that the Romans switch to a solar calendar of 365¼ days, with an extra day added every fourth year. The Romans marked the end of one year at the end of December and the beginning of another starting in January with a special festival and celebration.

When Christianity finally became the official Roman religion after the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, the Church did not entirely replace the Julian calendar with a new one of its own. Instead, it appropriated the old calendar and many of its festivals, replacing Roman festivals with Christian festivals. The Church did alter the numbering of the years—making the year one that of the year of the birth of Christ, as opposed to the year of the founding of the Roman Republic—and also altered the beginning of the year, changing it from January 1 to Easter Sunday. The celebration of the new year was transformed in the early fourth century at the Council of Nicaea in 325, when Easter itself was fixed to the cycle of the moon: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox (that is, no earlier than March 22 and no later than April 25). Thus, from 325 the festival celebrating the New Year was the same day as the festival celebrating the birth of Christ. And because the preceding evening was still during Lent—a fast day instead of a feast day—New Year's Eve clearly did not mean much to premodern sensibilities.

The impetus for a more secular celebration of the New Year came in the sixteenth century, and as with Carnival, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations played a role. First, several states—France, for example, in 1564—decided unilaterally to switch the beginning of the year back to the Roman date of January 1. This had less to do with any desire to secularize New Year celebrations than the fact that with New Year's Day not being fixed, virtually every year had a different number of days, which was already causing problems in contracts, leases, and rents that normally lasted for the duration of a calendar year. It was the shift away from the Lenten season that ultimately provided New Year celebrations with a more secular focus. Although the modern idea of champagne and New Year's Eve parties is a much more recent invention—champagne did not even exist until the late seventeenth century, when it was allegedly invented accidentally by a French monk, Dom Pérignon—it was not too much of a leap for Europeans in the eighteenth century to revive the older Roman pagan rituals of feasting to celebrate the New Year, usually on New Year's Day itself. There were few public rituals or celebrations of note until much later, but Europeans everywhere generally celebrated the New Year with family and friends, exchanging greetings and wishes of good fortune and prosperity for the coming year. Good luck rituals varied from one part of Europe to the next. In Austria and Hungary, for example, pigs were believed to bring good fortune and live pigs were often let loose in the streets of Vienna and Budapest. In other places the eating of certain foods at the New Year was believed to bring good luck throughout the rest of the year—from special New Year's cakes, ales, or other delicacies, to more traditional meats, fish, and vegetables. The emphasis everywhere was on sharing food, drink, and greetings and good wishes with family and friends.

The New Year's Eve gatherings we know today are much more modern. New Year's Day was St. Sylvester's Day in the Roman church (and St. Basil's Day in the Orthodox church in much of eastern Europe) and a special mass or celebration marking the eve of St. Sylvester still survives in many places. For most, however, the idea of gathering in public crowds for a collective and entirely secular celebration of the New Year—whether in Trafalgar Square in London, the Champs Élysées in Paris, the Ringstrasse in Vienna, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, or St. Mark's Square in Venice—did not really begin until the end of the nineteenth century. This escalated in special years marking the end of centuries, and New Year's Eve in 1899 saw a significant increase in the festivities. With the end of the millennium in 1999, commercialism came to dominate the celebrations, as every hotel, restaurant, resort, and tourist attraction competed with one another for the vast sums that were shelled out by a population with more money to spend on entertainment. While pedants pointed out that the real millennium would not begin until 1 January 2001, it was nevertheless clear that Europeans could accept the cultural construction of their calendar. What mattered most was that the festivities still had meaning for many that were bound up in building communities of friends and family. The survival of such traditional practices as Hogmanay in Scotland—gifts for small children—or the same country's celebration of the first guest to cross the hearth after the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve with a convivial drink, for example, demonstrate how many rituals have survived the advent of commercialism.

Indeed, some of the commercial practices associated with contemporary celebrations of the New Year are not only based on much older and more traditional practices, but have sustained them and guaranteed their survival. The sending of special New Year's greeting cards, ubiquitous nearly everywhere in Europe apart from the British Isles (and the United States), where greeting cards are sent to friends and family at Christmas, is one such example. Obviously, it was not until the greeting card industry arose in the late nineteenth century that specially printed greeting cards emerged as a means of wishing someone a prosperous New Year. These cards became immediately popular. The custom was based, however, on the much older custom of exchanging greetings and wishes of prosperity in person or via a handwritten note or letter. And while many Europeans today might question whether a printed greeting card at New Year is as personal or as meaningful an expression as a handwritten note, it is nevertheless true that these cards continue to maintain ties of community and sociability in their own way. The same can be said of many of the other ways contemporary Europeans celebrate the New Year. Even though wine merchants might make up to a quarter of their annual profits from champagne sales at New Year, and while hoteliers and restaurateurs may do likewise, it seems clear that these annual celebration—even the overly hyped millennium celebrations of 31 December 1999—are almost never just individualist expressions of conspicuous consumption. They are almost always observed collectively with friends and family, and even the most commercially explicit of them usually take note of the actual passing of the old year and the beginning of the new year at midnight. And it is this passing of the year, the continual and perpetual clicking over of the calendar, however the calendar year is measured, that ties us to all our ancestors and renders us human. In this sense, the celebrations of the New Year have always been festivals of life and the continuity of humanity: ringing out the old and ringing in the new.


Festivals marking nationalist holidays are a relatively recent phenomenon. Until there were nation-states, as opposed to dynastic states, fully supported by the nationalist movements of the nineteenth century, there were no holidays invoking the beginning or creation of a particular nation. One of the first of these new nation-states was France, which was transformed by the French Revolution of 1789–1799 from a dynastic monarchy to a republic. But which particular event of this transformation should be celebrated as the national holiday? The storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789)? The Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789)? The renunciation of privileges by the nobility and clergy (4 August 1789)? The opening of the first representative assembly (1 October 1791)? The overthrow of the monarchy (10 August 1792)? The beheading of Louis XVI (21 January 1793)? In fact, it was not until nearly a century later, in 1880, that 14 July, was decreed to be the national holiday of France: the date of the capture by a Paris crowd of the Bastille, an old fortress used as a municipal jail that held only a handful of insignificant prisoners. The choice of date itself was a highly politicized one in 1880, as politicians of the Third Republic from both the left and the right sought to use the national holiday as a symbol to confirm their own narratives of the Revolution itself. July 14 was a compromise that privileged neither the Orleanists and Bonapartists on the right nor the militant radicals and heirs of the Jacobins on the left. In 1880 and for a good time thereafter, the national holiday of France and the ways it was celebrated were fraught with political baggage that truly imbued it with a sense of the tensions inherent in the construction of a nation.

The first such celebration of Bastille Day, as it is now commonly known, occurred during the Revolution itself, and indeed, as Mona Ozouf has amply demonstrated, it was part of the Revolution. Kings had used rituals and festivals for political purposes for centuries, usually in an attempt to reinforce their power and authority, so it was only natural that the revolutionaries should do the same. The Festival of Federation in Paris on 14 July 1790 looked back not so much to the humble events of the year before, but ahead to the revolution still to come. It embodied an exhilarating sense of newness and beginning, at the same time functioning as a means of forging a new community of citizens. The long military parade of troops, including retired veterans as well as young children, formed a major part of the festivities and is still part of Bastille Day rituals. The revolutionaries also took an oath of allegiance and then celebrated with a special meal together to cement their ties of community. What is particularly striking about this commemoration of the events of one year earlier is that it was duplicated in thousands of small towns and villages all over France, with explicit efforts to time the parades, oaths, and celebratory dinners in the provinces to occur simultaneously with their counterparts in the capital. Again, the emphasis was on the togetherness, unity, and cohesion of the body social. The seizure of the Bastille the year before was seen as a sharp break with the past, a watershed that marked a new future of French men and women as citizens rather than royal subjects. And even if the Revolution as it unfolded could not ultimately deliver all that was promised and implied in the Festival of Federation in July 1790, it marked the beginning of a long series of festivals that ultimately came to shape the revolutionary regime: the Festival of Reason (10 November 1793), the Festival of the Supreme Being (8 June 1794), the Festival of Victories (29 May 1796), and the Festival of Liberty (29 July 1798) being only the best known. Like the revolutionary calendar invented by the revolutionaries to replace the Gregorian calendar—renaming the months after the seasons and renumbering the years with the revolutionary Year I marking the abolition of the monarchy and declaration of France as a republic by the Convention in September 1792—the festivals of the French Revolution played a vital political and social role in cementing the break with the Old Regime's values of hierarchy and distinction and helping to forge a new sense of nation around the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. That it took nearly a century to create a national holiday out of Bastille Day only indicates the ambiguities and tensions that remained within the new republic in France as well as the political struggles over how the history of the revolution would be told.

The political battles before 1880, however, were only a foretaste of what was to come. For about a decade thereafter the supporters of the new national holiday continued to use it to forge a sense of nation for the many rural provinces that had remained largely untouched by either industrialization or the republican state. Those on the left also used the national holiday as a means of fighting some of their own political battles, especially the creation of secular public schools, which had political and religious as well as educational implications, since the Catholic Church had been a staunch opponent of the Revolution since 1789, as well as an outspoken critic of the Third Republic in France. For those on the right the celebration of the new national holiday after 1880 was something entirely different. For them 14 July 1789 was just the prelude to the Terror, and the Revolution as a whole was seen as something destructive that broke down the proper and divinely ordained political and social order of the Old Regime. They mounted a frenzied but ultimately unsuccessful effort to establish 28 June 1689 (the date when a seventeenth-century nun had a vision of the Sacred Heart) as a replacement for 14 July 1789. For many Catholics 1889 marked not the centennial of the detested Revolution, but the bicentennial of the miracle of 1689.

The centennial celebrations of 14 July 1889, however, proved to be a total defeat for the right. The government of the French Third Republic mounted the Universal Exposition in Paris to mark the hundredth anniversary of Bastille Day. And they commissioned a new Paris landmark to replace that symbol of the Old Regime, the Bastille, which had long since been torn down. Although it was immediately denounced by many on the right as modernism gone amok, the Eiffel Tower stood in the minds of its creators as a stark contrast with the former Bastille: one a symbol of the medieval world of superstition and despotism, the other a modern symbol of reason and progress. The events of 14 July 1889 mirrored those of 14 July 1790 all across France: military parades, special meals, followed by public dances and balls in village and town squares throughout the republic. It was clear that the national holiday quickly had become not only public, but also a popular holiday. As long as a republican government remained in power—and the Third Republic lasted until it was replaced in 1940 by the Vichy regime—this would remain the case. While extremists on both sides of the political spectrum would continue to propagate criticisms of the government through attacks on Bastille Day and even some demonstrations against the festivities on 14 July, these never amounted to much.

