We Are What We Celebrate

The different ways we spend our holidays tells volumes about our personal lives, our communities, and even our nation. Many nations have holidays celebrating their independence or when the nation was reborn after a revolution. For the US, it is the 4th of July; for France, Bastille Day; for Iran, the Islamic Republic Day. In nations where patriotism runs high, these celebrations are solemn occasions, marked by speeches by national leaders and major parades, often in the military style. In nations where patriotism is less intense, the same holidays lead people to spend an extra day on the beach, have a picnic, or watch football or soccer.

Many nations have memorial days for those who have fallen. In some, that leads families to visit the graves of those they have lost, laying wreaths and planting flags. In other nations, the day is barely different from the rest. Some celebrate Christmas or Hanukah or Eid al-Fitr as religious holidays, but over recent decades many more treat them as opportunities to give and receive gifts and have lavish meals, commercialized and secularized.

Speaking more generally, sociologists view holidays as occasions when people may rededicate themselves to the values they hold dear. During the rest of the time, as people go to work, watch TV, and take care of household chores, their moral commitments tend to weaken. Holidays can serve to rekindle these commitments. This is exemplified by the Buddhist holiday Vesak. To celebrate the life of the Buddha, Vesak often involves candle ceremonies, temple rituals, austerity in dress and consumption, and gifts to charity — above all, it aims to remind Buddhists to live out a life of nobility and moderation, as the Dharma instructs.

There is a whole kind of holiday that serves a rather different personal and social need. Those such as New Year’s Eve and Halloween serve to release tension and set aside dominating norms of proper conduct, to vent steam accumulated since the last ‘let it go’ holiday. Societies in which more and more people spend more of their time and money on tension reduction holidays, rather than on value-affirming ones, tend to be societies whose core values are stressed.

Weekends are sort of mini-holidays. In some societies, they entail spending quite a few hours in a church, mosque, or synagogue. They entail various rituals that evoke religious or moral commitments, such as serving meals to the homeless. In societies that are less bent on affirming values, people spend their weekends playing golf, shopping, watching TV, and drinking.

The social composition of holidays also differs a great deal. Many holidays in value-affirming societies are mainly communal events, in which people celebrate together in places of worship, attending parades, and listening to leaders addressing them at mass rallies. In others, holidays are mainly private affairs that take place in homes and backyards, limited to family and friends.

These days, societies that have become hosts to massive immigrations of peoples, as well as societies that have long had substantial minority populations, face a choice. Some expect all citizens to assimilate fully and celebrate the same holidays, in the same basic way. Others tolerate and even welcome diversity. They add to their list of holidays those celebrated by one sub-group or another. For instance, in the US, a Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo, has a considerable following. In contrast, European societies struggle with the question what to do about Muslim holidays. The ways societies deal with holiday diversity tells us a great deal about the ways they approach the treatment of immigrants and minorities. It is just one of the ways that national celebrations of all stripes compel us, for better or worse, to see who we are.


Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at the George Washington University. He is the author of 30 books, including Happiness is the Wrong Metric, Spirit of Community, and From Empire to Community. For more discussion of holidays, see We Are What We Celebrate (Amitai Etzioni and Jared Bloom, eds.), published by New York University Press.