How does celebration work?
October 20, 2011 7:16 AM   Subscribe

What does it mean to celebrate something?

Here's what I understand so far:
  • It has to be something enjoyable
  • It has to be dedicated to something else
  • The thing it's dedicated to is something you find to be good and awesome
  • The thing you do to celebrate is supposed to be of proportional awesomeness to the thing celebrated
  • The thing-celebrated is expected, by default, to be some kind of personal accomplishment; but there are also lots of celebrations of the passage of time, or of a concept, which might not even exist without the celebration to give evidence of it
  • They make people feel good
  • If you're doing it right they make you feel good ABOUT the thing you are celebrating
That last bit is what makes me feel like I'm missing something. Do celebrants just DECIDE that the emotion generated by the celebration applies to the thing celebrated, and then it just DOES? Or is there something about the way you go about, say, a birthday party, that can make it feel more or less like it's about the person whose birthday it is? Presents alone don't seem to be enough, well, not for some people.

It's all quite subjective, of course, but it seems like I'm expected to understand how people feel about their celebrations and why, and when I interrogate them about that, they get upset.

Since I bet someone will ask: why yes, I am on the autistic spectrum.
posted by LogicalDash to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
You've buried your actual question. Some people can get upset with you for interrogating them because they don't expect or appreciate being interrogated at parties. Yes, they could be more understanding and realize that your questions are harmless and motivated by genuine curiosity, but some people just don't go to the trouble of trying to see it from your perspective.

To answer your stated question, I'm been to two kinds of celebrations. One is more common with people a generation or two older than me who celebrate anniversaries, jubilees, and other special dates out of a kind of social obligation. In my experience, these are stuffy occasions where you offer your respect and good wishes to the key person, make awkward smalltalk, and leave discreetly. The other kind is more common with people nearer my age, and they're just excuses to party. Got a promotion? Party! End of the semester? Party!

I think this distinction is just a function of which celebrations I get invited to and why. Take it with healthy skepticism.
posted by Nomyte at 7:29 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think you're breaking this down too far.

To celebrate somethings means to do something special that you normally wouldn't do to honor the person or event. Whether it's shooting off a ton of fireworks into the night sky, putting on costumes and visiting neighbors for candy, cooking a feast for you family and giving thanks for life's bounty, or family and friends congregating together and exchanging gifts. All these are special because we just don't do them every day.

People usually feel happy about celebrations. Ones that are more personal, such as birthdays, bridal and baby showers, and weddings are usually very very important to that person. On that day people are celebrating because of you, because for that day you are special. We often place high expectations on what should happen on those days. It's these expectations that result in "presents alone don't seem to be enough ... for some people". Either they were looking for a bigger or brighter celebration or different presents. Human beings are selfish like that.
posted by royalsong at 7:35 AM on October 20, 2011


Whether you're on the autism scale or not it can be hard to understand why people choose to celebrate certain things.

For instance, I have a friend who celebrates her "lay-off-versary", or the day she got laid off from a job a few years ago. It's her excuse to gather some people she used to work with and get drunk.

Same friend will also be celebrating her best-friend-aversary. Clearly this friend really looks for just about any reason to get together and drink with friends.

I also know a couple of people over the years who have gathered friends close to "celebration" a divorce.

Sometimes it's just a way to mark the passing of a particularly important milestone.
posted by FlamingBore at 7:40 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


It might be worth bearing in mind that a lot of the time, the important part of the celebration is the celebration itself rather than the event that notionally triggers it. Good feeling often breeds good feeling and so a lot of people can get caught up in the party atmosphere without necessarily caring about the thing being celebrated.

Also, trying to analyse why you feel happy can be a good way of ruining that happy mood, as there is often an inexplicable element to the happiness/joy. This may be why people get upset when you interrogate them.
posted by MUD at 7:41 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


First, not all celebrations are the same at all, and I think you'd have more success with your question if it were more concrete about a few celebratory experiences you've had. I think "celebration" might be like "game", in that there's not one well-formed definition, but a collection of random things all called "games" that share some characteristics.

