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Celebrations in Europe today: evolution or decline?
- Languages: it

I want to introduce this topic by listing a series of statements I intend to put under close scrutiny. Processions, holy weeks, patron saint festivals, and the like, have been emptied of their meaning and survive only as spectacles and attractions for tourists.



  • In Italy as in the rest of Europe celebrations are no longer what they used to be, whilst consumerist recurrences on the other hand prosper

  • There is a fairly common attitude that devalues clubbing as well as traditional celebrations in their current form

  • The organisation of the world based on agriculture – from which traditional celebrations emerged – no longer exists, and these celebrations take on different functions in a world that is fundamentally different


The joy of coming together has been substituted by the joys of excess and exhilaration, that are experienced either closed within oneself or by cancelling one’s personality. Carnival has become a thing for children or for nightclubs.


Moments of great collective fervour in celebration of collective values, when the citizens’ hearts beat in unison, have been reduced to tired and repetitive celebrations, and most Italian citizens today often don’t even know why they get the day off work on 2nd June – Republic Day.


Purely consumerist recurrences on the other hand prosper. In other words, celebrations are no longer what they used to be.


This sums up the widespread feeling, and more or less anyone today would readily validate it – spontaneously, without really thinking about it. But is this really the case? Before we can answer this question, we need to take into account a sort of prejudice that underlies many past and present debates on celebrations – both amongst specialists and the public opinion.


Many academics have denounced this prejudice, but it appears to be particularly resilient and continues to resurface under different forms. This prejudice is the reference – more often than not implicit and unacknowledged – to an “ideal celebration”.


More so than in other fields, when we talk about celebrations we tend to give judgements, but in order to judge we need to have a canon, a criterion, an exemplary model against which to measure the object on which we want to express ourselves.


Today’s celebrations are compared to precisely this model of the ideal celebration. This model can change depending on the case, but it often presents some qualifying features: the celebration is a collective experience in which the sense of cohesion with others and the sense of belonging to something in common and shared are experienced and renewed; the celebration implies a distance from the constraints of social prescriptions and thus has a liberating value, but always within a context of rules that limit its excesses and destructive potential; most of all, further, it mobilises the emotions in a genuine way, free from practical, utilitarian or economic motives.


The role of the “ideal festival” is clear: in order to speak about real celebrations, we need to have in mind an abstract concept of celebration. The ideal celebration is not however what the sociologists call an “ideal type”, i.e. a theoretical construct that provides a conceptual grid useful to understanding specific phenomena.


The assumption in fact is that it is real: it is known, and does not need to be proven, that it does exist somewhere. The thing is that no real celebration today corresponds to it, so we project it into the past: the ideal celebration is that of yesteryear.


This triggers a fairly common mechanism by which the past – that can go from the remotest of times (it is suggestive to think of cavemen dancing in a grotto around a holy fire before or after feasting on their hunting prey) to the day before yesterday (perhaps our childhood) – gets coated in a veneer of authenticity, because it is closer to the origins, that are by definition the (imaginary) location of the truth of things.


In this mechanism, the memory selectively emphasises events – positively or negatively – separating them from their foundation in reality. This process is similar to that of the invention of traditions, that historians have discussed at length; and is also similar to the feeling of nostalgia we have for the Christmases of our childhood, a term of comparison for the recent Christmases, that are always and necessarily inadequate.      


Alongside the idealisation of the past – which we look to with a sense of nostalgia and regret – the mechanism of the ideal celebration implies in fact the subsequent devaluation of the present – that we associate with decadence, decline, the lack of spontaneity and genuineness – and presupposes a dichotomy between pure-impure, authentic-counterfeit, uncontaminated-polluted.


The illusory nature of this whole construct however appears as soon as we realise that, on close inspection, references to the ideal celebration have existed in the discourses of men of all times – from the laudatores temporis acti (praisers of time past) of antiquity to the present day.


This means that even in the past – the supposed location of the authentic celebration – there were people who criticised the celebrations of their time by referring to model of the ideal celebration, located in an even remoter past.


