What celebration is

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:

  1. 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.
  2. It usually requires most of one’s time, for between a couple of hours and a day.
  3. If it is repeated, it tends to be ritualistic and traditional, containing roughly the same activities every time, but different ones for different celebrations.
  4. The activities tend to be enjoyable, social, ones. They tend not to have other obvious purposes, besides eating.
  5. Celebrating seems to generally express the importance of a subject. Celebrating a thing indicates approval for it.
  6. Celebrations tend to involve more symbolism than your usual activity.
  7. 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.
  8. Celebrating seems normatively expected to be social. Celebrating a thing alone is often considered a sad sign.
  9. Celebrations are more often associated with a religion than the average activity is, though many are not.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

More theories?

10 responses to “What celebration is

  1. Celebrations are manic occasions, and like mania generally, celebration serves to defend against depression. We celebrate birthdays to avoid the depressing fact that they bring us closer to death. This also explains why celebration is associated so much with time periodicity. In the present instance, you may be warding off depression about either the loss of a larger audience or failure to please your mentor.

    • I agree people sometimes celebrate to cheer themselves up, but this seems to hardly explain the general phenomenon. People are depressed about all sorts of things, and don’t seem to organize celebrations about the vast majority of them. Even if they wanted to, such things seem pretty hard to consciously cause. Also there seem to be many more celebrations of things people are generally in favor of than against. Does Christmas exist because the Christians fear Jesus’ birth upsetting them? Also, there are so many ways to cheer oneself up – the desire for mania doesn’t appear to pick one out much.

      • To use celebration as an antidepressant, the topic celebrated must be ambiguous enough to be viewed positively. (Your current celebration is a good example of how that works.)

        Birthdays are unmistakable reaction formations, but Christmas is the first possible counter-example that occurred to me, too. But 1) the event has turned into a seasonal occasion, so our dread of time’s march figures in; 2) Christians have a lot of reasons to be ambivalent about Christ’s birth, inasmuch as so many demands are made on them in his name; and 3) the common occurrence of depression during the “joyous” XMAS season comports with the explanation.

  2. I would have guessed that birthday celebrations, in as much as they are about anything, are about celebrating having friends?

  3. I see birthday celebrations as a sort of social “maintenance checkup”; they help minimize the probability of anyone becoming totally neglected by chance.

  4. Mitchell Porter

    “Why would you have an activity like this?”

    Because most people, unlike you, are not living lives of self-actualization. They slave at dreary jobs, and these celebrations are a nice break in the gloom of adult life.

  5. It seems to me that a “general” theory for explaining all kinds of celebrations will have a very high Kolmogorov complexity. Thus it might make more sense to explain different kinds of celebrations one at a time.

    Also, explaining why we celebrate something and explaining why a certain kind of celebration started in the history of humanity sound like two different questions. Thus we should try these two also one at a time.

    Take wedding anniversaries, for example. Why do couples celebrate wedding anniversaries? I think it’s mainly because other couples celebrate wedding anniversaries and people who do not celebrate wedding anniversaries are not couples. This means there is a high correlation between being a couple and celebrating wedding anniversaries. Thus if you do not celebrate anniversaries, you might feel that you are closer to not being a couple than to being a couple. I am sure there are cultures where this correlation does not exist and hence a couple will have no problem not celebrating wedding anniversaries.

    I think it’s something simlar with birthdays as well. I have long held the opinion that birthdays are pointless and that there is no point celebrating the fact that you successfully completed one more revolution around the sun. However, suppose I want a person to like me and I know that she thinks birthdays are very important and she forgets to wish me on my birthday, I will not like it. I will like the world to turn into a world where no one celebrates birthdays at all. But given the present state of the world, I would prefer if people wished me on my birthday. I think this is the reason why everyone celebrates birthdays. Since they live in a world where celebrating birthdays is highly correlated with having friends who like you, not celebrating birthdays would feel closer to being a person who does not have any friends.

    However, a similar reasoning does not provide a satisfactory explaination for some completely bizarre celebrations, such as new years. Perhaps celebrating new years is highly correlated with being “cool” or having an active social life. Perhaps people are going nuts over new years because they want to signal that they have an active social life. But I am not too sure about it.

    Note that I have made no attempts at answering the other question, i.e., why did these celebrations start in the first place. I don’t think I have anything reasonable to say here. I can come up with some vague explanations for birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but things like new years are too mysterious for me.

  6. Celebrations are a way to get together and socialize. We do it because it’s fun, BUT we can’t do it every day because it’s impractical (with regard to time and money)
    So what we do is limit the celebrations during moments that inherently celebrate something, like a first or a last, or the annual tradition.

  7. Hello, I enjoy reading through your article. I wanted to write a little comment to support you.|

  8. Mitchell Porter has a right grain there – celebrations is the way of the body to return to its original condition – all others are consequences of that


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.