Second, I think this is backwards:

Do celebrants just DECIDE that the emotion generated by the celebration applies to the thing celebrated, and then it just DOES?

For many celebrations, the emotion is generated first and by that thing being celebrated, and so people decide to share the emotion together. It's not that the getting together creates this mysterious celebratory quantity that can then be applied to some object. For this kind of celebrating, I'm thinking of a promotion, your favorite team winning the Super Bowl, getting engaged, and so on. Something where some number of people are excited and happy directly because of the event, and some other number of people are excited and happy out of empathy for their friends.

(I'm not sure what the subjective experience is of someone "on the autistic spectrum" related to empathatic experiences, but lots of people feel genuine excitement and happiness vicariously when their close friends do.)

I'll call those above experiences "direct celebrations". The reason for them is pretty clear. The participants are already feeling the emotions for straightforward reason, and a celebration is called for an outlet of those emotions.

Now there are also more arbitrary celebrations, like birthdays, Valentine's Day, and so on. I can understand how they would be confusing. I think everyone realizes that my friend turning 27 doesn't generate the same intrinsic feelings in everyone as, say, earning his PhD. The former anyone can do and the latter is an accomplishment that would make him happy and proud and, by extension, all his friends happy.

However, lots of people just like to get together and have fun, and a birthday is a good excuse to do so. I think it kind of bootstraps onto the "direct celebration" process above. By bringing someone a gift, eating cake, calling to mind your friendship with that person, you can generate the start of some of the excitement from a "direct celebration", and when you have a number of people in that state, the emotions will enter a feedback loop and grow into something just as fun. And since the "seed" that planted the emotion was legitimately about the person, again you're not necessarily just applying your emotion to the celebrant; to some extent it was caused by him or her.
posted by losvedir at 8:04 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


To celebrate somethings means to do something special that you normally wouldn't do to honor the person or event.

What's honor? Is it the same thing that samurai used to kill themselves to preserve?~

oh here we go

The latin root means to honor someone, which implies a positive thing and that brings with it you joy and good feelings. You're emotional because of the celebration, you don't celebrate because you're emotional.

That makes it sound like the thing you're honoring is something you would not otherwise feel anything much about. I don't think that's the way it's usually supposed to go?
posted by LogicalDash at 8:07 AM on October 20, 2011


That makes it sound like the thing you're honoring is something you would not otherwise feel anything much about. I don't think that's the way it's usually supposed to go?

I think it goes something like this:
1. you feel good about the thing you're honoring/celebrating.
2. so you decide to hold or participate in a celebration of it, which is fun.
3. and then there's a sort of synergy of good feelings - having fun because of the reason you're having fun - it amplifies the good feelings.

It's also possible that one could feel somewhat indifferent to something, but have a good time celebrating it because the celebration itself is fun, which then fertilizes positive associations.
posted by entropone at 8:12 AM on October 20, 2011


Why are you interrogating people about parties/celebrations/get-togethers? Go if you want to go or are expected to go. If not, don't go. Either way, find something else to discuss. Don't ask people why they want to spend time with other people. Remember that everyone is different. You are different, so you don't understand why it's happening - they are different from you because they're doing something you don't understand.

You didn't ask this, but I think this might be tied up with your question: Small talk may not be your strong point, but keep trying. It's not mine, either, but sometimes I manage to pull it off anyway. When you're talking to someone else, try to remember that they also have things to talk about. Ask about them, they'll ask about you and you'll learn to understand the give and flow of conversation. Conversation should not be interrogation.

The thing you're celebrating should be a good thing on its own. The celebration is expected, but not part of a package deal. It's not 'someone's getting married so she can have a bridal shower', it's 'someone's getting married - let's get together and talk about how great her marriage is going to be', even if you don't think it will. Also, instead of birthdays or anniversaries, sometimes people just have a celebration/party to have fun. It's St Patrick's Day? Let's get drunk and act foolishly. Hey look, so-and-so got a promotion! Let's take him out for drinks! It's Mardi Gras? Party for three weeks! It's a nice summer day - barbecue!