For example, this is what Jean-Jacques Rousseau did – one of the authors who most influenced research on the subject, who evoked the beauty and genuineness of antique festivals – but it is also what the ancients did, when they denounced the degeneration of the celebrations of their own time.


Implicit reference to the ideal celebration to judge current celebration is found not only in the debates of the common people, commentators, politicians or moralists, but also in scientific research on the topic.


In particular, this appears most frequently in two fields: the field of “popular” festivals (I use this expression – much contested on the theoretical plane – because it renders well the idea of the subject we are talking about) and the field of “civil” celebrations.


During the official dinner of a conference I attended a few years ago, I found myself talking to a famous academic of popular festivals. Our discussion turned to the theme of the social rituals of today’s youth, performed in locations such as nightclubs or gyms, and of the corporeal practices associated with these rituals, from piercings to tattoos. The well-known academic’s immediate and spontaneous reaction was to say: “they should all be sent to work in the fields”.


Clearly this is not an opinion he would express in a scientific publication, or in a talk at the conference, but the fact itself that he expressed it is a sign of a fairly common attitude that devalues clubbing as well as traditional celebrations in their current form, compared with “polular” festivals as the expression of an agricultural world that no longer exists in the form that produced them, which is a shame, because after all things were better back then.


In the field of so-called “civil” celebrations, i.e. in those secular liturgies in which a politically organised social group celebrates itself, description easily turns into judgement – sometimes even explicitly and systematically.


It’s clear to all that the Italian National Day is not as some would like it to be: namely a moment of celebration of the identity and cohesion of a people coming together around its shared symbols. But in this case we cannot speak of the past, because there has never been much popular sentiment for the 2nd June.


In fact, we might even say that it is more valued today than it was thirty years ago. So – instead of looking for it in a different time – we look for a model of the ideal celebration in a different place: our own national celebration should aspire to be more like France’s 14th July.


Let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with feeling a sense of nostalgia for the peasant festivals that no longer exist or with championing the cause of civil religion in Italy. But only within moral, religious or political debate, to be kept separate from purportedly scientific debate, and the difference must be made clear between the ideal celebration, that is more or less desirable but does not really exist, and real celebrations. Only by keeping all of this firmly in mind can we understand today’s celebrations.


Can we say that – amongst the infinite variety of forms of celebration – there exists a series of European peculiarities that are the product of historical, economic, and religious circumstances specific to the continent? It is difficult to answer affirmatively.


On the one hand, each celebration is different to the other and each festive calendar has its own particular physiognomy defined by specific historical and cultural circumstances.


On the other, we can circumscribe certain general anthropological traits that are more or less shared by all. Yet a feature of celebrations that is specifically European seems like an elusive concept. It might be that what really distinguishes our tradition is not so much a particular way of celebrating, but rather a particular way of understanding the celebration – as the “ideal celebration” – that as such does not exist anywhere but which constitutes, so to speak, the projection of the desires of literary men, academics, and political observers.


From this point of view, European cultural debates are characterised more by the presence itself of an idea of celebration – which is constantly longed for, pursued, and often regretted – than a real celebration.

Then what should we make of the statements with which I opened this article, if we avoid being influenced by the notion of the ideal celebration that underlies all of them? If we look at the present putting our desires and feelings of nostalgia to one side, we see a picture characterised by the presence of several festive occasions, with both elements of difference and of continuity with the past.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, for example, “popular” festivals underwent a decline in Italy and in other countries (France and Spain in particular were the object of in-depth studies on this topic), with different modalities. Where they survived, they then underwent a revival that happened at the cost of rearrangement, re-semantisation and re-functionalisation.


This process had different connotations in the various countries of Europe – often also in relation to the dominant religious confession in each region – but nonetheless presents some common features, due to the fact that phenomena such as the acceleration of urbanisation and industrialisation after the war and the subsequent crisis, and the abandoning and then return to the countryside, have taken place all over the continent.


The organisation of the world based on agriculture – from which traditional celebrations emerged – no longer exists, and these celebrations take on different functions and meanings in a world that is fundamentally different.