Celebrations were interrupted during World War II, and the first celebration of Bastille Day in six years on 14 July 1945 was very poignant. On the one hand, it was a celebration of freedom and liberty from occupation, with all parties more or less able to celebrate French liberty. On the other hand, it marked a political struggle between the supporters of General Charles de Gaulle, who had led the Free French government in exile during the war, and the communists and socialists. De Gaulle wanted 14 July to commemorate more a national than a republican holiday, reflecting a mythical and almost eternal France fighting against oppression, symbolized by Joan of Arc, Henry IV, Napoleon, Clemenceau, and de Gaulle himself. And while he managed to dominate electoral politics in France for more than two decades after the war, de Gaulle ultimately lost out in his effort to transform the national holiday into something else. The festivities of 1945 repeated all the rituals as they had been before the war, and there were no monuments to Joan of Arc or Napoleon, a sign that France had returned to normalcy despite nearly six years of foreign occupation.

The old political struggles between left and right were not totally eliminated, however, as the bicentennial of the French Revolution in July 1989 made clear. The political tensions were exacerbated by the fact that the new president of the republic, the socialist François Mitterand, had just soundly defeated one of the leaders of the right, Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris. As the celebrations of the bicentennial were destined to focus on Paris, despite the traditional provincial celebrations, the battleground loomed large as both Mitterand and Chirac sought to outdo—and outspend—each other on a commercial celebration of the bicentennial. What worked against and ultimately overshadowed this political rivalry between left and right was the crushing of the Chinese student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square by the Chinese government in May 1989. The events in China had a dramatic effect on the celebrations in Paris two months later. First, Chirac's effort to bring some attention to the city of Paris (that is, to his own municipal government in the capital) and to take away some of the attention inevitably showered on the federal government and President Mitterand fell completely flat. Although he was a solid republican, unlike some on the far right, Chirac's idea was to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Eiffel Tower in June rather than to commemorate the Revolution itself. The resulting spectacle and light show, in which no expense was spared, was both a critical and popular failure. The aging rock stars hired to evoke a sense of Parisian destiny—Johnny Halliday and Stevie Wonder among them—did not help matters. For his part, President Mitterand felt obliged to invite some of the Chinese students to participate in the grand parade scheduled to march down the Champs Élysées in Paris on the evening of July 14, and they completely stole the show. In the end, it did not matter, as the Chinese student presence only reinforced the notion that the French Revolution was a universal revolution, fought for all humanity rather than just for France. The millions of francs spent on the events were of course another sign that commercialism had played a big role, as was the case in most modern festivals. But despite all that, a sense of French nation was spelled out in stark relief by the festivities of July 1989, a nation to which both Chirac and Mitterand, as well as their respective supporters, could claim to belong. If anything, the nation had grown to be too inclusive for a few. The National Front Party used the celebrations to demonstrate against the foreigners living in France, and on the morning of 14 July the citizens of Dijon in Burgundy, a region dominated by the right, woke up to find storefronts and shop windows littered with the graffiti "Bisangtennaire," an allusion to the bloody violence of the Revolution that was being celebrated throughout France. For most French men and women, however, their national holiday has remained much more a holiday than a paean to the nation.


There is no question that the festival tradition declined in Europe; the forces of industrialization, in particular, added to earlier reform attacks. In early modern Europe (depending on the religion prevalent in an area) festival days could total eighty or more per year, although specific calendars varied from locality to locality. Reform attacks dented the tradition, although even Protestant Britain saw efforts at revival as late as the eighteenth century. With nineteenth-century industrialization, employers and public authorities attempted to institute further discipline. Festivals cost working time, they assembled potentially menacing crowds, and they inspired a spontaneity that was itself suspect. Urbanization reduced community familiarity, another pillar in the festival tradition. Many festivals shrank in importance, and in the long run the rise of private leisure, including vacations, replaced some of their functions. Important festivals remained, however, including new ones associated with political identity. In Eastern Europe, these included great twentieth-century communist innovations such as May Day. In western Europe, changes in the character of festivals particularly highlighted the growth of commercialization.

Some festivals naturally illustrate the transition from a ritual of sacred community to secularism and commercialism better than others. Perhaps the best example of all is Christmas, the Christian festival celebrating the birth of Christ. Protestants and Catholics alike in the sixteenth century had railed against the pagan practices that had become part of the Christmas celebrations since the Middle Ages: Yule logs, evergreen trees decorated with candles, and decking the halls with holly and ivy had always been part of the ancient festival of light at the celebration marking the winter solstice. Even the date of Christmas was chosen to coincide with these pagan rituals, as no one knew the actual date of Christ's birth. Puritans in seventeenth-century England had attempted to outlaw all such pagan practices during their brief moment in power in the 1650s—to no avail. The fact is that Christmas was never a major Christian holiday before the nineteenth century and had always been far overshadowed by Easter. In the nineteenth century in Great Britain a fortuitous series of events not only resurrected the celebration of Christmas, but proceeded to turn it into the commercial excess it has now become. A combination of attempts by several large London department stores to stir up sales in the bleakness of mid-winter, combined with the commercial and popular success of Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol, resulted in a series of new rituals that were cloaked in the guise of Christian celebration, but that were above all else a bastion of conspicuous consumption. The invention of Santa Claus, or Father Christmas as he is called in some countries, shows how a relatively obscure medieval Christian saint could be transformed into a jolly old man in a red suit who brought presents to all young children on Christmas Eve (Santa Claus being the Germanic form of Saint Nicolas). Prior to this Victorian invention in nineteenth-century England, the practice of exchanging gifts and greeting cards was not generally associated with Christmas at all. And by 1900 a cohort of commercial institutions proudly displaying their own Santa Clauses helped to fuel the market for gift giving that only exacerbated this transition further. By the end of the twentieth century Christmas had become a season rather than a single day of festivities. And with up to a third of all retail sales for the year coming in the Christmas season, it was primarily a season of shopping. Despite the best efforts of Christian churches everywhere across Europe to stem the tide, it was already a battle lost.

Other festivals, such as the Feast of St. John (24 June), have achieved more mixed results. Just as Christmas was assigned a day on the Christian calendar to coincide with the pagan celebration of the winter solstice, the Feast of St. John the Baptist was assigned to coincide with the summer solstice, or midsummer's eve, celebrations. Bonfires have been lit on the eve of St. John's Day since the Middle Ages in towns and villages across Europe. And while modern fireworks have replaced the bonfires in many places, the rituals of these festivities follow a traditional and well-worn path. To be sure, the bonfires are no longer believed to be purifying agents that function to ward off evil spirits as they did in their ancient beginnings, but neither do they have much explicit connection with the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Although no one could claim that this festival has become commercialized, it is now just entertainment and has been shorn of its religious roots.

There are a host of other festivals that could be cited to demonstrate how the ways that Europeans have celebrated important events with feasts and other celebrations have changed over time since the Renaissance. What seems clear, however, is that rituals of feasting and the celebration of holidays of some kind are as much a part of human society as any other aspect of life. That the events that Europeans celebrate and how they have chosen to celebrate them have changed over the last five centuries is hardly a revelation. What is significant is that festivals continue to matter in a variety of ways. That the control of Carnival or of Bastille Day, for example, has been so hotly contested only underscores the continued significance of these rituals. And that many of them have become commercialized almost to excess does not alter the fact that they still function in a variety of ways to delineate boundaries of the community and to promote a sense of connection to the human past. In an information age of the instant and immediate, this matters. Moreover, while contemporary festivals may seem more oriented toward commercial entertainment and leisure than those in the premodern world, they nevertheless maintain the capacity to tell us much about who we are and how the world we live in got to be the way it is.

See also other articles in this section.


Amalvi, Christian. "Bastille Day: From Dies Irae to Holiday." In Realms of Memory:Rethinking the French Past. Volume 3: Symbols. Edited by Pierre Nora. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York, 1997. Pages 117–169.

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400–1700. Oxford, 1985.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. Revised ed. London, 1994.

Cressy, David. Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle inTudor and Stuart England. Oxford, 1997.

Da Matta, Roberto. Carnivals, Rogues, and Heroes: An Interpretation of the BrazilianDilemma. Translated by John Drury. Notre Dame, Ind., 1991.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "Women on Top." In her Society and Culture in Early Modern France. Stanford, Calif., 1975. Pages 124–151.

Gennep, Arnold van. Manuel du folklore français contemporain. Vol. 1, parts 1–8. Paris, 1937.

Hutton, Ronald. The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year, 1400–1700. Oxford, 1994.

Kaplan, Steven Laurence. Farewell, Revolution: Disputed Legacies, France, 1789/1989. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995.

Kinser, Samuel. Carnival, American Style: Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile. Chicago, 1990.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Carnival in Romans. Translated by Mary Feeney. New York, 1979.

Muir, Edward. Ritual in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1997.

Ozouf, Mona. Festivals and the French Revolution. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge, Mass., 1988.

Underdown, David. Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England, 1603–1660. Oxford, 1985.


views updated Jun 27 2018


FESTIVALS (Heb. חַג, hag; מוֹעֵד, mo'ed; or יוֹם טוֹב, yom tov).


The root of חַג is חָגֹג ḥagog, to celebrate, or possibly חוּג ḥug, to go round. It is related to the Arabic ḥajja which means to go on a pilgrimage from which comes ḥajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The term mo'ed means an appointed place, time, or season.

The festivals can be divided into two main categories each of which can be subdivided: (1) those commanded by the Pentateuch, and (2) those added later.