Also, I understand your question as to why/how celebrations happen. A lot of people on the Autism spectrum are perfectly happy on their own. (My son is, and his favorite parts about parties are presents and food. I had my daughter's party a couple weeks ago, and he spent the entire time trying to open her presents, playing on the inflatable thingy by himself and talking about pizza.) It should be noted that fun is different for everyone.

You don't have to go to all the celebrations you're invited to, but you should celebrate your family's, friends', kids' and SO's birthdays & anniversaries. Cake, ice cream, cards, and a sincere "Happy birthday, I hope you enjoy it." should suffice. Do not question people about why they want to celebrate their son's birth. Yes, birthdays happen every year, but the relevant person is usually excited about it, and it's nice to know that your family/friends/parent/SO remembered it and you on Your Special Day. If you don't want to go to something that's not tied up with close family or friends and you're not required to, say you've got plans for that night. Those plans might be at home by yourself, but they're your plans. They count.

What's honor? Is it the same thing that samurai used to kill themselves to preserve?

That makes it sound like the thing you're honoring is something you would not otherwise feel anything much about. I don't think that's the way it's usually supposed to go?


Honor in this instance = respect. "Wow, 50 years of marriage - that's an amazing accomplishment!"

Honoring your wife that just got a promotion is different than honoring that person you sort of know at work who got a promotion. These things are relative to the people in your life and how you feel about them.

On preview: what entropone said.

Also, apparently, almost all of my parties are a flimsy excuse to get drunk. This might be because I suck at small talk.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 8:20 AM on October 20, 2011


I called it interrogation because that's how people seem to take it, but I am just asking how and why people feel about what. Sometimes this leads to perfectly palatable smalltalk but this is a subject where it usually hasn't.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:29 AM on October 20, 2011


I notice that people are assuming that I'm talking about parties. That's part of it, but people also 'celebrate' things by having a beer, maybe toasting with it beforehand; by shouting like the Grateful Dead; by going out for long drives to nowhere in particular--and I don't understand those either.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:33 AM on October 20, 2011


I don't understand those either.

Me either. I wait for others to suggest or act on it, then I go with the pack.
posted by doyouknowwhoIam? at 8:37 AM on October 20, 2011


LogicalDash - I completely understood your use of "celebrate" and I re-assert my comments that in this manner a "celebration" is meant as a way of observing the achievement of a goal, the passing of a milestone or anniversary of a significant event.

The level of significance differs from person to person based on their own unique sensibilities and sensitivities.

I "celebrate", or rather observe the deaths of my parents in very private ways. Usually by spending the day alone. Some years I'll have it in me to go home and visit some of their favorite places. Other years I'll travel and go places my mother dreamed of going. Yet other years I'll simply go on a drive and recall all of the family road trips which we endured over the years. For me, these are times of reflection and as such I choose to observe these occasions in ways that allow me to think quietly for long stretches of time.

The manner of "celebration" is often unique an personal.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:39 AM on October 20, 2011


To celebrate somethings means to do something special that you normally wouldn't do to honor the person or event.

What's honor? Is it the same thing that samurai used to kill themselves to preserve?


Perhaps "honor" is not quite the right word, then. Perhaps "acknowledge" would be better.

What I mean is: There is something different about the person, holiday, or event in question, but it is different in a positive way (you don't "celebrate" when the different thing someone does is punch you in the nose, for instance). A celebration of that person, holiday, or event is simply a way of acknowledging "yes, this event/person/holiday is a day that's a little different from any other/a person who did something a little impressive, and this is our way of saying we acknowledge that differentness and affirm that differentness is a good thing."

So hopefully that helps you understand the WHY we celebrate things.

But then you have a follow up question:

I notice that people are assuming that I'm talking about parties. That's part of it, but people also 'celebrate' things by having a beer, maybe toasting with it beforehand; by shouting like the Grateful Dead; by going out for long drives to nowhere in particular--and I don't understand those either.

