I’m back! And to celebrate being back, I shall discuss celebrating. I actually have not much idea why people celebrate things the way they do, but the practice has many interesting features.
Stylized facts about celebrating stuff:
- It generally happens at the beginnings and ends of differentiated periods of time (e.g. a year, time living in a particular area, time on a particular project, a lifetime), and on annual anniversaries of those.
- It usually requires most of one’s time, for between a couple of hours and a day.
- If it is repeated, it tends to be ritualistic and traditional, containing roughly the same activities every time, but different ones for different celebrations.
- The activities tend to be enjoyable, social, ones. They tend not to have other obvious purposes, besides eating.
- Celebrating seems to generally express the importance of a subject. Celebrating a thing indicates approval for it.
- Celebrations tend to involve more symbolism than your usual activity.
- Many celebrations are shared by large numbers of people. Of all the social activities people engage in, most of the largest scale coordinated ones seem to be celebrations.
- Celebrating seems normatively expected to be social. Celebrating a thing alone is often considered a sad sign.
- Celebrations are more often associated with a religion than the average activity is, though many are not.
- Celebrated entities are often humans, or significant human events. But there are also celebrations of beer and dance and so on. I’m unsure what unifying feature these things have. Perhaps just they are popular enough in some group to get general approval for expressing support for them. But it seems something like idealization or identity comes in – many mundane things are popular yet largely uncelebrated. e.g. double glazed windows.
- Not celebrating stuff that others are celebrating is seen as somewhat antisocial, serious, and passionless. Yet not a terrible sin.
Why would you have an activity like this? One where periodically large numbers of people – often many perfect strangers – stop what they are doing and enjoy themselves socially in repetitive and symbolic ways that are understood to express approval regarding a particular thing?
The large scale coordination in expressing approval for a thing seems potentially useful for strengthening social norms around that thing. That everyone affirms the value of X every year in public lets you know that X has widespread support, and also makes this support salient. This probably makes dedication to X seem more important. But exactly what force would bring about things that are useful for strengthening social support for random things? And how true could this be of e.g. birthdays? It doesn’t seem obvious that people have birthday parties to encourage everyone to publicly reaffirm their support of the birthday haver.
If this kind of thing is the purpose though, it would make sense that celebrations are generally enjoyable. If you want a group of people to publicly affirm their support for a thing, an easy way to increase the number of people who will do it is to buy them off with cake. If the cake comes with a story about eating cake for ineffable reasons of great spiritual importance, all the better. And so you eventually end up with elaborate celebrations where many participants aren’t quite sure what the point was, and everyone slightly suspects that the others are there for the cake. Then at some point it becomes common knowledge that everyone is there for the cake, at which point the whole thing becomes embarrassing to continue and you go home.
Note that this need not be intentional – just those celebrations that are enjoyable tend to grow. Also note that the norms being supported need not be exactly the things celebrated. Celebrating features of a certain culture – e.g. beer – might strengthen embracement of that culture in general.
This would also explain the mystery of why there are as many celebrations as there are, and not more. Given that people seem to like the ones they have, and don’t seem to suffer much waning interest for extra excuses to party, it’s not immediately clear why we don’t just have some more celebrations. The explanation would be that the bottleneck is widespread belief in the virtue of celebrating a particular thing, which is hard to manufacture, rather than enthusiasm for a day off.
As for the repetitiveness, symbolism, and tradition, these things seem to be roughly how humans always behave when they feel particularly superstitious. Which they seem to do when things seem important, and they don’t understand them. At least that’s my tentative guess.