The Pentateuchal festivals are (a) the *Sabbath (not strictly a festival), (b) the three pilgrim festivals, *Passover, *Shavuot, and *Sukkot, with Shemini Aẓret which is considered in some respects a festival in its own right, (c) the New Year (*Rosh Ha-Shanah) and the Day of *Atonement, (d) *Rosh Ḥodesh, the first day of the lunar month. These divisions can however be still further divided. Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement, while obviously belonging to a single pattern, nevertheless differ from each other completely. The three *pilgrim festivals, too, although similar in many aspects differ in detail. There is, furthermore, a decided difference between the first and last festival days and the middle days termed ḥol ha-mo'ed (see below). The second category too can be subdivided: *Purim and *Ḥanukkah; the first being biblical (Book of Esther) and the second from the Hasmonean period; memorial days such as *Lag ba-Omer (medieval) and the 15th of *Av (mishnaic) to which may be added *Tu bi-Shevat; thirdly, certain festival days added in modern times to mark historic events of Jewish importance. Apart from the above are also festival days of individuals or communities to record salvation or a similar event.

A festival is characterized by three factors: (1) rejoicing, which mostly takes the form of ceremonial meals (with the exception of the Day of Atonement), and, on the more important biblical festivals, the prohibition of work; (2) the liturgy (or in Temple times, the special sacrificial service); and (3) special ceremonials of the festival, such as eating of maẓẓot on Passover (biblical injunction), lighting of the candles of Ḥannukah (talmudic), and the planting of saplings on Tu bi-Shevat (custom).

The liturgy is in effect dictated by the type of festival. The main changes from everyday prayer are mainly in (a) the *Amidah, (b) the addition of *Hallel, (c) the reading of the *Torah, (d) the *Musaf service representing the special sacrifices of the day (for details, see below – Liturgy). It can generally be stated that the less important the festival, the less changes are made in the liturgy. On Sabbath, the pilgrim festivals, and the high holidays, it is customary for the woman to light *candles accompanied by a special benediction, and (except Sabbath) also by the she-heḥeyanu, whereas the man makes sanctification (Kiddush) over wine (except on the Day of Atonement). It is interesting to note that the national day of mourning, Ninth of *Av, is also regarded in a sense as a festival, as it is termed "mo'ed" in Lamentations (1:15), and, according to tradition, will be the greatest festival in the time to come (with reference to Jer. 31:13).

In the Bible

The festivals mentioned in the Pentateuch as "feasts" (חַגִּים ḥaggim) are Passover (Ex. 12:14), also called "the feast of un-leavened bread"; Shavuot, otherwise "the feast of harvest" (Ex. 23:16) or the "day of the first fruits"; and *Sukkot, also known as "the feast of ingathering" (ibid.) and sometimes called simply "feast" (ḥag) in the Bible. The sages, too, mostly use the term hag by itself to refer to Sukkot. Common to all three festivals is the pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which the term (שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים "the three pilgrim festivals") is derived. The term "appointed seasons" (mo'adim) in the Pentateuch, however, includes also Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement, as in the verse "These are the appointed seasons of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their appointed season" (Lev. 23:4). At times the term "appointed seasons" is used for all the days which are "holy convocations," including the Sabbath. Rosh Ḥodesh, on which work is not forbidden by biblical injunction and which is not mentioned at all with the festivals in Leviticus, is nevertheless included among "the appointed seasons" in the section on sacrifices (Num. 28:11). It seems that the prophets, too, sometimes use "appointed seasons" to refer to the Sabbath and Rosh Ḥodesh though mostly these days are not indicated. In one instance only the three pilgrim festivals are included "on the appointed seasons, three times in the year" (ii Chron. 8:13). Thus the term "season" generally has a wider meaning in the Bible than "feast" because only the three pilgrim festivals are called "feast," whereas "season" usually comprises also Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement. A day of feasting and joy, whether fixed by individuals or established by the whole people to be observed by succeeding generations, which does not entail special sacrifices, is called yom tov (i Sam. 25:8; Esth. 8:17).

The festivals, like the Sabbath, have their origin in Divine commandments. Leviticus commands not only "it is a Sabbath unto the Lord" (23:3) and "the Sabbaths of the Lord," but also "the appointed seasons of the Lord" (23:4, 44). In the Bible the common expression "feast of the Lord" (see Hos. 9:5) or "a feast to the Lord" refers to Passover as well as to Shavuot and to Sukkot. Similarly, the festival which the children of Israel were to celebrate with sacrifices to the Lord in the wilderness is termed "feast." Aaron, too, at the incident of the golden calf, proclaims "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord" (Ex. 32:5).

The Source of the Festivals

In the pagan religions of the ancient East, the festivals were established by man in order to find favor with the deity and prevent disasters. It was against this concept that the prophets militated (cf. *Sacrifices). The biblical concept, on the other hand, is the exact antithesis, for not only are the festivals commanded by God but the service on these days as well. The festival sacrifices (Musaf) are not offered for any material reward, but in obedience to the Divine command. Among the sins of *Jeroboam is mentioned his ordainment of a feast "like unto the feast that is in Judah" on the 15th of the eighth month "in the month which he had devised of his own heart," and his bringing sacrifices on it (i Kings 12:32–33). Apart from this incident, there is no mention in the Bible of alterations to the festivals as stated in the Pentateuch or the creation of new ones; "the feast of the Lord from year to year in Shiloh" (Judg. 21:19) is seemingly one of the festivals mentioned in the Pentateuch. In the Bible various reasons are given for the festivals. Some are specifically connected with the exodus from Egypt. Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, is celebrated on the anniversary of the day that God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. The paschal lamb was commanded for all generations to commemorate "that He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt" (Ex. 12:27) and the unleavened bread is in memory of the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt. Similarly, the reason for dwelling in tabernacles on Sukkot is "that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:43); and even for Shavuot it is said, "And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt; and thou shalt observe and do these statutes" (Deut. 16:12; cf. Nahmanides ad loc.; cf. Deut. 5:15 on Sabbath). The recital on the offering of the first fruits also testifies to the exodus from Egypt (Deut. 26:5–10). Together with their theological-historical sources, the festivals are also connected with the annual agricultural cycle. Shavuot is the festival "of the first fruits of wheat harvest" (Ex. 34:22) on which two loaves made from the new wheat crop were offered; hence its names: "the harvest feast" and "the day of the first fruits." Sukkot is "the feast of the ingathering" at the end of the agricultural year when the ingathering from the threshing floor and the winepress is completed. Even Passover, in the spring, apart from the commemoration of the exodus, has an agricultural basis. The Omer sacrifice of the new barley was offered on the second day of the festival and permitted the partaking of the new grain crop.

The festivals thus seem to be rooted in two distinct sources which, according to some scholars, are independent of each other. They claim that the agricultural festivals antedate their theological-historical source, specifically pointing to the fact that Passover and Sukkot are celebrated in seasons when night and day are roughly of equal length. Their contention, however, is unacceptable since each festival in the Pentateuch is based on two distinct types of reasons stated sometimes even in the same paragraph. In the case of Passover, the agricultural motif is added to the clearly historical aspect of the festival, while with Sukkot, the historical aspect of the festival is added to the agricultural although this historical aspect is not specifically connected with the time of the year of Sukkot. At any rate the distinction between "the ancient folk festivals" and the later "theological festivals" is doubtful. Contrary to the three pilgrim festivals which are mentioned in the Bible together with their double motifs, no reason, save it being a Divine precept, is given for the day of "memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns" (i.e., the later Rosh Ha-Shanah), celebrated on the first day of the seventh month. The Day of Atonement, however, was inaugurated for the atonement of sins.

Celebration of the Festival

The Pentateuch cites two specific commandments in connection with the "seasons of the Lord, holy convocations": work is forbidden and, as a remembrance, sacrifices are to be brought to the accompaniment of trumpet blowing before the Lord (Num. 10:10). The Bible also specifically commands rejoicing on Shavuot (Deut. 16:11) and especially on Sukkot (Lev. 23:40; Deut. 16:14–15; cf. Neh. 8:17). Such commandments, however, were common to all the festivals, as is proven for instance by

the great rejoicings on Passover (Ezra 6:22; ii Chron. 30:21ff.) and those "on the first day of the seventh month" (Neh. 8:2, 9ff.). These celebrations, especially when the people gathered in the Temple, are testified to by Isaiah: "Ye shall have a song as in the night when a feast is hallowed; And gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the Lord to the Rock of Israel" (30:29). The festivals are therefore referred to as days of mirth, gladness, and joy. It seems that the rejoicing of the people at the golden calf – "[they] offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to make merry" (Ex. 32:6) – was typical of all festive celebrations, in which the huge feast as well as dancing occupied a prominent place. The celebrations were, however, limited by the sanctity of the festival, and there is no hint in the Bible of the orgies, wildness, and promiscuous abandon connected with the pagan festivals in the ancient Near East. The Pentateuch even stresses the fact that the rejoicings are of the whole community, including slaves, and commands not to forget the levite, the proselyte, the orphan, or the widow (Deut. 16:11, 14). During the early Second Temple period it was customary to send presents to the needy on the festivals (Neh. 8:10–12).

In the Apocrypha and Hellenistic Jewish Literature

During the early Second Temple period the laws of the Sabbath and festivals came to be very strictly observed. The festivals were celebrated with great rejoicings and it was customary to invite the poor to the feasting (Tob. 2:1–2). Many would go up to Jerusalem on all the festivals. During the persecutions of Antiochus, observance of the Sabbath and festivals was forbidden. *Demetrius, however, declared the Sabbaths, New Moons, and festivals, including three days before and after, to be holidays for all Jews in the Seleucid kingdom (testified to in his letter to Jonathan the Maccabee; i Macc. 10:34).

In contrast to the Greek and Roman festival celebrations which were accompanied by gluttonous, drunken, and bacchanalian revelries, Hellenistic Jewish writers stressed the uniqueness of the Jewish festivals. *Philo claims that the cessation of work on the festival was a possible danger since eating and drinking arouse lust and other low instincts. Giving vent to these feelings without restriction could lead to vice and limitless evil since the festival would serve as a protective means against retribution. The lawgiver therefore did not permit his people to celebrate their festivals in the way of other nations but commanded them first to purify themselves through the restriction of their desires for pleasure at the very time of their celebrations. Then they were to gather at the Temple to participate in the hymns, prayers, and sacrifices so that the place, the sight, and the service would influence their finer senses – sight and hearing – with a spirit of piety. Last but not least, by commanding the sacrifice of a sin-offering, he warned the people to stop sinning; for it seems that a person would not transgress at the very time he asks for forgiveness. Those gathered for the festive banquet do not come to stuff themselves with meat and wine like other nations, but through prayers and psalms follow the tradition of their forefathers. Therefore the Day of Atonement is also a festival though the partaking of food is forbidden and there is no wild rejoicing, merrymaking, and dancing accompanied by song and music which arouse uncontrollable desires. Ignorance of the nature of true happiness leads people to assume that on the festivals joy is to be achieved through physical indulgences (Philo, Spec. 2:193–4). Philo further states that the true significance of the festival is to find pleasure and enjoyment through meditation about the world and the harmony existing in it (ibid., 2:52). Were man's virtue constantly to rule his desires, his whole life, from his birth to the day he dies, would be one long festival (ibid., 2:42).