That looks like more of a question about HOW people celebrate things. That is a highly individual thing -- one of the ways people like to acknowledge positive events is by doing things that they find pleasurable anyway (having a beer, going out for a long drive). Sometimes "doing something I find pleasurable anyway" is just accepted as a good way to acknowledge the specialness of the event -- you're setting aside the ordinary responsibilities of an ordinary day and doing something fun because this is a special occasion.

As for the specific "how" of holidays -- some of those specific things have their origins in long-past customs and folklore and symbolism, and the reason why we still do them is often because of simple habit. But the novelty of some of those things is what can often make it fun for people.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:45 AM on October 20, 2011


It has to be something enjoyable

Right, celebrate implies enjoying something. A funeral is similar to a celebration but is meant to be sad so it's not called a celebration (although some will use the phrase "celebrate [name]'s life." Dia De Los Muertos is similar to a funeral in that people honor and celebrate their dead relatives, but it's more of a happy and party-like occasion.

It has to be dedicated to something else

Yes, this is what separates a celebration from a general party or other get-together that people have for no reason other than to have a party. Sometimes celebrations are really just parties that people look for an excuse to have, with a token dedication to something that nobody actually cares about.

The thing it's dedicated to is something you find to be good and awesome

Generally yes. Although sometimes people celebrate occasions out of social reasons that have nothing to do with what the celebration is for, personally I go to Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations even though I don't think settler/indian relations were good or awesome and I don't believe in the Christian miracle birth story.

The thing you do to celebrate is supposed to be of proportional awesomeness to the thing celebrated

This is not really true, although a more special thing being celebrated generally means that more effort is put into the celebration. So a wedding, which was originally only supposed to happen once for a given person, is a huge planned out thing, whereas a 2nd year dating anniversary would just be celebrated by the couple themselves by going out to a nice dinner or something.

The thing-celebrated is expected, by default, to be some kind of personal accomplishment; but there are also lots of celebrations of the passage of time, or of a concept, which might not even exist without the celebration to give evidence of it

I wouldn't say a celebration is by default anything. There can be any kind of reason for a celebration. I think the most general reason I can think of that the majority of celebrations fit is that they tend to celebrate an event of some sort, rather than an abstract concept.

They make people feel good

That is pretty much the point of any kind of social gathering that doesn't have an explicit other purpose.

If you're doing it right they make you feel good ABOUT the thing you are celebrating

In general, yes. You should theoretically feel good about whatever the topic is ahead of time, but part of the point of a celebration is to focus your attention on that thing. So at a wedding, the focus is on the fact that the people getting married are a happy couple. You may already think about them being a nice couple in other situations, but the celebration brings their relationship to the forefront and gives people the opportunity to do things like give nice speeches about the couple and their relationship that would not be possible in other situations.

That last bit is what makes me feel like I'm missing something. Do celebrants just DECIDE that the emotion generated by the celebration applies to the thing celebrated, and then it just DOES? Or is there something about the way you go about, say, a birthday party, that can make it feel more or less like it's about the person whose birthday it is?

Assigning what an emotion "applies to" is not really something that most people care about. You go to a birthday party for someone you like. You have a good time, and you talk to the person. During the event you probably feel a whole range of emotions that stem from a broad spectrum of different topics and people. There are definitely things that make a birthday celebration seem more about the person whose birthday it is (doing things they like, having activities that are about them, etc.).

notice that people are assuming that I'm talking about parties. That's part of it, but people also 'celebrate' things by having a beer, maybe toasting with it beforehand

It's the same basic thing. You have a topic or event that is the point of the action/toast/party, and you do whatever it is you do with that in mind.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:49 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think you're talking about the topic of ritual. The combination of an out-of-the ordinary action plus a mental intention creates a subjective reality for those involved. Toasting combines a physical drink and a mental thought (consisting of gratitude, respect for someone, or a wish for the future). The physical component lends the purely mental component an aspect of substantiality; the thought on its own is ethereal but notionally binding it to the drink seems to give it substance.
posted by Paquda at 8:49 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I guess I would characterise it as doing something you enjoy because "something you approve of" / "something which is meaningful to you" has happened.

