Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
FEASTS, FESTIVALS, AND FASTS. A feast is commonly thought of as a lavish meal; in a religious sense, it is also a day of commemoration set aside for an important personage, such as a saint. The word "feast" also connotes sensual delight, often excessive, as in the expression "a feast for the eyes."
A festival is a period of celebration, often centered around a religious feast day or a holiday, such as Christmas, a period of holidays celebrating an event (such as the completion of harvest), or a season (e.g., a winter carnival). Also, a festival can mean an unusually intensive or exaggerated series of presentations, such as a film festival. Finally, a fast (when used as a noun) marks a period of abstinence, such as the Lenten fast for Christians or the Ramadan fast for Muslims.
The concepts of feast, festival, and fast are closely interconnected. A feast day, such as St. Patrick's Day, for instance, is often the center of prolonged festivities. In such cases, the religious rituals such as attending church and, perhaps, fasting, are components of a larger festival event that frequently includes feasting, in the sense of excessive eating or drinking.
Food and Festival
Food is a major component of festival. Often it is part of a ritualized exchange, as when Halloween trick-ortreaters are given candy or are invited in for doughnuts and cider, or when Christmas carolers are rewarded with cookies. Food is often present in a formal, sacred meal. For instance, the Roman Catholic mass centers around the sacrament of the Eucharist, the transubstantiation and eating of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. While individual communicants each partake of only small amounts of the host, the Eucharist is invariably described by Catholics and Orthodox Christians as a (sacred) meal. The ritual most probably derives from the celebration of the Jewish Passover, which is celebrated with the sacred meal known as the Seder. The Seder is generally celebrated in the home, but is no less sacred or ritualized for that fact. Traditionally, during the meal four questions are asked by the youngest male child present, and certain foods are present on the table, each with specific symbolic value. Wine is consumed on four occasions during the meal, and the proceedings can take on a very festive demeanor, but the Passover Seder is a religious, historical, and sacred feast. Conversely, Jews fast from sundown to sundown on the high holy day of Yom Kippur.
The American Thanksgiving holiday is also centered on a meal, a feast that is likewise symbolic, ceremonial, and formalized, but not specifically belonging to any particular religion or denomination. However, the occasion is frequently used to express religious sentiments. The Thanksgiving feast commemorates an early harvest celebration held among English Puritan settlers in Massachusetts and their Native American benefactors. The tradition became an officially proclaimed national holiday under President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, during the Civil War. As such, Thanksgiving has always had a strong element of patriotism and nationalism associated with it. While not a religious celebration in any strict sense, Thanksgiving can still be said to be a sacred event, in the sense of a secular ritual, one with strong political overtones (Moore and Myerhoff, 1977).
The events above are all more than simply meals. They are highly elaborated performances done with reference to religious and political worldviews, and are usually carried out by a group. One can examine the role of food in other celebratory events along these axes of formal-informal, and sacred-secular, such as Emancipation Day picnics or house-warming potlucks. For instance, in the United States people frequently gather at a home to watch the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League. This televised sporting event has been promoted as an unofficial American holiday, and it is said to be played on "Super Bowl Sunday." Since people gather together, food is served on these occasions, but generally there is no formal, sit-down meal. Frequently, it is a potluck, with the hosts providing a large and plentiful central dish such as chili or spaghetti. Very often, the food consists of store-bought goods such as submarine sandwiches, or pizza, and beer. Thus, the food served at the Super Bowl Sunday party is itself mediatedt is bought in supermarkets or ordered by telephones the game itself is mediated.
Michael Dietler (2001) defines "feast" as any meal marked as different from everyday domestic meals, or from the exchange of food without consumption. He emphasizes that it is a kind of ritual activity. Likewise, the concept of "fast" depends on a ritual context in order to distinguish the abstinence from food from a diet or an eating disorder. Idiosyncratic fasting is often done to signify devotion to a saint or deity, for instance, or to a cause, as when individuals go on hunger strikes to protest certain situations. Idiosyncratic fasting often becomes a badge of marginality. In this latter regard, Caroline Walker Bynum points out that in Europe in the Middle Ages it was far more common for religious Christian women to use the denial of food as a sign of sacrifice and devotion than it was for men, and she suggests that many of what are regarded as eating disorders in the present time are also overwhelmingly a female problem. That is, many aspects of feasts and fasts are gendered, including food preparation, consumption, cleanup, and disposal.
For the denial of food to be considered a "fast," both the faster and the scholar consider the denial of food and/or drink as occurring in response to a sacred calendar that proscribes the consumption of certain foods during certain ritual periods or holy days; or the individual decides to fast in order to fulfill a vow of some sort, to purify oneself, or to show intense devotion to a deity. Feast and fast represent the overrating and underrating of food, respectivelyood as plenty and food as denial.