In Talmudic Literature

The term ḥaggim, as referring to Jewish festivals, hardly occurs in rabbinical literature (except in prayers which are in an archaic language). Instead, the festivals mentioned in the Bible are called mo'adot. Mo'ed (though not ha-mo'ed) in the singular is mostly applied to the intermediate days, especially to distinguish them from festival days on which no work at all is allowed. These are usually called yom tov. As in the Bible, yom tov was also applied in rabbinic literature to days of rejoicing (general or private) not mentioned in the Pentateuch, andon which work was allowed. These were either new festivals ordained for all times or days of rejoicing for certain events. It is doubtful whether the Day of Atonement was included in the term yom tov (but see Ta'an. 4:8).

The commandment concerning the feast of unleavened bread, that "… no manner of work shall be done in them…, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done by you" (Ex. 12:16), was interpreted by the sages to mean that work, for purposes of eating, is allowed on all those festivals (Sif. Num. 147) on which "servile work" is prohibited by the Pentateuch. (In contrast to the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement where it is ordained "ye shall do no work.") The types of work forbidden on the Sabbath but allowed on yom tov for the purpose of eating (Beẓah 5:2) are kneading, baking, slaughtering, skinning, salting, cutting, burning, and carrying (the last two are also permitted for purposes other than eating; Beẓah 12a–b). Hunting, reaping, sheaf binding, threshing, winnowing, selecting, and grinding are forbidden (as to sifting, opinion is divided). Types of work for the indirect preparation of food (מכשירי אוכל נפש) are permitted. The differentiation between the types of work allowed and those forbidden is apparently based on customs prevalent at the time. Except for the work permitted for the sake of food and some other minor allowances made (see Beẓah 5:1), everything forbidden on the Sabbath is also forbidden on the festivals. Moreover, the prohibition of handling *mukẓeh (non-usable) objects is stricter on the festivals than on the Sabbath so that the festival prohibitions should not be taken lightly (Beẓah 2a–b).

The festivals are also similar to the Sabbath in rejoicing and in honoring the day. All halakhic Midrashim interpret the term "holy convocation" to mean that the festivals are to be sanctified "with food and drink and clean clothes" and "the Day of Atonement, on which there is no food or drink, the Torah states that one must honor it with clean clothes" (Shab. 119a). It was usual to cut one's hair before the festivals. Similarly, it was the custom, later incorporated in the halakhah, not to work or eat in the late afternoon preceding the festival. In the Middle Ages, it became customary to light a candle on the eve of the festival and to recite a blessing, as on the Sabbath. Rejoicing on the festival involved eating and drinking (concerning the prohibition of fasting see Judith 8:6; tj, Ta'an. 2:12) and giving presents to the women and children. During the tannaitic period the sages disputed the question as to how a person should spend the festival: "R. Eliezer says that a person should either eat and drink or sit and study on the festival; R. Joshua declares that a person's time should be divided between eating and drinking and the house of learning." R. Johanan, the amora, found support in the Scriptures for both opinions (Pes. 68b; cf. Beẓah 15b; Sif. Deut. 135, is similar to R. Joshua's opinion). The amoraim also disagreed on the similar question as to whether the festivals were meant for the study of Torah, or whether eating and drinking was the main reason and permission to study the Torah on them but a secondary consideration (tj, Shab. 15:3). According to the sources, it seems that it was customary to go to the bet hamidrash both on the eve of the festival as well as in the morning. Prayers, however, were shortened because of the festive meal. The sages, while stating that "the festivals were given to Israel only for their own pleasure" (S. Buber (ed.), Midrash Tanḥuma (1885), Mid. Tanḥuma Gen. 4), nevertheless noted the difference between Israel and the nations: "You grant the nations many festivals and they eat, drink, and are wanton, they go to the theater, the circus, and anger You by word and deed; but Israel is not so. You grant them festivals and they eat, drink, and rejoice, and go to the synagogues and battei midrash ("houses of learning") and multiply their prayers, their festival offerings, and their sacrifices" (pdrk 340–1). It seems that R. Joshua's opinion ("half to the Lord and half for yourselves") was practiced and became halakhah. However, practices of drunkenness and licentiousness are also mentioned (Beẓah 4a; Kid. 81a); R. Abba bar Memel, a Palestinian amora, states, "Did they not forbid work on the intermediate days only in order that people should eat, drink, and diligently study the Torah? But they eat, drink, and are wanton" (tj, mk 2:3) – exactly as the Midrash describes the gentile nations.

Paul opposed the observance of the Sabbath and the festivals (Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16). Traces of the Jewish-Christian dispute concerning the festivals are found in the Midrash (S. Buber (ed.), Midrash Tanḥuma (1885), Pinḥas, para. 17). The sharp condemnation by the sages of "he who despises the festivals" (Avot 3:12; Pes. 118a) is probably directed against the Christian heretics, and probably because of them the observance of the Sabbath and the festivals was stressed so strongly in Ereẓ Israel. Later, in the Middle Ages, Judah Halevi states that the festivals were the main factor which upheld Israel in its exile (Kuzari 3:10).

The Intermediate Days

Apart from the laws governing the musaf sacrifices on the festivals, nothing is stated about the festival days following the first day of Passover and Sukkot, respectively, which the sages called ḥolo shel mo'ed or just mo'ed. They taught that these days are also to be considered as days of "holy convocation." Only partial work is permitted on them for "the Torah gave the sages the power of determining on which day it is forbidden to do work and on which day it is allowed; which work is forbidden and which allowed" (Sif. Deut. 135). Generally, work which prevents deterioration or loss is permitted on the intermediate days; where this is not the case, work is forbidden. It is forbidden to delay work in order to do it on the intermediate days except for public works. In Ereẓ Israel stringent laws were imposed whereby no work at all was done, even if it was required for the festival itself. The halakhah, however, conformed to the Babylonian practice which allowed some work (as mentioned above). All must rejoice on the intermediate days; thus marriage is not permitted on these days as rejoicing should not be mixed, ein me'arevim simḥah be-simḥah (mk 8b).

[Moshe David Herr]

Second Days of Festivals

In the Diaspora an extra day (in Heb. yom tov sheni shel galuyyot) is added to each of the biblical festival days, except for ḥol ha-mo'ed and the Day of Atonement. The practice originated because of the uncertainty in the Diaspora of the day on which the Sanhedrin announced the New Moon. Later, when astronomical calculations were relied upon, the sages declared that the custom should nevertheless be accepted as permanent. Although the Day of Atonement was an exception, as a double fast day was considered too difficult, there were individuals who observed two days. Rosh Ha-Shanah, on the other hand, gradually came to be observed as a two-day festival even in Ereẓ Israel; beginnings of the custom here, too, are to be found in the Second Temple period (rh 4:4), although it became universal only in the Middle Ages. With regard to Passover and Sukkot, the first day of ḥol ha-mo'ed was observed as a full festival day in the Diaspora while an additional day was added at the end. Thus on Passover a second seder is held on the second night and an eighth day is added. The day following Shemini Aẓeret at the completion of Sukkot became known as Simḥat Torah, the "Rejoicing of the Law." As long as the new moon was determined by visual evidence, there was no fixed date for Shavuot, so that the day of the festival was not in any doubt as it was always on the 50th day counting from the second day of Passover, which day would have been ratified in good time by the Sanhedrin messengers. Despite this, a second day was observed in the Diaspora for Shavuot as well. It would appear that certain sources regard the second day as a punishment and that for its observance no reward is to be expected (tj, Eruv. 3:9). The only difference in observance between the additional days and regular festival days is in the practice concerning burial, the use of medicine (Sh. Ar., oḤ, 496:2), and laws regarding nolad (the appearance or creation of something not previously in existence). An egg, for instance, which was laid on the first day of the festival remains forbidden all that day but may be eaten on the second day (ibid. 513:5). On the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, however, nolad is not permitted to be used because the two days are considered one long day. Certain trends in Conservative Judaism have made the second festival day optional, while the Reform has abolished it altogether, even for Rosh Ha-Shanah.

A person from Ereẓ Israel who temporarily visits the Diaspora has to observe the additional day when in company, so as not to arouse controversy (ibid. 496:3, cf. Pes. 4:1; see *Domicile). A visitor to Ereẓ Israel, however, observes only one day if he has any intention of staying. According to Ẓevi Hirsch *Ashkenazi, even without such intention he observes one day only (Ḥakham Ẓevi, resp. no. 167).


On the three pilgrim festivals and on the high holidays a special *Amidah is recited while on Rosh Ḥodesh and ḥol ha-mo'ed the ordinary weekday Amidah is said. In both, the *ya'aleh ve-yavo prayer is included, as also in the Grace after Meals. On Ḥanukkah and Purim *al ha-nissim, recounting the miracles of the particular festival, is said in both Amidah and Grace. The Amidah is followed by *Hallel, preceded and completed by a benediction. On Shavuot, Sukkot (including hol ha'mo'ed), Shemini Aẓeret, and Ḥanukkah, Hallel is recited in its complete form. On Passover full Hallel is recited on the first day(s) only but not on ḥol ha-mo'ed or on the last festival day(s) when only "half" Hallel is recited. Full Hallel is also recited during the seder and in many congregations also at the conclusion of the evening service on Passover eve. On Rosh Ha-Shanah and the Day of Atonement, Hallel is deleted as these are days of judgment. On Purim, too, Hallel is not recited. On Rosh Ḥodesh "half" Hallel is recited (a Babylonian custom). The Torah reading on the festivals is from two scrolls: the first portion always contains a reference to the festivals, while the second is from Numbers 28–29 concerning the special sacrifice of the day. On Simḥat Torah three scrolls are read: in the first the Pentateuch is concluded; in the second it is begun again; while from the third the reading is of the sacrifices of the day. Unlike on the Sabbath, there is no reading at the afternoon service, except on the Day of Atonement. On the other hand, in many congregations the Torah is read on Simhat Torah eve. It is customary to read the Song of Songs on the Sabbath during Passover and Ecclesiastes on the Sabbath of Sukkot. On Shavuot the Book of Ruth is read and on Purim the Book of Esther. Lamentations is read on the Ninth of Av. On all the Pentateuchal festivals, including ḥol ha-mo'ed and Rosh Ḥodesh, the *MusafAmidah is recited which corresponds to the special sacrifices of the day. On Rosh Ḥodesh the *tefillin are taken off before Musaf, while on ḥol ha-mo'ed tefillin are not used except according to Ashkenazi practice in the Diaspora, when they are taken off before Hallel. In contrast to Ereẓ Israel, the priests recite the *priestly blessing in the Diaspora only during the Musaf service of the festivals (excluding Rosh Ḥodesh). When one of the festival days is followed by the Sabbath, a procedure known as *eruvtavshilin permits the preparation of food on the festival for the Sabbath, which would otherwise be prohibited.

