Festivals Research Paper

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Peoples throughout history have engaged in festivals—joyful, playful, and celebratory occasions, usually occurring at regular intervals—that often have a religious or cultural significance. Festivals can often provide an atmosphere conducive to achieving a number of societal goals, including the creation, preservation, and encouragement of societal unity.

Festivals occur in all societies and range from performances associated with major religious traditions to localized ritual entertainments and celebrations. Festivals share a sense of license and play. They allow participants to express meaning on a number of levels. Representative meaning is the first: people attempt to convey the essence of what the festival portrays. Next is an iconographic level: the thing represented, for example, is not just a bear or a woman but rather a sacred figure, a bear deity or the Virgin Mary. The next level is interpretive or metaphoric, allowing symbols to address issues in the wider society, perhaps conflict or tension.

Festivals perform a number of functions in society. The anthropologist Frank E. Manning (1983) placed festivals in the category of celebration. Festivals and other forms of celebration give power to those people who normally do not exercise it, providing an opportunity for people to comment on the political powers in society, for example, and to pretend or suggest that things may be other than they seem. Finally, the festival performance itself has a social and cultural context. Festivals have a cultural function; that is, they extend beyond themselves to shape identities and communities.

Often that unity must be maintained in the midst of diversity, whether of diverse people within society or of competing political and economic interests. An example from the United States illustrates this point. Because of the massive influx of immigrants into the United States after World War I, the government published a manual of suggestions to promote U.S. national solidarity and patriotism. Basically, the manual suggested performances of festival activities to promote “Americanization” of immigrants. One suggestion was to have immigrant children climb into a giant shoe that was wheeled onto a stage. Then the shoe would be unveiled as “America.” Children wearing clothing symbolic of their home countries would emerge from the shoe, take off their symbolic caps and kerchiefs, and appear transformed as “Americans.”

The element of reversal—immigrant children transformed into U.S. citizens—is present in most festivals. Newfoundland mummers (performers in a pantomime), for example, perform for what most people would term simply “fun.” Certainly the riotous fun of their performance and its accompaniment provide a good time. But the good time allows even the most conservative members of the community to break the rules. It is a time of license, of what anthropologists refer to as “ritual rebellion” or “ritual of inversion.”

Festivals Celebrating Unity

Festivals embody the world of play, imagination, and creativity. Occasions of festival or carnivalesque license tend to reaffirm unity. They not only provide breathing room, but also point to problems within society. By holding these problems up to ridicule, festivals enable people to laugh and prod those who have the power to fix the problems.

The Palio festival of Sienna, Italy, is an example. The Palio is both a parade and a horse race. It is also a religious and political event. The people of Sienna use this festival to seek the regeneration of their city. The competitions that comprise the Palio—parade competition, horse races, political and religious maneuvering—are on a lower level of urban life. However, a higher level of urban life keeps these competitions within limits and works toward their resolution, leading to a restoration of unity.

Festivals of the dead are also common throughout the world as affirmations of life and unity. They frequently take place a year or more after the death of a person and involve villagers, relatives, and age mates of the deceased. The cost and preparation are enormous. The festivals feature a great deal of eating, dancing, singing, and celebrating. Revelers sing songs and tell stories that recall the events of the deceased’s life. Objects associated with the deceased are displayed and may be given away. The festivals serve to renew ties within the community, bringing together old friends, relatives, and others.

The Iroquois of western New York showed the incorporating purpose of festivals quite clearly. Among the Iroquois, prisoners were never exchanged. If the Iroquois did not kill a prisoner, they adopted him, which meant that the prisoner had to change his identity. At the next religious festival elders pronounced the prisoner’s new individual name, tribe, and family to the community. The opposition between the old identity and new identity was ended in the religious festival, as was the opposition between the former prisoner and his new nation.

The Ox Dance (Boi-Bumba) festival in Parintins, Amazonas, Brazil, is performed the last three days of June. It has become the largest and most magnificent folk festival in northern Brazil. It, too, supports the idea of seeking unity in opposition. On the one hand, it asserts caboclo (mestizo—a person of mixed European and Native American ancestry) identity through use of cultural and ritual themes. On the other hand, it asserts that identity in a positive fashion as part of being Brazilian.