Academics described their metamorphosis with reference to different factors: changes in locations, timings and length; greater fluidity and variability of organisation; the homogenisation of rituals; spectacularisation; increasing predominance of the playful and recreational aspects or on the contrary of the paroxysmal aspect, depending on the point of view of the study and on the situation; links with the society of consumption; fragmentation of social groups involved and decline of the collective component; etc.


Note that – unless we fall back onto the category of the “ideal celebration” – none of these characteristics constitute elements of absolute discrimination between past and present, because to some extent they have always existed.


But if we think of them as trend lines – that are not always appropriate and should be assessed on a case by case basis – they can help us understand something more about the variations that the phenomenon of celebrations has undergone.


The big religious celebrations of the universal liturgical calendar, such as Easter and the Marian feast days, have also changed, and – by reason of the processes of globalisation and the fact that they are now inscribed in a multicultural society – are increasingly linked to restricted communities.


In some cases however, such as with Christmas, they have extended also beyond the Christian world. Private celebrations are alive and well, starting with those that have remained unchanged by social mutations and secularisation, like weddings, and there has been a proliferation of new celebrations.


Celebration days for the family (mother’s day, father’s day, and grandparents’ day), Halloween and Valentine’s day are all examples of how after the end of the war, the creation of new recurrences received a significant push, in a context – the consumerist society – that encourages their insurgence.


France has witnessed, over the course of only a few years, the surprising explosion of a celebration that has no roots in tradition and which in fact was planned and set up by the authorities: the Fête de la Musique. This celebration born in 1982 is now a fundamental recurrence for the French, and is spreading also to the rest of Europe. In the meantime, the dissolution of the cultural borders that goes hand in hand with the growth in the means of communication, is increasingly encouraging the spread of “ethnic” festivals and ceremonial occasions in which elements with different origins mix together.


Ultimately – and here we come to the answer to the question with which we started – it is true that the celebrations of the past no longer exist, or rather, that the celebrations that already existed have undergone a metamorphosis and new ones were born. But this is not a matter of decadence, of decline, of an emptying of meaning, of a pollution, or of the triumph of artifice over spontaneity; it is a matter of responses to different historical and cultural situations. These situations are linked to phenomena such as globalisation, multiculturalism, the development of mass communication systems, the needs and wants of consumerist society.


Despite these changes however, what we might call the impulse to celebrate has remained intact – indeed it never disappeared. And it could well be that this impulse comes out of the same interior movements from which the construct of the ideal celebration emerged, and from these it seems to draw its energy.


These movements are the desire to live a shared experience, to feel part of a whole, to free oneself from the constraints of everyday life, to go beyond ordinary life or enter different dimensions without losing oneself, to experience a gratifying emotional relief.


Such desires are behind the celebrations of today as much as those of the past. The ideal celebration in other words may not exist anywhere, but elements of it exist in the form of the stimulus to celebrate.


These only become apparent and recognisable once we give up making value judgements and admit that celebrations – even when promoted by tie sellers (like father’s day in America), florists (like mother’s day in Italy), or confectioners (like Valentine’s day all over) – have a logic that goes beyond practical, utilitarian, rational motives, and responds to deep emotional movements that haven’t declined over the past one hundred years, but rather have sought and found new ways of expressing themselves, like they have always done.  


Could these movements find new expression in the form of a European “civil” celebration? Debate on the matter tends to be prescriptive and look at political opportunity rather than be descriptive and interpretative like the present article. As a matter of fact, Europe Day already exists: the Council of Europe celebrates it on 5th May, and the European Union on the 9th, but evidently it has never really caught on.


That fact that it was set up arbitrarily is not in itself an insurmountable obstacle to its becoming successful, as demonstrated by the case of the Fête de la Musique.


However, in light of what we have said, it is clear that in order for 9th May to become a more popular celebration of the European Union and its values, the new recurrence must appeal to the inhabitants of the Old Continent by hitting a nerve, so to speak, that is particularly sensitive, evoking something that is profound, significant and shared: it is up to the analysts of contemporary society to tell us whether the Europeanist sentiments the celebration should appeal to satisfy these requirements.  

Translated by Teresa O’Connell


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