Feast and fast meet in the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Muslims do not eat between sunrise and sunset, but break the fast every evening with a festive meal. Neighbors and friends routinely visit during these evening events, which feature special desserts to mark the occasion. The end of Ramadan is celebrated with the festival of Eid. With Ramadan a ritualized relationship, a rhythm, of feast, fast, and festival may be observederiods of fast interspersed with periods of feasts. Each takes increased meaning from its juxtaposition to the other. Eid, as a celebration, is especially meaningful coming at the end of a holy month of fast and reflection, much as Mardi Gras and carnival precede the forty days of Lent in Christendom. Very generally, it is often thought that feasts usually occur during periods of plenty, particularly after a harvest is completed. Surplus is consumed in celebration, as well as stored against the winter, famine, or other periods of want. Indeed, many celebratory feasting events mark both the pastoral and the agricultural cycles: ox slaughterings, grape harvests, apple butter festivals. However, as cultural events, both feasts and fasts are more complicated than this.
How, for instance, might the various proscriptions against the eating of certain foods in various religions be explained? Mary Douglas has produced the best analysis of the Jewish dietary laws in her book Purity and Danger (1970). She argues against the standard interpretations of the taboos involved in keeping kosher, that the foods involved such as pork were likely to be unhealthy due to poor means of preservation available in the biblical period. Such an explanation, she points out, does not explain the continued existence of these laws. In her analysis, she demonstrates that each of the animals listed as "abominations" in the biblical Book of Leviticus are creatures that possess characteristics of other species, who therefore blur the boundaries and cultural categories, and that are therefore considered taboo. "The unclear is the unclean," she concludes. While this interpretation may or may not be universally valid, it does show the complexities of culture that are inherent in food, eating, and ideas of the edible (Long, 2000).Holiday eating is a ubiquitous form of feasting, often with foods that are themselves symbolic. Many religious feast days are also secular holidays, such as Christmas; or, at least, many popular holidays have religious underpinnings
Nevertheless, Thanksgiving is thought by many to be an inclusive celebration. For the occasion, the foods are prepared not only to be consumed, but also to be displayed. They are appreciated for their appearance and for their abundance. The table setting is importantpecial china and silverware, rich in family history, may be brought out. The dishes and the foods are arranged aesthetically, with the turkey being the centerpiece (Long, 2000).
Many aspects of personal and social identity are displayed along with the foods. For instance, family relationships are indexed by the favorite dished prepared by members of the extended family cousin's stuffing or a grown sibling's apple nut cake. Ethnicity, too, may be present in the form of additional dishes such as lasagna. There are even vegetarian organizations that have a meatless Thanksgiving with a live turkey present. Likewise, regional background is manifested in the foods and the ways they are prepared (Long, 2000).
Ritual Feasts and Ritual Fasts
Feasting done in ritual contexts or as rituals themselves (again, the Passover Seder, e.g., or even the Sunday dinner) is usually in some way festive. Even foods served during mortuary rituals (the eating and drinking during the Irish wake; the cold cuts served after a funeral) serve this socially integrative, generally light-hearted function. Fasts are thought to be "fasts," rather than "diets" or "eating disorders," precisely because they are carried out in reference to a sacred overarching symbolic system, usually religious, but sometimes political.
Ritual, festival, and celebration have in one form or another long been a source of great interest to folklorists and anthropologists. In fact, anthropology had its beginning in (the now largely repudiated) theories of Sir James George Frazer (originally published in 1911) concerning religion, belief, magic, and ritual, as well as the related work on belief by Edward Tyler from 1873. In 1925 Bronislaw Malinowski revolutionized the practice of anthropology in the twentieth century with his field studies of ritual, along with religious and magical beliefs and customs. The list can go on, but any such list will include the work of the French folklorist and sociologist Arnold van Gennep who, in the first decades of the twentieth century, provided systematic analysis of life cycle and calendrical rites of passage, and the later work of Victor Turner in the 1960s through 1980s. Both these scholars produced analyses and vocabularies that have become paradigmatic, not only in anthropology but in other disciplines as well. Scholars are widely familiar with Turner's ideas concerning communitas and liminality that, along with his phrase "betwixt and between," are regularly used to this day not only by anthropologists but also folklorists, ethnomusicologists, historians, and indeed anyone working with ritual materials. Van Gennep's term "rites of passage" has become part of everyday speech. Along with Mary Douglas, Turner put the study of symbols and symbolic action at the top of the research agenda for the second half of the twentieth century.
With the rise of cultural studies critiques that have engaged questions of politics, race, social class, gender, and power, newer approaches to the study of ritual have arisen that complement rather than entirely supplant the symbolic analyses inspired by Turner. After Stanley Tambiah's article "A Performative Approach to Ritual" was published in 1985, along with Turner's own growing interest in performance, a great many important recent studies of what folklorist Beverly Stoeltje (1993) calls "the ritual genres" came out of performance studies field influenced by Turner's work but also by more recent perspectives on feminism, postmodernism, and cultural studies, as well as earlier movements in rhetoric and theater.