The "good days" mentioned in *Megillat Ta'anit, of which some are also mentioned in other sources, were all established in the Second Temple period. Save for Ḥanukkah and Purim all have long disappeared, the last one being Nicanor's Day (13th Adar) which was still observed in Ereẓ Israel in the seventh to ninth centuries. During the Middle Ages and in modern times other days became commonly accepted as "good days," some without any official standing. These are Lag ba-Omer, the 15th of Av, and Tu bi-Shevat, and lately Israel *Independence Day, which is also celebrated as a holiday with special prayers and Hallel.

Women and the Festivals

Women are responsible for obeying all of Judaism's negative commandments and for observing most of the positive commandments. These positive precepts include celebrating the Sabbath and all of the holy days and festivals of the Jewish year (tb Pes. 109a). However, women are exempt from the following positive mitzvot linked to festivals and holy days: hearing the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah, dwelling in a sukkah during the Sukkot festival, waving the lulav on Sukkot, and counting the omer. Since these are all commandments that are to be performed at fixed times of the year, they conform to the exemption of women from time-bound mitzvot prescribed in Kid. 1:7. Yet, the Talmud specifically obligates women to other time-bound festival observances, generally rituals that take place in the home. These include kiddush (sanctification of wine) on the Sabbath (Ber. 20b), and, according to most authorities, on the festivals as well; kindling Sabbath and festival lights and the Hanukkah lamp (Shab. 23a); listening to the reading of the megillah (Scroll of Esther) on Purim (Meg. 4a); and eating maẓẓah (Pes. 43b) and drinking four cups of wine at the Passover seder (Pes.108a).

A number of rabbinic authorities have held that a woman's voluntary performance of those festival mitzvot from which she is halakhically exempt should be understood as a praiseworthy personal minhag (custom) or permitted as a fulfillment of an individual neder (vow). Authorities have been divided over whether one who observes an optional mitzvah may recite the benediction that usually accompanies the performance of that precept. R. Moses *Isserles (the Rema, 1525 or 1530–1572) maintained that a woman could recite the blessing in this case (Sh. Ar., Oraḥ Ḥayyim 589:6) and this became the custom among Ashkenazi Jews. Thus, a woman may choose to listen to the shofar or may sound it herself, and she may recite the appropriate blessing (oḤ 589:6). A woman may not sound the shofar on behalf of others, according to the principle that only one who is obligated to perform a precept may perform it for others (oḤ 589:1).

Two of the three commandments specifically associated with women in rabbinic tradition are connected with Sabbath observance (Shab. 2:6). These are the kindling of Sabbath lights before sunset (hadlakah) and removing some of the dough from the Sabbath loaf and burning it in the oven in remembrance of Temple sacrifice (ḥallah). These two obligations may also be performed by a man if no woman is present; however, the Shulhan Arukh rules that a woman takes precedence over a man in kindling the Sabbath lights for her household (oḤ 263:2, 3).

Women, like men, are required to fast and afflict themselves in various ways on the Day of Atonement and to refrain from doing any work (Suk. 28b); they are also obligated to observe all other mandated fast days. Pregnant women are expected to fast (oḤ 617:1). If a pregnant woman says she must eat, she may be given incremental amounts of liquid and then food until she is satisfied (oḤ 617:1). A woman in childbirth, from the onset of labor until three days after the birth of her child, must eat normally (oḤ 617:4). A nursing mother should fast unless her fasting will jeopardize her child's health.

Men have traditionally observed Simḥat Torah with festive celebration, particularly circular processions (hakafot) around the synagogue, and joyous dancing, with the Torah scrolls. In recent years many women have initiated separate women's hakafot with the Torah scrolls. There is no halakhic objection to this practice since a woman, like a man, is permitted to touch and hold the Torah scroll at all times (yd 282:9). Some contemporary Orthodox authorities, however, oppose this innovation because they link it with their perceptions of feminism as a threat to traditional Jewish life.

Rosh Ḥodesh, the festival marking the New Moon and the start of each month, is strongly associated with women in Jewish tradition. In some eras in the Jewish past, women's abstention from work on Rosh Ḥodesh was encouraged; the Shulhan Arukh says women may work on Rosh Ḥodesh but praises Jewish women who refrain from doing so (oḥ 417:1). Women are forbidden to fast on Rosh Ḥodesh (oḤ 418:1) and it is a mitzvah for them to feast (Oh 419:1). However, women are exempt from the obligation to bless the New Moon on its appearance, since this is a time-bound positive precept (Halikhot Betah 16:10). In recent decades, many Jewish women have reclaimed their traditional association with this day, forming Rosh Ḥodesh groups for study and fellowship.

[Judith R. Baskin (2nd ed.)]


G.F. Moore, Judaism, 2 (1927), 40–54; E. Rackman, Sabbath and Festivals in the Modern Age (1961); Y. Vain-stein, Cycle of the Jewish Year (19612); H. Schauss, Guide to Jewish Holy Days (1962); S.Y. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (196310); Y.L. Barukh and Y.T. Levinsky (eds.), Sefer ha-Mo'adim, 8 vols. (1963–65ḥ); S. Goren, Torat ha-Mo'adim (1964); E. Kitov, Book of Our Heritage, 1 (1968). See also the bibliographies attached to the articles on the individual festivals. on second days of festivals: Conservative Judaism, 24:2 (Winter 1970), 21–59. add. bibliography: P.V. Adelman, Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year (1986); S. Cohen Anisfeld, T. Mohr, and C. Spector (eds.), The Women's Passover Companion: Women's Reflections on the Festival of Freedom (2003); ibid., The Women's Seder Sourcebook: Rituals and Readings for Use at the Passover Seder (2003; R. Biale, Women in Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources (1995); E.M. Broner, Bringing Home the Light: A Jewish Woman's Handbook of Rituals (1999); M. Kaufman, The Woman in Jewish Law and Tradition (1993); G. Twersky Reimer and J.A. Kates (eds.), Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days (1997).


views updated Jun 08 2018




A film festival is an event designed to exhibit, celebrate, and promote a selection of motion pictures chosen according to the particular aims and ambitions of the event's organizers and sponsors. Although the exact origin of the term "film festival" is difficult to determine, its near-universal use probably stems more from its alliterative lilt than from its precision as a descriptive tool. Most film festivals do have characteristics that can be described as festive, such as gala opening ceremonies and guest appearances by directors and celebrities. Still, the events are generally taken quite seriously by the movie buffs, film-industry insiders, and journalists who attend them. Many find festivals to be occasions for prolonged and intensive activity including long hours of screenings, press conferences, question-and-answer sessions, and networking with like-minded professionals and fans.

Beyond these aspects it is hard to generalize about film festivals, which vary widely in their purposes and goals. Some are regional, focusing on productions with limited budgets and ambitions and appealing primarily to local audiences. Others are national or international, drawing attendees from near and far by showcasing a diverse array of movies from many countries. Some have expansive programs with hundreds of titles, whereas others limit their slates to a modest number of rigorously selected entries. Some are eclectic and all-embracing in scope; others have specific interests with regard to genre or format, specializing in such areas as animation, documentary, short films, gay and lesbian films, and films for children. Some give prizes to films, filmmakers, and performers; others deliberately avoid this practice. Few rules for film-festival organizing exist beyond knowing what might currently attract cinema enthusiasts.


The origin of film festivals can be traced to the rise of film societies and cine-clubs, which sprang up in various countries during the 1920s, often as a reaction to what many regarded as the dominance of the newly powerful Hollywood film industry over the cinemas of less well-endowed nations and over noncommercial movements devoted to such causes as documentary and avant-garde film. Such clubs and societies flourished in countries as different as France, where they fostered the emergence of the historically important impressionist and surrealist cinemas, and Brazil, where they provided the only consistent outlet for domestically produced movies. Although most film clubs and societies were in Western Europe, some were established in Latin America and the United States as well. As such groups grew and spread, they started to arrange international conclaves where their members—many of whom were practicing or aspiring filmmakers—could share ideas and inspirations without regard to national borders. Activities like these were the predecessors and prototypes of film festivals per se.

The first true film festival came into being as a direct result of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's (1883–1945) enthusiasm for motion pictures as a tool for political public relations and propaganda. Eager to spur the development of state-run Italian cinema in the face of competition from Hollywood and elsewhere, he spent lavishly to build up the native film industry while imposing heavy taxation on the dubbing of foreign-language movies, thus hampering their distribution and exhibition. Among the cultural projects he chose to support through his Ministry of Information was the already existing Venice Biennial Exhibition of Italian Art, which gave birth to the International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art in August 1932 as part of an effort to make the Biennial more varied and multidisciplinary in content. The first cinema program commenced with the premiere of the horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) and included twenty-four other entries from seven countries. The declared purpose of the exhibition was to allow "the light of art to shine over the world of commerce," but it soon became clear that power politics were a major subtext of the event. In 1935, its first year as an annually scheduled festival, it marked the ongoing rise of European fascism by instituting official prizes in place of the popularity poll and "participation diploma" of the 1932 program. This paved the way not only for a yearly Best Italian Film award but also for productions of Nazi Germany, an Italian ally at that time, to win the Best Foreign Film laurel four times between 1936 and 1942. The arrangement also allowed Leni Riefenstahl's (1902–2003) two-part Olympia (1938), a paean to Aryan supremacy in the 1936 Olympic Games, to share the highest prize (the Mussolini Cup) in 1938 with an Italian drama about a fascist soldier in the Ethiopian campaign. It seemed hardly coincidental that Mussolini's oldest son, Vittorio, appeared in the credits as "supervisor" of the latter film. American and British members of the festival jury resigned as soon as these awards were made public.

