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Why festivals are good for us
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I'm reading
Why festivals are good for us
Pass it on
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I'm reading
Why festivals are good for us
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
20 December 2018

Why festivals are good for us

Written by Hugh Mackay

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Around Christmas and Easter time, you often hear Christians complaining about the commercialisation and secularisation of these festivals. In the case of Christmas, their complaint often focusses on the overshadowing of the story of the birth of Jesus by the story of Santa Claus, by the obsession with the giving and receiving of increasingly lavish gifts, and by the use of Christmas carols as mere background music to shopping-mall madness.

You can see their point. The frenzy, the traffic chaos, the crowded shops, the excess consumption—it all seems a long way from the simple story of a baby born in a manger because there was no room in the inn; a baby destined to become one of humanity’s greatest teachers and an example of how, through a determination to live lovingly, the “divine” could become human in any of our lives.

And yet… I wouldn’t condemn the apparent commercialisation or the secularisation of Christmas, or dismiss the non-religious aspect of the festivities too lightly. Festivals are an essential feature of every human society—while we shop, cook and eat, sing, exchange gifts and may attend religious services, we are participating in the kind of cultural event that carries great benefits for us as individuals and, collectively, for the health of our society.

Festivals do two great things for us: one cultural and one spiritual. Culturally, they bind us together, give us a focus for thinking about what really matters to us, and enhance our sense of connectedness with extended family, friends and the local community.

At this time of year, street parties, Christmas drinks, the tendency to greet each other (even total strangers) with a cheerful “Merry Christmas,” the gathering for carols by candlelight in a local park, as well as church-going itself—to say nothing of gift-giving on a large scale—all demonstrate how a festival can enrich our sense of belonging to a functioning community.

Festivals also inspire us with grand narratives that have resonated through hundreds or thousands of years because of the inherent truths they convey about the human condition—especially about humanity at its noblest.

In the case of Christmas, there are rich narratives in both the story of Christ’s birth and the story of Santa Claus (St Nicholas). Both stories remind us about the significance of gift-giving, the importance of concern for others, and the ennobling power of love. There is also, embedded in the child-in-the-manger story, the hopeful possibility that wonderful—even miraculous—things could spring from the most marginalised, most unpromising and most humble origins.

Whether we happen to regard these narratives as conveying metaphorical or literal truth—via myths, legends or the retelling of actual historical events—is irrelevant to the cultural value of the festival. The lessons of Christmas about humility, compassion and generosity are vital for our mental and social health and for our understanding of what it really means to be human.

If Christmas doesn’t inspire us to think more about the needs of others than our own, then its value as a festival is diminished. If it doesn’t encourage us to pay special attention to those at risk of social isolation, then we haven’t grasped its full meaning.

Yes, Christmas, like any major festival, can bring out the worst in us by heightening tensions within families and exacerbating the sense of loneliness for those who feel excluded from the festivities.

Why not, this year, make the Christmas festival a time for ensuring there’s no one in your street (or even in your family) feeling left out?

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 19 books–12 in the field of social psychology and ethics, and 7 novels.

hughmackay.net.au

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