How We Celebrate

Rev. Nicholas Boke is the former minister of the First Universalist Parish of Chester, Vt, and has spoken from UU pulpits in New England and beyond. He currently works as an international education consultant, and lives in Providence with his wife, Buffy, who recently retired from her ministry at First Parish UU in Canton, MA.

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From Gilgamesh Book X ca. 2100, Stephen Mitchell translation 2004

Shiduri said:
Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?
You will never find the eternal life that you seek.
When the gods created mankind,
they also created death….
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house….
That is the best way for a man to live.

From Hesiod Works and Days 700 BCE, Lines 225-237

They who give straight judgements to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just, their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus never decrees cruel war against them. Neither famine nor disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly they tend the fields which are all their care.

From “Night Journey,” Theodore Roethke ca. 1940

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.

We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love.

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Sermon Text

Knowing that I was going to put together a sermon on celebrations for this Sunday, I began reading up on the concept some time ago.

One begins, of course with religious celebrations—by the time I’ve finished this sermon, I may have discovered that one ends up with religious celebrations, as well. This would make sense, of course, since “holy day” has turned into our word “holiday,” meaning essentially a day you get to sleep late, hang out with friends and, Oh, Right! Try to remember what it is you’re supposed to be celebrating.

So there are the traditional Christian celebrations, beginning with Christmas and Easter, then adding, depending on one’s sect, more fine-tuned ones like the Ascension and Lent. Islam comes with Ramadan and its attendant celebrations—daily iftars and end-of-the-month Eid al Fitr, along with the prayers, pilgrimage to Mecca and others. Hinduism has its Holi and Diwali, along with divine birthdays, festivals and pilgrimages if you’re a real believer.

And, of course, once I started thinking about all this, I bumped into celebrations everywhere. In Rosemary Mahoney’s fascinating book about rowing alone on the Nile, Down the Nile, a local woman offered her a celebration complete with ululations for her successful purchase of a boat in which to row her way northward from Luxor. And there was Proust, in his A Côté de Chez Swann, explaining that “if there’s [a ceremony] coming up, a birthday or the New Year perhaps, one of those times that’s not like the others, when time re-begins on new tracks, rejecting the heritage of the past, and not accepting the legacy of its sadnesses.”

To say nothing of David Lewis-Williams’ description of celebratory Neolithic rituals when he writes “The living had to ‘help’ the dead from one stage to the next…. In doing so, the living were able to tap into the … power that the dead exercised during their lives and which was probably enhanced in death.”

Or, closer to home, the title of the blue 1964 UU hymnal that preceded the ones we use now was Hymns for the Celebrations of Life.

Celebrations are everywhere.

There I am digging around in everything from Wikipedia entries to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy when I step onto the commuter train from Boston to Providence. I had, I realized when I walked into South Station from my morning meeting with World Education, forgotten that this was the day Boston would celebrate the Red Sox World Series triumph.

The train was packed. There were the regulars on their ways home.

But then there were the others—several-fold more of them than of us—on their ways home from cheering the passing duckboats and probably drinking a bit. They seemed ecstatic, celebrating.

I had grabbed one of the last seats—having to ask the, one assumes, very nice woman to move her purse—and settled in to watch and listen.

A celebration. First hand. Very American. Just what I needed to frame my sermon. No?

Nobody was going to toss colored powder on me. I wasn’t going to watch tens of thousands of people circulating around a holy relic in the middle of a holy city. I wasn’t—as I had a few decades before—strain to understand what the priest was saying in his Christmas homily in a dark little church in Sorrento. Or to figure out what I was supposed to do during Druze condolence services for the dead in Beirut.

Nothing to figure out. Nothing to adapt to.

Just a bunch of Americans celebrating the fact that what they considered their team had won the annual championship of that most American of pass-times.

It certainly gave me a lot to think about.

They sure were noisy, these mostly informally but neatly dressed young men between 25 and 35, many of whom knew each other.

They sure were happy. And they sure felt comfortable doing and saying whatever they felt like doing or saying—playfully pushing each other, though the car was packed—and using the so-called F-word as they called to each other as though they were going to be awarded for the most frequent use.

They often called about food.

“Pizza! Hey! We’ve got pizza!” one particularly vociferous and very tall young man called again and again. Someone would respond and he’d tell them to come get some. Nobody did because we were pretty much wedged in.

Nobody even bothered trying to collect our tickets.

I didn’t hear much about the celebration—no comments about “Wasn’t that green duck-boat F-in’ cool,” or “I saw so-and-so in the first duck-boat. See ‘im?” And nobody said anything about any of the games. They mainly just yelled joyously at each other, about whatever they felt like saying at that particular moment.

So their celebration on the train didn’t seem to be about the actual event, or the people who had participated in the actual event, or about how it had felt to be at the event, or to have somehow participated in the events—the baseball games—that had led to the event.

It was just a time, apparently, to publicly break language and behavioral rules.

Hmmm. Not quite what I’d anticipated.

On my way to Boston earlier that day, I had jotted a few ideas about celebrations in my notebook, sort of a summary of what I thought I’d be talking about in this sermon.

I had written: “Gifts and food and fire. Colors and costumes.”

That’s what a few weeks of mulling and reading about celebrations had prompted me to think about.

Okay. Do they apply? Sure there was food—remember the pizza?—and don’t forget that the pizza was offered to others, so let’s add “gifts.”

No fire on the train, and probably none at the parade, since it was held during the day.