Anthropologists have long viewed U.S. town festivals as equivalent to public ritual in traditional society. Again the theme of a public ritual’s ability to reflect community values and contemporary relations is present. For example, the U.S. West celebrates a number of festivals similar to the Frontier Days of Cheyenne, Wyoming. These festivals include competitive events that are resolved in unity, including parades, rodeos, carnivals, bazaars, livestock shows, and musical performances. These festivals unite people in a common heritage while releasing tensions and fostering pride and unity.

New Year Festivals

Many societies, most famously the Chinese, stage New Year festivals. The Chinese observe a lunar calendar; thus, their New Year falls on a different date than that of the Western calendar. A number of rituals are associated with the festival, beginning about a month before the new year starts. People begin to purchase presents to give away, special food, clothing, and decorations. The festival preparation includes a massive house cleaning, including a thorough broom cleaning to sweep away bad luck. People also repaint doors and windows, usually in the lucky color red. The Chinese then decorate doors and windows with paper decorations representing happiness, wealth, and longevity. For many people the highlight of the festival takes place on New Year’s Eve. In fact, people pay greater attention to details of food, customs, and rituals on the eve of a new year than on the first day. Food such as seafood and dumplings represent good wishes. Other foods also have symbolic value: prawns represent liveliness and happiness, and fish salad is said to lead to good luck and prosperity. People usually wear red to ward off bad spirits and avoid black and white clothing, which represents sorrow and mourning. After an evening spent in family celebration, people watch midnight fireworks.

On New Year’s Day married people give children and unmarried adults money wrapped in red envelopes. Families go visiting, wishing people happiness, indicating their willingness to forgive and forget offenses and asking others to do so in return. The festival seeks to restore peace and harmony in the community.

African Festivals

Throughout history African festivals have provided people with a means for making social and political commentary, even a structured form for rebelling and changing governing policy. Into the present day these festivals have the same social functions—to keep society open and to allow for commentary on mores, customs, and political organization. African festivals fit well within the ludic framework. The song, dance, and costumes are entertaining, but their playfulness adds to the possible subversion of commonly accepted definitions of reality. These festivals both reflect and aid changes found in society, helping to ensure that changes appear to fit well within the cultural traditions of the group.

The names of these festivals may change over time, but their purpose remains familiar. During the transformation of Hausa society that resulted from colonialism, for example, the Wasan kara-kara ceremony underwent changes, including a change in name. During colonialism, white administrators and other members of colonial society became the butt of humor. The Hausa introduced “white masquerades” because no white man would portray another white man during an African masquerade in a derogatory manner. Consequently, Hausa masqueraders put on a white face to mimic the white colonial administrators and to satirize those with political power so that they could mend their ways.

In other parts of West Africa the Poro and Sande/Bundu associations used festivals to maintain societal order. The Poro and Sande used spirits to aid in their occupations. Similarly, the Egungun masquerade societies of Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria used spirits to establish and control social order.

Dance and Festival

Generally in Africa, a festival is not a festival without masquerade dancers. These dancers are members of religious societies. Four kinds of masqueraders exist. Each kind has a particular role: (1) to represent gods or spirits of nature, (2) to embody ancestral spirits, (3) to soothe the gods through dance, and (4) to entertain.

Different kinds of masks also exist. The animal mask is common. It has different styles and represents different forms of animals. Some masks are small and graceful, whereas others are large and adorned with swaying raffia (fiber of the raffia palm). Dancers adapt their style of dancing to fit the kind and size of the mask they wear. For example, the Ikpelweme ancestral masqueraders of the Afemai people of Bendel State, Nigeria, wear costumes that are skin tight and deeply colored. They also wear masks and headpieces made of embroidered cloth. These dancers are able to execute rapid dance movements. The Yoruba Egungun ancestral masqueraders, on the other hand, wear carved headpieces and loosely flowing robes. The masks are quite heavy and prohibit rapid dance movements.