e.g. Ireland win a rugby game, I feel happy, I have a beer. Or, John gets a promotion, feels happy, and invites friends to bar for a 'celebratory drink'. Friends come along and may be pleased that John is happy, and so they 'celebrate'.
posted by knapah at 8:53 AM on October 20, 2011


Directed, conscious, attention is a finite resource (for most people anyway). Choosing to devote a portion of that attention to some specific thing that is important to an individual or a group can be considered a celebration. A celebration is generally considered a happy thing, though it can also be understood as a solemn thing (English is fun like that).

It's possible the deeper question is why do people consider things like a promotion, the passage of another year of life, or simply having a nice day important enough to remark upon and celebrate, but that's a more complex discussion. Paquda is getting at that by bringing up ritual.

Sidenote: It's interesting that the Latin root is associated with crowdedness or business. Points to the social nature of most celebrations.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:54 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


'Celebrate' is probably a family-resemblance term; you won't find a common core to all the sorts of celebrations people here are listing.

Do celebrants just DECIDE that the emotion generated by the celebration applies to the thing celebrated, and then it just DOES?

That's an interesting question. I'm pretty sure it's not voluntary. Celebrating puts a person in a good and happy mood, so when attention is turned back to the object of celebration, the good affect spills over. Affect leakage isn't willed: it's involuntary. People might consciously and voluntarily redirect their attention to the object of celebration in order to capitalize on the leakage, and they might consciously and voluntarily begin celebrating in the first place, but the leakage itself is probably beyond our control.
posted by painquale at 9:47 AM on October 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


For me, celebration is about attaching a symbol to the sharing of an emotional state.

I don't know how it works for people on the autistic spectrum, but for us non-autists sharing a good emotion amplifies the good feeling, but sharing a bad emotion diminishes the bad feeling.

Emotions can also be good and bad at the same time, so sharing them tends to amplify the good parts and diminish the bad parts simultaneously. Sharing emotions is a powerful moment, and deepens the social ties between the parties involved.

We also like to mark powerful moments with symbols, usually acts or things that are out of the ordinary experience.

So, the simplest scenario is when a group is feeling good about something together. Say you're working on a project with a team, and the project wins a prize. Everyone is happy together. So you attach a symbol to this shared feeling, it can be something as simple as shouting. You don't usually shout in the workplace, but in this moment it is ok. It's a celebratory shout. Everyone shouts together, marking this moment as special and amplifying each other's good feelings. Later you can say to each other "remember when we won that prize? It was crazy!"

Or say, a group is feeling bad together. Say someone everyone loves dies, so they gather to diminish the bad feeling. They share the sadness, and thus make it hurt a little less. It still hurts, but they feel they are not alone. People like that. They also try to amplify the good emotions, remembering all that was good about the person who died. This also makes the bad emotions hurt less. So in a sense, a funeral is also a celebration, it's just a social norm to say you're celebrating the good things associated with the dead person. It is a strong moment, so you associate symbols that are way out of the ordinary with that — everyone wears suits, there's a funeral procession etc.

The tricky part comes when someone wants to share an emotion with someone else who's not feeling that. So your friend got a promotion, but you didn't. He wants to share this good emotion with you, and wants to attach a symbol to this moment, inviting you to do something you wouldn't normally do, say going out for celebratory drinks. Here's the tricky part ---> emotions aren't about understanding, they're about accepting. So if you start trying to understand his emotion, and question it, it feels to him like you're not accepting it. It feels bad. People don't like that. Instead, just accept his happiness, and beam it back to him. Smile together. Say "you must be really happy!". Of course he knows he's happy, so you're not informing him of that — what you're really saying is "I see that you are happy, and I accept this feeling that you want to share with me" — and then you do the symbol, something nice you wouldn't normally do. Drink, shout, or do a little dance. But do it together!

Or something like that.
posted by Tom-B at 11:29 AM on October 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Similar to what Tom-B says, group celebrations are at the core about social bonding.