But maybe, to stretch the point, one can think of confetti (of which there had been plenty) as sort of daytime fire, something that sort of glows in the sunlight. There certainly were costumes, as maybe one-third of the revelers were wearing faux Boston Red Sox shirts, which are, as you well know, colorful with their bright blue and red colors.

But all the thinking I’d been doing had ignored—or perhaps just misunderstood—the altered mental and emotional state that a celebration is supposed to generate.

Whether it’s a Sufi dancing himself into a trance, a Dionysiac reveler in a drunken holy stupor, an Evangelical speaking in tongues, or a 50-year-old American man overwhelmed to find dozens of people gathered to celebrate his birthday (yes, that was me), a celebration is supposed to make the celebrators feel and in some cases even become somebody other than who they are.

The crowd thinned out, station by station. As we left Mansfield, three stops from Providence, the tall, noisy young man who’d put himself in charge of pizza and, it seemed, of keeping the banter going among his friends sat next to me.

The noisy, F-word-using young man was transformed as he sat in the space that had been taken by the woman who’d tried to use her purse for savesies. “Pardon me, sir. May I sit here?”

Of course. We began to talk. First about the baseball triumph itself, and then about the noisy celebration.

“But we have to do this,” he said. “It’s our home team.”

“It’s tribalism,” I replied. “We don’t need any more of that.”

“But it’s harmless,” he said.

“Not when everybody was pretty rude,” I said.

“I’m not a rude person,” he replied.

“You were rude the whole trip. Not only the foul language, but just the fact that you intruded yourself so loudly into all our lives for almost an hour.”

I had clearly upset him. “But face-to-face, I’m not rude. I’m very polite,” he insisted.

I won’t bother you with the rest of the conversation.

But his statement helped me see what had happened, what the celebration had done to him. He truly had become someone else for a while. The celebration had not only allowed that, but perhaps had required it. This very polite, respectful, attentive young man had become another, very different, person.

And now, he explained, he’d go home to take his son trick or treating.

I suggested that he not bring this public-celebration persona into his son’s life.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I’d never do that.”

So here I am. Three-quarters of the way through this sermon on celebrations, and about all I’ve done is paint a rather vivid picture of a bunch of American twenty- and thirty-somethings as they make their ways home from a celebration of a sporting event.

All that reading.

All that history and all those definitions and etymologies I’d collected apparently gone to waste, now playing second or even third fiddle to the juvenile insults these young men had passed around as freely as they’d have passed the pizza if anybody had taken them up on the offer.

And I hadn’t even gotten to where I’d thought I was going to get in the sermon, to the secularization of events that had once been extremely holy. What I had observed on that train was such a far cry from what one source had described about sixth century Olympic champions:

When an athlete won his event, he would be given a palm branch and have red ribbons draped around his head, arms and legs. That evening a feast would be held in his name, and then the following morning, the winning athlete was expected to give gifts and thanks to the gods for helping him win.

Thanks to the gods.

Yeah, the gods.

That seems to be what just about every celebration had been about until America, at least, had decided that their celebrations could be simpler, more direct.

A birthday can now simply be in recognition of the fact that you’d been around for a while. Christmas could be about giving everybody something—or some things—you hoped they would like. Easter was transformed into a ceremony honoring, somehow, an egg-laying bunny. My Lebanese Muslim friends are as frenzied in their gift-buying at the end of Ramadan as Americans are as December 25th approaches.

Then there’s Halloween, the Celtic Samhain, which would chase away the spirits of darkness and is now the second-most economically important celebration in America—we spent $7 billion on it this year, more than half of that for adult costumes.

Holidays. Holy days. Celebrations that once upon a time were held in honor of a god or the gods, designed to keep at least some of us in good with the deity or deities.

Not any more.

Now they’re just things to do at specific times in specific places to honor—if that’s the right word—a child or a friend or a group or someone—Martin Luther King, Jr., for example—or someones—those who died in foreign wars, for example.

But that’s all.

It’s just us, the celebrants, and them, the celebrated.

So here we are, just a day before we celebrate both the first and the last holiday of the year.

But it, like all the rest, is no longer really a holy day.

There’s no two-faced Janus—looking back to the past and forward to the future—to be honored as there was that first Roman New Year’s celebration, when Julius Caesar incorporated it into the promotion of the new Julian calendar. And by this time, pagan Europeans will have already burned the Yule log, which was originally part of a celebration to honor the dead and to bring back the sun.

So we, like those young men celebrating the Red Sox’ triumph on the commuter train, are just having a bit of a party. A party that entails more colors and fire than some, and certainly food and drink.

Alexis Wilkinson, in a recent New Yorker “Shouts and Murmurs” piece called “Explaining U.S. Holidays to Extraterrestrials,” wrote of this holiday: “Human life is terribly short, so on this day we celebrate staving off death for another revolution around the sun.”

I guess that’s as close as we get to adding a bit of the holy. But I do think Proust really hit the nail on the head in reference to New Years with his comment about celebrations that, “time re-begins on new tracks, rejecting the heritage of the past, and not accepting the legacy of its sadnesses.”

Ideally we don’t have to break quite as many rules as those young men on the train. Resolutions? Sure. But we don’t mean it, usually. Most of us know by now that we’re pretty much stuck with the person we’ve been building all these years.

Usually, it’s just a time to, briefly, reject that sad legacy of the past, and to hope that the future might be a little less sad. A time to smile a lot. To hope a bit. To celebrate, I guess, just being here together, on the planet, just like Shiduri suggested that Gilgamesh do a few thousand years ago.

And that’ll probably have to do.

So, Happy New Year. Celebrate well.

And drive carefully.