French participants in the festival also walked out, protesting the Mussolini Cup decisions and expressing belated anger over the 1937 veto by festival authorities of a top prize for Jean Renoir's great war drama La grande illusion (The Grand Illusion, 1937), the much-admired French entry. This proved to be an unofficial first step toward the establishment of a French film festival designed to outdo and overshadow its Italian counterpart, which was now politically and morally tainted in the eyes of much of the cultural world. The cinema authority Robert Favre le Bret and the historian Philippe Erlanger, who was chief of an organization called Action Artistique Français, headed the committee charged with creating such a festival, and pioneering filmmaker Louis Lumière (1864–1948) served as the group's president. Overcoming fears that such a move would provoke Mussolini's anger, the French government declared its willingness to provide necessary funding, and a few months later the Riviera city of Cannes—having staved off competition from sundry French, Belgian, and Swiss cities—started planning a state-of-the-art Palais des Festivals to house the new event.

Other, smaller festivals had sprung up in the wake of Venice's early success, but it was the advent of Cannes that established the film festival as a staple of the modern cultural scene. Formally dubbed the Cannes International Film Festival, it debuted in September 1939, a time of year selected so as to extend the traditional tourist season by a couple of weeks. The program included The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Only Angels Have Wings. Gary Cooper, Mae West, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Shearer, and Tyrone Power were on the "steamship of stars" dispatched to Cannes by Hollywood's mighty MGM studio. A cardboard model of the Cathedral de Nôtre-Dame was erected on the beach, heralding William Dieterle's (1893–1972) version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) as the festival's opening-night attraction. In a shocking twist, however, the opening film was the only film to be screened: Germany's invasion of Poland on the same day (1 September) led the festival's leaders to close its doors only hours after they had opened. The doors would not reopen until September 1946. (Ironically, the Venice festival also reopened in 1946 after three years of suspension due to the chaos of World War II.) Despite technical problems—projection glitches interrupted the opening-night screening, and reels of Alfred Hitchcock's (1899–1980) thriller Notorious (1946) were shown out of order—the Cannes program of 1946 was a great success. Still, the 1947 edition was diminished by the absence of such major countries as England and the Soviet Union, and the 1948 program was canceled. Not until 1951 did Cannes become a dependable yearly event, changing its dates to the spring, when more major movies are available. Since then it has reigned as the world's most prestigious and influential film festival, attracting thousands of journalists to its daylong press screenings and armies of industry professionals to both the festival and the Film Market held concurrently in the Palais and theaters scattered throughout the city.

Festivals proliferated at a growing rate in Europe and elsewhere during the 1950s, affirming the ongoing artistic (and commercial) importance of film at a time when global warfare was becoming a memory and world culture was energetically entering the second half of the twentieth century. Politics played a far smaller role in this phase of festival history than when the Venice and Cannes festivals were founded, but political considerations did not entirely vanish from the scene. The large and ambitious Berlin International Film Festival, for example, was established in 1951, presenting itself as a geographical and artistic meeting ground between East and West as the Cold War climbed into high gear. This was not an easy position to assume, given that socialist nations of the Eastern bloc did not participate officially until 1975, although individual films did represent such countries in the program from time to time.

The most important new festival to emerge in the 1960s was the New York Film Festival, founded in 1963 at Lincoln Center, one of the city's leading cultural venues. Modeled to some extent after the London Film Festival, the New York festival took advantage of Lincoln Center's enormous prestige in the artistic community—as home to such various institutions as the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, among others—to underwrite the aesthetic pedigree of the art films, avant-garde works, and documentaries that dominated its programs. Such cinema found an enthusiastic (if limited) audience at a time when sophisticated spectators were unusually receptive to innovative foreign movies (from Europe and Japan especially) presented in their original languages with subtitles. Unlike the heavily programmed festivals at Cannes and Berlin, the New York festival showed a limited quantity of films—about two dozen features and a similar number of shorts, chosen by a five-member selection committee—and it declined to give prizes, asserting that its highly selective nature made every work shown there a "winner."

Two key events in film-festival history took place in the 1970s. The first was the 1976 debut of the Toronto International Film Festival, originally known as the Festival of Festivals, a name that underscored its commitment to importing major attractions from other festivals for Canadian audiences. Its first year was marred by the withdrawal of expected contributions from some Hollywood studios, apparently because its Toronto audience base was considered too parochial. Still, in subsequent years it has grown into one of the most all-embracing festivals in the world, with an annual slate ranging from domestic productions to international art films and (ironically) more Hollywood products than are likely to be found at any comparable event. Canada also hosts two other major festivals, the Montreal World Film Festival and the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The other major development of the 1970s was the founding of the United States Film Festival in Salt Lake City in 1978, devised by the Utah Film Commission as a means of spotlighting the state's assets as a site for film production. After concentrating its energies on retrospectives and discussion-centered events for three years, during which it also sponsored a nationwide competition for new independent films, the event moved to the smaller community of Park City in 1981 and began to seek a higher profile. It was acquired in 1985 by actor Robert Redford (b. 1936) and the four-year-old Sundance Institute, which Redford had established to foster the growth of "indie" filmmaking outside the Hollywood system. Renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, it has become an eagerly covered media event as well as a wide-ranging showcase for both independent and international productions.

Alongside the attention-getting world-class festivals, over a thousand more modest events have cropped up. Some have tried to establish uniqueness by using a word other than "festival" in their names, such as the French-American Film Workshop held in New York and Avignon, France, and the Lake Placid Film Forum in upstate New York, which emphasizes relationships between cinema and the written word. Major festivals also exist outside the United States and Europe, such as the Ouagadougou Festival in the African nation of Burkina Faso and the Shanghai and Tokyo festivals in Asia.


Festivals vary in how they choose their films and what types they show, in the degree of geographical diversity they seek, in their willingness to give prizes, and in many other respects. The New York Film Festival presents films chosen by a five-member selection committee—two permanent members who are full-time employees of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and three rotating members (film critics or scholars) who serve terms of three to five years. The event has broadened its scope over the years, adding more special screenings and sidebar programs, including an annual weekend of avant-garde cinema that is unique among major festivals. It remains noncompetitive, however, and considers itself a "public festival" where the intended audience consists primarily of movie buffs, in contrast to the large contingents of film professionals who attend larger-scale North American and European festivals.

By common consensus, Cannes is the single most important film festival in the world. This is partly because of its age, partly because of its size, and partly because success tends to breed success—in other words, the festival traditionally thought of as the most influential is indeed the most influential for that very reason. The Cannes program is chosen by the festival director with the advice of assistant programmers assigned to specialized fields (documentary, Asian cinema, short films, and so on). Robert Favre le Bret, Gilles Jacob, and most recently Thierry Frémaux have had final say over the selection since 1972, when the festival eliminated its policy of allowing each participating country to choose its own presentations. Cannes divides its programs into several categories. The most highly visible is the Competition, usually comprising two features for each day of the twelve-day event, many of them directed by established auteurs of world cinema. Films directed by favored newcomers, including actors with Cannes credentials like Johnny Depp (The Brave, 1997) and Vincent Gallo (The Brown Bunny, 2003), also make their way into the Competition from time to time, although in the eyes of most critics the results in these two cases were disastrous. The main sidebar program, Un Certain Regard ("A Certain Look"), focuses on movies by newer or less-known talents whom the festival considers worthy of attention and support.

b. Charles Robert Redford Jr., Santa Monica, California, 18 August 1937

Robert Redford is an internationally known actor, producer, and director who has become an influential festival impresario via the Sundance Film Festival, until 1991 known as the United States Film Festival. Redford acquired the seven-year-old festival in 1985 as an adjunct to the Sundance Institute, which he founded in 1981 to encourage filmmaking outside Hollywood by supporting new directors and screenwriters, and by facilitating the exhibition of independently made fiction and documentary features. The institute now sponsors film-development workshops, a film-music program, and theater projects as well as the festival and the television outlet (the Sundance Channel) for which it is most widely recognized. It has also established the Sundance Collection at the University of California at Los Angeles, an archive that acquires and preserves independent films.

Screening movies is still the institute's most prominent activity: in 2005 the Sundance festival showed more than 200 films for almost 47,000 spectators, three times the attendance of a decade earlier. It also serves as an important marketplace for American and international cinema, attracting distributors and exhibitors on the lookout for fresh, offbeat work. Its reputation for such fare was sparked largely by the 1989 premiere of Steven Soderbergh's debut film sex, lies, and videotape. The festival's openness to a wide range of fiction, nonfiction, and international movies has also helped Sundance programmers retain a commitment to "indie" filmmaking while sidestepping issues related to the increasingly blurred boundaries between mainstream (i.e., Hollywood) and independent styles and modes of production.

As a youth Redford studied painting in Europe and attended New York's prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts to hone his acting skills. He is also a longtime environmental activist. Such activities signal an artistic ambition and social awareness that run against the grain of Redford's commercially driven Hollywood career, perhaps explaining his decision to put so much money and muscle into organizations dedicated to independent cinema. His performance in the hugely popular western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) made him a top-ranking celebrity. He also starred in such box-office hits as Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Sting (1973), The Natural (1984), and Indecent Proposal (1993). The more thoughtful side of his creative personality has surfaced in films such as All the President's Men (1976), in which he played one of the Washington Post reporters who exposed the Watergate political scandal, and Ordinary People (1980) and Quiz Show (1994), which he directed.


As Actor: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973), The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), All the President's Men (1976); As Actor and Director: The Horse Whisperer (1998); As Director: Ordinary People (1980), The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), A River Runs Through It (1992), Quiz Show (1994), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)


Anderson, John. Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening In at America's Most Important Film Festival. New York: Avon Books, 2000.

Dyer, Richard, and Paul McDonald. Stars. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Friedenberg, Richard, and Robert Redford. A River Runs Through It: Bringing a Classic to the Screen. Livingston: Clark City Press, 1992.