The social bond part is evolutionary primate behavior and not necessarily conscious. Being part of a group confers all sorts of advantages. For example, other members of that group can protect and assist you. Social Bonding helps strengthen one's place in the group. Most people's brains are wired so that they will instinctively seek to strengthen social bonds. Our biochemistry tends to reward us with positive feelings for beneficial instinctive behavior. The stronger social bonds someone has, the more secure they are inclined to feel and thus more positive. Question someone about why they are celebrating, might make them angry because it implicitly questions their membership status in the group.

When people celebrate with other people, they are acknowledging some type of shared achievement or fortune. For example, let's say the Baltimore Ravens win a football game. By celebrating, I identify myself as a member of the group of fans of the Ravens (I am also likely saying something about my association with a particular geographic area). Other Ravens fans also celebrate to identify themselves as part the group. The other Ravens fans and I see each other celebrate the Ravens win, accept each other as part of the group of Ravens fans and start to form a social bond based on common good fortune. We are probably all fans of the Ravens in the first place because we have some connection to the Baltimore area. Maybe we buy each other drinks, sing songs or dance together to re-enforce the bonds. We might protect each other from fans of the other teams if there is trouble. Later, I might see those people in some other context and they might be more inclined to help me because of the social bond we formed.

Similar, we celebrate certain holidays together to re-enforce our identity as part of a group. People celebrate the 4th of July because they are American or they celebrate Hanukkah because they are Jewish. In both cases, Groups celebrate some great achievement or good fortune that happened to the group in the past. Individuals who identify themselves with the group celebrate to show their membership in the group. That helps re-enforce those people's place within the group.

Even smaller "celebrations," like toasting before a drink are forms of social bonding. When toasting, people are acknowledging each other and wishing each well. Frequently, toasts have some common frame of reference, like an Englishmen saying "God save the Queen." With celebrations like anniversaries, the annually recurrence of the date of a shared event is a convenient time to remember and re-enforce the social bonds of the participants in that event.

Another example, let's say I get a promotion. I might celebrate by buying a round of drinks for my friends. I'm building social bonds by subconsciously conveying that to them that my fortune is their fortune. They receive a benefit, like a free drink, because something good happened to me with the implication being that they should help me achieve more good things. Conversely, if something good happens to them, they should also share some of that fortune with me.

This is mostly subconscious thinking that manifests in the conscious as happiness, good will, or even obligation or duty.
posted by chrisulonic at 11:44 AM on October 20, 2011


A celebration is an unnecessary acknowledgement of something that is generally assumed to be positive. The extent of the celebration depends on factors that are unique for each instance, and rather than interrogate people, just mimic their actions and see if you end up having a good time.

Take birthdays. These are celebrated as acknolwedgements of the person having been born, therefore existing; the person existing is considered to be a good thing. The unnecessary part comes in because the person would continue to exist even if their birthday was not acknowledged, but it is pleasant to receive the acknowledgement. However, the extent to which this is celebrated varies significantly based on whose birthday it is, and what kind of people are celebrating it, and what they like to do, and how much time and money they have. That the people all exist is equally wonderful; there is no one-to-one mapping between the level of celebration and the benefit of the person's existance.

Birthday #1: a small number of friends gather to celebrate one friend's birthday with a nice home-cooked meal and low-key conversation. Share in the food and low-key conversation and enjoy yourself.

Birthday #2: a large number of friends gather to celebrate one friend's birthday with a huge party in a rented loft, with a DJ, catered food, and lots of drinking. Dance, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.
posted by davejay at 12:23 PM on October 20, 2011


Directed, conscious, attention is a finite resource (for most people anyway). Choosing to devote a portion of that attention to some specific thing that is important to an individual or a group can be considered a celebration.

And this is probably why people get upset or irritated when you ask them questions about the celebration while they're at the celebration. It draws their attention away from the thing or person or group they are focused on. And there is something about splitting that attention that is unpleasant and jarring because part of what makes the celebration is the directedness and consciousness of the attention.
posted by looli at 8:47 PM on October 20, 2011


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