At the same time, the emphasis on performance and performativity has led to an expansion of the materials of ritual studies. Felicia Hughes-Freeland says, "The focus on performance allows us to understand situations interactively, not in terms of communication models, but in terms of participatory ones" (p. 15). Parades, protests, and street theater generally are increasingly being referred to and studied as ritual or at the least as ritualized behavior, with the work of folklorist Susan G. Davis being particularly influential. Further, such events are compared and contrasted in other works to performances such as Jacobean theater or the mass media. National ceremonies, nationalizing events, and beauty pageants all take their place in the literature on ritual. In fact, people find the kinds of meanings scholars refer to under the rubric of "ritual" in a wide range of events and activities; that is, people invest certain actions with symbolic meaning or transformative power. That is ritualization, and it is up to the researcher to determine how people create this kind of dynamic. Likewise, feasting is emerging as a critical site for investigation within archeology, anthropology, and folklore. Foodways or food studies is a growing subfield within these disciplines, and is an important component of the study of ritual, festival, and celebration, as seen in works by Caroline Walker Bynum (1987), and Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden (2001).
The present author argues that ritual is not necessarily in opposition to festival (i.e., one confirms; the other subverts) but simply that ritual is a discrete form, distinctive from festival and celebration but frequently a component of these, much as game, sport, music, dance, food, story, and so on, are each discrete genres but also available as constitutive components of festival. Because festival and ritual are closely intertwined, because both often mark transitional points in the life cycle or recurrent, transitional, or important points in the year, festival is thought of as ritualistic. As has been seen, marking, commemorating, or celebrating something is not the same as causing it. However, these two featureselebration and performativityre both capable of being potentiated in ritual, as well as in other genres such as festival and demonstration. It is not the scope of an event that makes it ritual. One may light a candle simply because one likes candlelight, or to ward off insects in the summer, and not think of these activities as special. However, lighting a candle at Christmas, even decoratively, is done because of the sense that it is a special time (another frame) and therefore may be felt to be ritualistic, despite the informality and secularity of the act. These continuaormal-informal, religious-secularre self-evident. One may light Advent candles in the home before Christmas, a more formal and more religiously oriented activity, but not as formal or religious as the lighting of candles in church for Sunday or Christmas services.
Ritual, festival, celebration, holidays, public display eventshat links these terms analytically is the combination of their performative and celebratory aspects, and the fact that rites of public display, like ritual, are performative. Food presentation and consumptionnd the lack of itre used to mark social time and establish social identity. Feasts precede and follow days or weeks of fast; they mark and celebrate periods of plenty after seasonal harvests or animal slaughterings. Fasts also indicate special days of the week, month, or year; may be used as part of life-cycle rituals such as coming-of-age; and are used by individuals to communicate being in a special stateenial as devotion to a deity or a cause (e.g., the Irish hunger strikers) or penance and suffering as a means to purification.
See also Christmas; Fasting and Abstinence; Festivals of Food; Folklore, Food in; Kwanzaa; Lent; Metaphor, Food as; Passover; Ramadan; Religion and Food; Shrove Tuesday; Thanksgiving.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1987.
Davis, Susan G. Parades and Power: Street Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986.
Dietler, Michael. "Theorizing the Feast: Rituals of Consumption, Commensal Politics, and Power in African Contexts." In Feasts: Archeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, edited by Michael Dietler, and Brian Hayden, pp. 6513. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.
Dietler, Michael, and Brian Hayden. Feasts: Archeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger. Reprint. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1970.
Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. 3d ed. 10 vols. London: Macmillan, 1955. Originally published in 1911.
Hughes-Freeland, Felicia, ed. Ritual, Performance, Media. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Long, Lucy M. "Holiday Meals: Rituals of Family Tradition." In Dimensions of the Meal: The Science, Culture, Business, and Art of Eating, edited by Herbert L. Meiselman. Gaithersburg, Md.: Apsen, 2000.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays. Reprint. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1974. Originally published in 1925.
Moore, Sally F., and Barbara G. Myerhoff, eds. Secular Ritual. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1977.
Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.
Santino, Jack. New Old-Fashioned Ways: Holidays and Popular Culture. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1996.
Stoeltje, Beverly J. "Power and the Ritual Genres: American Rodeo." Western Folklore 52 (1993): 13556.
Tambiah, Stanley J. "A Performative Approach to Ritual." In Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective, edited by Stanley J. Tambiah. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969.
Tyler, Edward B. Primitive Culture. 2d ed. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1873.
Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960. Originally published in 1909.