Entertainers everywhere have evolved from ritual societies. They generally are hired to perform for a fee. They might perform, for instance, at a ritual festival, but they also might perform at a private party. They are generally obliged to sacrifice to an ancestral spirit. After the sacrifice they perform acrobatic dances, tinged with magical quick changes. They also ridicule strangers, especially any Europeans in their view.

Dance in Africa is joined with music and song and defines the function of individuals and groups within the community. In Tanzania the ritualist who circumcises a child may also perform a dance. The ruler in a complex African society must perform a formal ritual dance to state his authority. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria the ruler leads masqueraders through town while dancing within a carriage. His wives dance, as do subordinate chiefs. Then other members of society perform dances appropriate to their ranks—hunters, palace chiefs, women market chiefs, and so on until all have paid homage through dance.

Secret Societies and Festivals

The Poro and Sande associations of West Africa are generally presented as preeminent models of secret societies. However, other secret societies exist in Africa. The Egungun masquerade societies of the Awori and Egbado territories of southwestern Nigeria, for example, are of fundamental importance in the life of the people. The masqueraders play a basic role in the political life of the community, as they have for many centuries.

The Ogun festival is supposed to be a celebration of Ogun, the god of iron. However, the Yoruba masqueraders, in defiance of many born-again Yoruba Christians and the traditional ruler, use the festival to celebrate the prowess of the Yoruba people. The young men who take part in the festival assert their right to control Yoruba political life and help define the meaning of culture.

Thus, the masqueraders present another example of old forms being adapted to new circumstances, in this case, the changing political scene and the struggle between older and newer definitions of political power and culture.

Masks and Festivals

Essentially three types of masks exist. One type is worn for theatrical effect. These masks impress instantly by their size. They exaggerate reality by being larger than the wearer’s body, for instance. Other masks conceal one’s human individuality. The person wearing such a mask takes on another identity, usually that of a more powerful person. Finally, some masks embody power, the ancestors. Because they are so powerful, such masks are not worn. Rather, masqueraders drag these masks behind them.

People usually wear masks at religious festivals. Such festivals feature dances and music. The dances tell a story; usually the story refers to good or bad ghosts. Good ghosts aid the harvest and chase the bad ghosts who try to spoil it.

Depending on whether the main crop is grain or yam, people stage either a grain or a yam festival. A yam festival generally is held at the end of the rainy season in early August. In Nigeria and Ghana people offer yams first to the gods and ancestors to give thanks. In Ghana people also celebrate the Homowo festival. It is a traditional harvest festival among the Ga people. The word homowo translates as “hooting at hunger.” It comes from the mythical origin of the Ga and refers to their migration into Ghana. On that migration they were on the edge of starvation. However, through their mutual aid, they survived. When they succeeded at producing a surplus they had their first Homowo festival. The festival includes a masquerade, with people representing various royal figures.

Characteristics of Masquerades

Each masquerade has a number of statuses within its formal structure. Each group has a particular role to play in the overall cult. The cult helps keep the political process going. Within the lineage organization of Yoruba society each family group has its own particular function. Interestingly, the Yoruba use the masquerade as the Hausa use the Wasan, namely to control the political situation.

Essentially, the masquerade is a ritual that reflects the surrounding political structure. Behind the masks of uniformity, many interests compete. Masks represent these interests. Members of different groups negotiate which groups will control various aspects of the festival and, consequently, political life. Masks identify individuals as members of competing groups who ultimately work to control political decisions.

In Ikole in southern Nigeria the official and most important festival is the Ogun festival. The Odun Egun, a biannual masquerade festival in late spring, also is important. It lasts seventeen days and features masquerades that reflect the shift in power from the old to the young. The young masquerades get to be performed more frequently than the old ones as power shifts from one generation to another.

The fact that festivals are rituals in themselves and contain a series of rituals also allows them to mask change under the rubric (rule) of continuity. Festivals are frequently centers of competition, and the competition is incorporated within the formal structure of the festivals. By observing the same festival over time people see these changes. Festivals, therefore, both encapsulate much of the cultural history of the group and provide a means for change.


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