David Sterritt

Two other series operate outside the formal boundaries of the festival: the International Critics Week, where selections are chosen by a panel of film critics, and the Directors' Fortnight, founded in 1969 as a competitor to the official festival, which was interrupted in the politically charged year of 1968 by disruptive protests involving such major directors as François Truffaut (1932–1984) and Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), leading figures in France's revolutionary New Wave filmmaking movement. All of these programs coexist peacefully with the festival and with the concurrent Film Market, established in 1960 as a place where producers, distributors, exhibitors, and

others involved in the circulation of new movies can meet, network, and do business with one another. Features shown in the festival may have additional exposure in the market's eighteen screening rooms, although priority for entry to these showings is given to film-industry professionals who purchase market credentials in advance. The market's program for 2004 included approximately fifteen hundred screenings of more than nine hundred films, more than five hundred of them world premieres and the great majority not included in the festival itself. The market also sponsors a Short Film Corner that typically screens hundreds of shorts. In all, these programs attracted more than eight thousand participants in 2004, representing seventy-four countries. The market is thus considered a key interchange for international acquisition and distribution of movies made around the world.

Overall attendance at Cannes is skewed heavily toward film professionals, including film journalists and critics, who see the major entries in regularly scheduled press screenings beginning at 8:30 every morning and proceeding until late evening. The prizes at Cannes are awarded by a jury with a different membership of notable film-world personalities (directors, producers, performers, screenwriters, etc.) each year. At times jury decisions diverge greatly from the impression made by a given film on festival-goers in general, as when Bruno Dumont's ambitious French production L'Humanité (1999) won the Grand Prize of the Jury as well as best actress (shared) and best actor awards after being jeered at during its press screening. The prizes given at Cannes vary a bit from one year to another, but always include the top Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) award as well as a Grand Prize, a Jury Prize given to a technician, and prizes for best actress, actor, screenplay, and director. In addition, honors are given by a separate jury to three short films; the Cinéfondation of France bestows three awards; and the Caméra d'Or prize is given to the best Competition or Certain Regard film directed by a first-time filmmaker. The highest prizes at Cannes, especially the Golden Palm, are considered the most prestigious of all motion-picture honors with the possible exception of the Academy Awards®.

The Toronto festival awards several prizes, but the practice has a lower profile than at Cannes. The People's Choice Award is determined by audience ballots after each public screening; the Discovery Award is voted on by members of the press, representing several hundred international media outlets; and juries select the recipients of awards for best Canadian feature, best Canadian feature by a first-time director, and best Canadian short film. In addition, an independent jury administered by the International Federation of Film Critics gives an award for the best feature by an emerging filmmaker. (More commonly known by its European acronym, FIPRESCI, this organization establishes prize-giving juries, composed of film critics, at many festivals around the world.) Toronto is generally seen as the most important North American festival and a close second to Cannes in terms of global influence. Its wide-ranging program is divided into numerous categories including Galas and Special Presentations for high-profile features, Masters for works by recognized auteurs, Director's Spotlight for works by especially adventurous or under-recognized filmmakers, National Cinema for features from a particular country selected for attention that year, Wavelengths and Visions for experimental and avant-garde works, and until 2004, Perspective Canada for domestic productions. As at Cannes, film professionals make up much of the audience, but many local moviegoers can be found in the public screenings (as opposed to the press screenings) as well.


Festivals with lower profiles, from the interestingly specialized to the obscure, abound. One film critic has estimated that New York City alone has no fewer than thirty. Iowa has the Hardacre Film Festival, North Carolina the Hi Mom Film Festival. Other festivals signal their specialties via their unusual names. Examples include the Rendezvous with Madness Film and Video Festival in Canada, organized around works about mental illness and addiction; the Madcat Women's International Film Festival in California, featuring independent and experimental work by women; and the Tacoma Tortured Artists International Film Festival in Washington, devoted to independent filmmakers.

One of the most respected specialized festivals is Pordenone-Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, established in 1982 by the Cinemazero Film Club and La Cineteca del Friuli, a film archive. Focusing entirely on silent cinema, this event in the north of Italy draws an international audience of archivists, scholars, critics, and adventurous movie fans to a wide range of programming that has included everything from Krazy Kat cartoons and Cecil B. DeMille melodramas to century-old kinetoscopes and comedies with forgotten American entertainers. Also highly regarded is the Locarno International Film Festival, launched by its Swiss founders in 1946 and celebrated for its attention to films by first- and second-time directors, and for its screenings of underrated movies chosen by currently well-known filmmakers. The hugely ambitious Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands has earned high marks for its commitment to avant-garde cinema as well as children's films, new features by innovative directors, and an Exploding Cinema sidebar devoted to multimedia projects. This festival also presents film-related lectures and gives monetary grants to promising directors from developing nations through the Hubert Bals Fund, which it administers. The San Francisco International Film Festival, established in 1957, helped blaze various trails for the growing American festival scene with its eclectic blend of major new productions, classics restored to mint condition, and retrospectives devoted to filmmakers better known by art-film enthusiasts than by the general public.

Among the more unusual American festivals is the Telluride Film Festival, founded in 1974 in a small Colorado town—once a mining community, now a popular skiing site—and considered by many to be one of the world's most intelligently programmed cinema events. It refuses to divulge its schedule until ticket-holders arrive at the festival gate, making attendance less a matter of access to particular premieres than of overall faith in the programmers. Telluride ensures the presence of celebrities—a diverse lot ranging from the actress Shirley MacLaine to the novelist Salman Rushdie—by holding tributes, complete with screenings of relevant films and the awarding of medals, to three film-world notables each year. Screenings are held in several venues including a community center and an intimate opera house where Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) and Jenny Lind (1820–1887) performed during the mining-boom era; the original marquee of the opera house, displaying the word "SHOW" in large letters, is still standing and serves as the festival's trademark. The legendary Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones (1912–2002), a frequent attendee until his death in 2002, once paid his respects to Telluride's nine-thousand-foot elevation by saluting the festival as "the most fun you'll ever have without breathing."


Film festivals will most likely retain their popularity. However, they are also likely to change their selection standards and exhibition formats as technological developments in cinema—such as the increasing use of digital systems in cinematography and projection processes—alter the nature of cinema itself. Most festivals have already shown an increased willingness to judge films for potential selection on the basis of video copies rather than 35 mm prints, and many have opened the door (in some cases grudgingly) to public screenings using video-projection systems, especially when the movie was originally shot on video. Another question that confronts the program directors of many general-interest festivals is whether they should focus primarily on the best of cinematic art—which may include obscure, difficult, and esoteric works—or turn in more commercially oriented directions. By courting movies with trendy themes, palatable styles, and major stars who may agree to make personal appearances, festivals could potentially draw larger audiences, attract greater press attention, and satisfy financial sponsors banking on association with celebrities and their projects.

The staying power of film festivals will continue to depend, in part, on providing an alternative to the multiplex. The shrinking number of art-film theaters, owing to competition from cable television and the home-video industry, also lends increasing importance to festivals. Exhibition patterns have always influenced cinematic styles, and the festival phenomenon has given indispensable exposure to new and unconventional works that might not otherwise be seen by the producers, distributors, exhibitors, and others who largely control the financial infrastructure of theatrical film. Also invaluable is many festivals' practice of spotlighting overlooked or forgotten movies from the past that would otherwise remain unknown to—or at least unviewable by—scholars and critics as well as curious movie fans. Ever since Venice commenced its festival activities in the 1930s, such events have amply proven their merit as what Richard Peña, the New York Film Festival program director, describes as "a refuge from the vicissitudes of the marketplace." Film festivals are indeed one of the vital signs of a thriving cinema.

SEE ALSO Academy Awards®;Prizes and Awards


Anderson, John. Sundancing: Hanging Out and Listening In at America's Most Important Film Festival. New York: Avon Books, 2000.

Beauchamp, Cari, and Henri Béhar. Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival. New York: Morrow, 1992.

Gaydos, Steven. The Variety Guide to Film Festivals: The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Film Festivals around the World. New York: Perigee, 1998.

Langer, Adam. The Film Festival Guide: For Filmmakers, Film Buffs, and Industry Professionals. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2000.

Stolberg, Shael, ed. International Film Festival Guide. Toronto: Festival Products, 2000.

Turan, Kenneth. Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

David Sterritt


views updated May 29 2018


Festivals are generally public events that celebrate religious or cultural traditions. Nonetheless, they can also be construed as public performance spaces in which conventional assumptions of power can be challenged or renegotiated. According to the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1984), at a festival the powerless can subvert the role of the powerful—albeit often humorously—and reconfigure the public square. Samuel Kinser argues that they can also function as a liminal, in-between space where new cultural forms and identities may emerge (1990, p. 31). For enslaved African Americans during the colonial and antebellum periods, public festivals represented both kinds of spaces. Although slaves ostensibly mimicked the actions and rituals of the ruling class during their parades, they often engaged in ironic, subtle jabs at their slaveholding masters. This undoubtedly provided some respite from the harsh and dreadful conditions that they were forced to endure. But they did not merely exaggerate or humorously reference white customs.

Whereas most of the slave festivals centered around the public or ritual events to which white society subscribed, the descendents of slaves also developed distinctly African American performances and rituals that were an amalgamation of traditional African cultural practices and the European, Native American, and Caribbean forms they encountered in the New World. Both the Christmas masking festival of Jonkonnu in the Carolinas and Virginia and Negro Election Day in New England are examples of distinctive African American public celebrations. Like most slave festivals they included energetic dancing formations, singing, sporting-like competitions, and parades led by an outlandishly garbed king who was accompanied by fantastically dressed musicians and by militiamen who fired muskets in the air. William Pierson notes that festivals that included parades such as the Negro Election Day "typically featured boisterous, improvised music and back-and-forth interaction between male and female spectators and parade performers," that were common to cultural rituals in the Caribbean and West Africa (2002, p. 256).

Author Robert Farris Thompson concludes that Yoruba and Bakonga performance aesthetics were particularly influential in the development of American slave festivals and parades. Thompson states that the Yoruba verb pagbo, to parade, combines concepts of joining things together (pa bring things in contact with one another) and circularity, agbo stands for circle (Thompson 1988, p. 19). The Bakonga (people from the Congo) as Thompson suggests, "believed that processioneering around a village can mystically heal its hidden problems, [and] can 'cool' the entire settlement with circularing gestures of felicity and good faith" (Thompson 1988, p. 20). Slaves continued this parading tradition and also adapted the percussive rhythms, the "calland-response" between groups of performers, and the "battles of aesthetic virtuosity" between dancers in their own festivals (Thompson 1988, p. 19).

