A Cultural Feast

I read somewhere that, prior to the Protestant Reformation, there were over 50 feast days in England on which people did no labor (these were in addition to Sundays). If you do the math, it adds up to over seven weeks of vacation per year. The Reformation abolished all but one or two. I have often thought that this was one of the sources of Protestant economic success – abolish seven weeks of vacation and productivity increases! As it turns out, feast days are so culturally important that they eventually found their way back into the calendar. However, they are not the old feast days and serve a different master and a different purpose. They probably have a larger role in your life than you know.

As I write, the feast of Halloween has just passed. Yes, I know its origins as the “Eve of All Saints’ Day,” but not one reveler in a thousand knows that. It’s the feast of scary things, yard decorations, and candy. I’ve pondered its popularity and think that people like the thrill of scary things. Also, who doesn’t like chocolate? As such, its an emotion-based feast – it feels like fun, let’s do it!

Other major days include Thanksgiving (which still retains some elements of its original purpose), Christmas (which often has some minor nods to the Birth of Jesus), Valentine’s Day (the feast of romance), and so on. Someone, somewhere, seems to be declaring various months of the year to be dedicated to special themes. Those themes mostly tell you what is important to one political wing of popular culture. That there is no Free-Market Capitalism Month tells you who is not in charge of the office of monthly dedications.

My computer’s calendar setting includes a notice for holidays. I get reminders for Hindu festivals, Muslim festivals, Buddhist festivals, etc. I have no idea what most of them mean. They serve as reminders that feast days are a universal phenomenon.

My wife and I have a habit of watching one television show each night (well, most nights). She loves mysteries. We’ve watched all of the Agatha Christie’s (only Joan Hickson is acceptable as Miss Marple) and killed off most of Great Britain. Recently, we’ve discovered ways of watching foreign mysteries with subtitles. Our favorites are set in Italy (don’t ask me why). We notice the coming and going of their cultural feasts as the sleuth goes about her work. August 15 is huge! That delighted my soul.

A difficulty with feast days in the Church is the absence of festival. Only Christmas and Pascha (maybe Theophany) have any “festival” attached to them. As such, there is a Church service as feast in which we are likely to have pointed out to us how few people are in attendance as well as a good bit of theological instruction on the feast’s meaning. I think, forgive me, that most of our feast days have long since fallen into the merely academic: Christianity as a perpetual inquirers’ class.

Josef Pieper, a German Catholic philosopher, wrote extensively on the topic of festival iand its place in human life. He saw in it a celebration of our existence under various headings. He saw in the little modern cultural festivals a very sad, shrunken and dessicated version of the real thing. We want to feast but we don’t know why. We don’t know why because we have forgotten why we exist. I commend his work to you. In Tune with the World is a good read.

It is nearly impossible to escape culture – it’s like a fish escaping water. We live as moderns whether we like it or not and we will likely continue to feast like moderns – empty and meaningless. But we will do so as Christians, complaining about what the culture is doing.

A task before the Church (particularly those who imagine themselves to be living in some outpost of the Benedict Option) is the recovery of festival – not just a feast day with the Vigil the night before and a Liturgy on the day (if your parish does that much). Festival is a larger celebration, a break from routine and an entrance into an alternate form of time. I would point people to the Christmas of their childhood, complete with the school holiday and all of the magic that might have surrounded it. It is the innocence of children that allows enough “magic” into the world to make “festival” possible.

As an adult Orthodox believer, I think that Holy Week and Pascha still retain much of this (and, even then, it could use more). When I hear that someone in the parish has taken Holy Week as vacation time in order to be as involved as possible, my heart rejoices. The culture, if all were right, would do the same, or, at least close the shops before the evening’s services. No doubt, we’re going to have problems explaining to our bosses why we need 50 days a year vacation…we can start with less.

How many people clean their homes on the first day of Lent (“Clean Monday”)? It was the origin of “Spring cleaning.” These, and hundreds of other “festival customs” are largely lost in much of modern Orthodoxy (particularly in convert Churches where there is no living memory of such customs).

Festival is a human phenomenon. It’s why Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus, Jews and Jainists all have festivals. Modern Secularists have festivals, too, and their festivals often have us. God give us grace, in recovering the true faith, to let it recover our true humanity in the world of festival.

Rejoice. Dance. Sing a lot. Take the day off.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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115 responses to “A Cultural Feast”

  1. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Michael.

  2. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Mathew your last comment was wonderfully clear and edifying. Thank you for your reflections.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, I will give you an example: I went to the doctor today. The young lady who checked me in did so in a relaxed and way with a genuine smile. Friendly in task that can become mind numbing. I sat down but then was moved to get up and go over and thank her for how well and professionally she did her job. She was moved and appreciated the “praise” as she called it.
    It was a moment that enlarged both of our hearts.
    In that moment, Jesus was there and I thank Him for moving me to do that. Joy continues in my heart as I remember the moment.

  4. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you. To be honest I’m finding it difficult to see any light at the moment. I don’t want to go into the full details here, but I have been stuck in an ongoing process for the past four years. It is getting nowhere and I feel trapped between a rock and a hard place.
    The only way out I can see, is for me to go back to the UK to live, but that would mean my wife and I having to live apart.
    I am really at the end of my tether.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, I cannot really imagine such a situation. You and your wife have quite a Cross. You have my empathy and my heart felt prayers and I am sure that is true for everyone else om this blog
    and everyone whom they ask to share some of your and your wife’s burden. I would that I was there with you.

    Forgive me. My story must seem a bit like coals being heaped upon you.

    Lord let this cup of sorrow and grief pass from Andrew and his wife. Strengthen and save them by your Grace and mercy that all sickness, pain and sorrow may fade away.

  6. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I’m very adamant that God is always first in the order of things and never want to imply anything less. Synergy is never a 1:1 equation and it never can be as we are created and God is not. And it takes a ton of work on God’s part for any synergy to be possible and even then there is no merit but there is reward. To me, every instance of Christ’s work is a “coming down” but creates “living waters” in us. John 4:14 The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The picture from the verses I included show the stream/river/Living Water coming down from the Temple (Christ calls His Body the Temple) touching the deadest/most inhospitable to life places and making them alive. In return, or simultaneously but not first in order, people flock to the Living Water, up the Mountain of the Lord where Christ’s Body is present.

    To me it all looks like liturgy, but the imagination would make you eager to be in the liturgy.


  7. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    your comments and prayers are greatly appreciated and welcome. Your story did not heap coals😊. It prompted me to share something of our difficult situation, which I have been keeping to myself and am finding difficult to bear.

  8. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you for your comments. I understand what you are saying. There is no Orthodox presence near me. As much as I hope and desire to become Orthodox one day, by the Lord’s mercy, at present it’s not possible for me; so there is no possibility of attending liturgy. I have to trust in God’s mercy and that He sees me where I am. I have the Psalter and the Jesus prayer to keep me going for now.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew, you are kind. Thank you. I am going to activate my ad hoc prayer chain for you and your wife.
    The Psalter and the Jesus Prayer are fantastic tools.
    Just remember you are alone. That is an illusion of the Evil One.
    I have found sometimes in my life that if Jesus serms absent it is because He is closer than I think.
    God is with you.

  10. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Michael and God bless you.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I meant to say: “you are NOT alone… ” ever. One 9f my favorite places is the Flint Hills of Kansas. Not many people live there because the top soil is too thin to support farming. Lots of history though and beauty. It would make a great place for a monastery.
    Andrew, in my initial prayers for you I gravitated toward St. Raphael of Brooklyn. He was the shepard of a wide spread flock that needed to he herded together over vast distance and brought into good pasture. My parish has the first icon of him written at the time of his glorification in the year 2000. I always honor him when I am there and offer petitions to him. I will ask for his intercession for you from now on. God is with you.

  12. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I realised you missed the not out, Michael. Thank you.

  13. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    What Simon said sometime upstream in these comments is so true and worthy of reflection and I’m thankful for his contribution. I’m also very thankful for your contributions here, Andrew.

    Echoing what Simon said with my own reflections: Our very existence is dependent on God and our life comes from the Trinity, God the Father, Christ and Holy Spirit. With the love of a willing heart, this alone keeps us close in Christ .

    A beloved Irish Catholic sister-in-law, memory eternal, gave me a gift when I last saw her in Ireland. It was a loving gift from one soul to another, a poem handwritten on paper given to me when I was about to embark on my journey home. Because you speak of a possible journey, I’ll share it with you:

    May the road rise to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face the rain fall soft upon your fields. Until we meet again may God hold you in the hallow of his hand. (A well known Irish blessing)

    None of us know where our life path will lead us. We, who call upon the Lord in truth, all pray for our Lord’s guidance, His love in our hearts, and the shelter of the Theotokos’ veil.

    May the Lord keep and preserve you! Indeed the Psalms and the Jesus prayer are our shields.

  14. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Forgive, me Andrew, I don’t know if my last comment is helpful. But you have my prayers too. I’ve been in pretty terrible situations due to external circumstances that threatened separations in my family as well. It was deeply heartbreaking and difficult.

    May the Lord strengthen you and bring you peace.

  15. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you; your comments are helpful and prayers are most appreciated. I have not adjusted very well to living in Nigeria, so there is a part of me that wants to go home; irrespective of the rest of the situation.

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