One of the most important West African features that slaves maintained were the circular dance patterns. The circling, which involves negotiation between the groups and between the performers and the audience, also suggests a negotiation of power spaces. In discussing the Jonkonnu festival, Pierson suggests that this "exchange was purposely subversive to artificial distinctions of power and prestige"—specifically to the distinctions set in place by the white slave owners (2002, p. 264). In other words, the communal, ecstatic bond between dancers as they ritually reenacted age-old African dance patterns, allowed them to deny their subservient enslaved position. That slaves were allowed to hold such gatherings may seem surprising. Undoubtedly, such festivals were "more palatable for white society to swallow than serious, solemn gatherings" (Kinser 1990, p. 57).

Though there were a variety of other popular slave festivals, especially the corn shucking contests that occurred throughout the country, the remainder of this essay will focus on the Pinkster in New York and the contribution of African American dance traditions to the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans. The Pinkster, the most famous of which occurred in Albany, New York, was originally a Dutch festival that celebrated the Christian feast of Pentecost. By the eighteenth century however, it had been reconfigured as a slave celebration. Like the Negro election days and coronation festivals in New England, the Pinkster involved a parade, dancing, singing, competitions, satire, and other forms of merriment. During the festival, which lasted anywhere from three to five days, the slaves constructed tents or built twig-like shelters reminiscent of those in Africa. They voted for a ruler who, while dressed in Harlequin-like attire and mounted on a horse, led them down from the hill where the New York capitol now stands, and then through the Albany streets. As Kathlyn Gay notes, this "ironic display'" represents the Bahktinian "reverse of power" (2007, p. 182). Here, the African ruler is overlooking the white street below. Nevertheless, to his white observers, he was a figure of ridicule who unsuccessfully copied white dress and used the "most lewd and indecent gesticulation" (White, 1989, p. 61).

Unlike a white monarch, the Pinkster King did not merely rule over his subjects. He was expected to participate in the traditional asking for gifts and in the drumming and dancing that accompanied the parading. In fact, the well-known Angolan King Charley was renowned for his dance ability, which he derived from the Congo circular patterns that had been around for centuries (Stuckey 1994, p. 60). This suggests that his knowledge of traditional and sacred African dance belies the notion that he was imitating white movements or that his dance was lewd. Indeed, the dance and performance, which included exaggerated gestures and heel and toe movements that later evolved into tap, was clearly mystifying to whites (Stuckey 1994, p. 69). For slaves, the festival engendered communal spirit and allowed them to establish a sense of identity and belonging. Not surprisingly then, the Pinkster festival was a favorite among northern slaves. It allowed them to both subvert the dominant white culture and to remember their African identities.

Though some of the slave festivals in the South paralleled those in the North (such as the corn shucking), there were also some marked differences between them. Nowhere is this more evident than in New Orleans with its unique political history and blend of French, Spanish, Caribbean, Native American, and African American cultures. It was from this cultural mélange that the well-known and spectacular Mardi Gras festival emerged. The slave dancing at Congo Square in New Orleans and the free black carnival groups and balls played an important role in this development.

Before the 1830s, when slaves were forbidden from participating in public celebrations, assemblies of slaves would gather and engage in dancing and singing at Congo square. Though little information is available about what occurred, some white writers have recorded their impressions about these performances. In 1826, Timothy Flint, a minister from New England recorded the following:

The great Congo-dance is performed. Every thing is license and revelry … By [the dancer's] thousand mountebank tricks, and contortions of countenance and form, he produces an irresistible effect upon the multitude. All the characters that follow him, of leading estimation, have their own peculiar dress, and their own contortions. They dance, and their streamers fly, and the bells that they have hung about them tinkle. (Kinser 1990, p. 35)

For dancers, though they may have mimicked white traditions, it was important that they win the attention and support of the audience; otherwise they might be cut from the circle. Hence, they employed humor and exaggerated gestures to solicit an audience response. As noted above, white observers generally did not have any knowledge as to what the dances represented—or to the traditions they recollected. According to historian Sterling Stuckey, "slave dance was the most difficult for slaveholders to suppress … and could constitute an act of resistance" (1994, pp. 52-53).

Although the Congo square gathering was banned in the early nineteenth century, slaves participated in balls and other festive events that were supposedly closed to them. In New Orleans, which had been governed by the French and then the Spanish before being acquired by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, there was a long-established tradition of throwing balls for almost any occasion. Generally private events, they were distinctly segregated affairs. Public balls for free blacks (an established class before the Louisiana Purchase) and whites were licensed in the early nineteenth century. Though slaves were not allowed to participate, they went to the free black balls and injected their dancing and performance aesthetics into the celebrations. Like the many whites who also attended, slaves could assume different identities when they wore the masques that were common at these events.

Well-to-do free blacks and those of lesser means also formed their own carnival groups prior to the Civil War (1861–1865) in order to participate in what had been a French Catholic traditional holiday that occurred before the beginning of Lent. As Kinser contends, the anomalies of New Orleans three-tiered caste system were thus disregarded because Mardi Gras "allowed for kinds of contact between blacks and whites, male and female, which were unthinkable in the streets" (1990, p. 24). Thus slaves, though nominally excluded from carnival groups, undoubtedly wore the costumes of colorful feathers that reflected both Native American and African traditions—costumes that are still donned at Mardi Gras today. According to Thompson (1988), "feathers on masks or headdresses in Congo are medicines, referring to confidence and strength built into the vaunting of the power to fly" (p. 25). They allow the individual to get outside oneself, so to speak. Like the Pinkster parade, during the carnival slaves could subvert the position in which whites had thrust them. At these festivals, they could reenact the traditions of their African past, hold a "distorting mirror" up to white society, and construct or imagine a new way of life (Kinser 1990, p. 318). Festivals, in other words, were more than carnivalesque.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Gay, Kathlyn. African American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations: The History, Customs, and Symbols Associated with Both Traditional and Contemporary Religious and Secular Events Observed by Americans of African Descent. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2007.

Kinser, Samuel. Carnival, American Style: Mardi Gras at New Orleans and Mobile. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Pierson, William D. "African American Festive Style and the Creation of American Culture." In Riot and Revelry in Early America, eds. William Pencak, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Stuckey, Sterling. Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Thompson, Robert Farris. "Recapturing Heaven's Glamour: Afro-Caribbean Festivalizing Arts." In Caribbean Festival Arts: Each and Every Bit of Difference, eds. John W. Nunley and Judith Bettelheim. Seattle, WA: Saint Louis Art Museum and the University of Washington Press, 1988.

White, Shane. "Pinkster: Afro-Dutch Syncretization in New York City and the Hudson Valley." Journal of American Folklore 102, no. 403 (January-March 1989): 68-75.

                                   Anna M. Dempsey


views updated May 11 2018



Festivals. West African communities marked many important occasions with elaborate religious or harvest rituals. Among ethnic groups of the forest and savanna regions each day of the year was set aside for the celebration of a particular god. The Yoruba had more than 365 gods, including one for each day of the year. In their cosmology there existed a universal god known as Olodumare, who created these 365 lesser gods and sent them to earth to bring love and peace to the earth’s children. A family might choose to worship one or more of these lesser gods. During festivals devoted to them, animals such as goats and dogs were sacrificed to appease the gods. Dancing was also an important feature of these celebrations, which could last for several days. On rare occasions, when a medicine man considered it necessary for the general good of the clan, humans were offered in sacrifice. Usually individuals who had been taken as prisoners of war, these people were by tradition blindfolded and led into the deep forest, where they were killed according to a sacrificial ritual.

Harvest Festivals. Africans believed that the lesser gods acted through the ancestors to create good or bad harvests. Thus, it was imperative to appease these gods at the beginning and the end of each growing season. Before the bush

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

was cleared for planting, medicine men and other qualified individuals poured libations in recognition of the power of the ancestors who had passed away. Feasting and dancing accompanied this ceremony, and once medicine men gave their approval, planting began. In the event of a bumper harvest, the ceremony was repeated, and if the harvest did not turn out as expected, there was an even a more elaborate ceremony to appease the gods.

Other Ceremonies and Libations. During harvest period, the Yoruba celebrated the new yam crop with an elaborate yam festival. The Igbo ethnic group in southeast Nigeria had a pragmatic approach to the worship of the gods. Every member of the clan had two gods—a chi (small or personal god), and Chukwu (the village, or big, god). Before Igbo men or women left their houses to go to the market and sell their goods, they prayed to their chi for good sales, and if they sold everything and returned home happy, they poured libations on their chi. But if they did not do well at the market, they threw their chi out the window and created another one as its replacement.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1998).

F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan Press, 1973).

W. N. Stephens, The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).


views updated May 17 2018

festivals (from Lat. festivalis, ‘festival’). The Eng. derivative ‘festival’ has come to be applied to gatherings in which one or several of the arts is celebrated. Its first mus. use was possibly the Fest. of the Sons of the Clergy which, from 1698, used an orch. as part of what was really only an elaborate church service. The oldest Eng. fest. in the truer sense is the 3 Choirs Fest., alternating annually between the cath. cities of Gloucester, Hereford, and Worcester. In the 19th cent. the emphasis was on choral mus., and the Handel Fest., the Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, and Norwich Fests. flourished. Abroad, the Haydn Fests. in Austria and the 1845 Beethoven Fest. in Bonn were outstanding events. Other famous continental fests. are those at Bayreuth (devoted exclusively to Wagner) and Salzburg (based on Mozart, but with wider scope). Since the end of the 1939–45 war, fests. have developed alongside the growth of tourism. Almost any attractive town (and several unattractive ones) has considered establishing a fest. as a means of attracting visitors. Among the best and longest est. are those at Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Bath, Harrogate, Aldeburgh, York, Haslemere, Holland, Aix-en-Provence, Bregenz, Florence, Savonlinna, Munich, Spoleto, Berkshire (Boston, Mass.), Hollywood Bowl, Ravinia Park (Chicago), etc. Some fests. have a theme (one particular composer or one type of mus.); others are just a random coll. of artistic events.