Explorer Explains: Festivals


Festivals and holidays are celebrated across cultures for many reasons. Many of them have to do with important events in a culture’s history or in an person’s life.

Anthropologists think of festivals as a kind of ritual, and like most rituals, they’re great for group cohesion and communicating values. But that’s not all festivals do. They also signal change, as in rites of passage. They honor leaders and heroes. They’re a chance to recognize the tribe’s good fortunes and celebrate life.

Festivals and rituals have also had strong religious components for as long as they’ve been around.

Some theorize that the grand, society-wide holidays we have today stemmed from the feasts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. As societies grew, they became more important and central to maintaining unity.

Although they come in all shapes and sizes, anthropologist Cynthia Svoboda highlights some that are especially common:


These events mimic or try to reenact famous happenings of history. Often there is a strong storytelling element with characters, histories and moral themes.

(Examples include the Aomori Nebuta festival, in Aomori Prefecture, Japan.)


Elephants are included for Pooram in the state of Kerala, India. Image: Challiyan.

Elephants are included for Pooram harvest festival, in the state of Kerala, India. Image: Challiyan.

These occur on specific dates to mark an occasion. They don’t have to be holidays. They can be birthdays, graduations or anniversaries – an occasion to honor a member of the group or something that keeps the group together. Many national holidays, especially independence days, mark the genesis of a group.

(For example, the annual Pooram holiday, dedicated to the Hindu god Durga after the summer harvest.)

Artistic and Recreational

Humans have expressed themselves as individuals since time immemorial. The same urge seems to animate whole groups, cities and nations. Coordinated singing, dancing and music show the world the distinctive character of a unique people. Some suggest sporting events carry this ritual quality.

A lantern float at the Aomori Nebuta festival. Image: Fisherman.

A lantern float at the Aomori Nebuta festival. Image: Fisherman.

(Examples include Carnival, a season of large street circus parades occurring in Catholic countries.)


Healing rituals can be at the individual and family level, but they can also be at a society-wide level. Dealing with catastrophes like the Tsunami in Japan can lead to a whole nation morning together. In these times, media such as newspapers facilitate connection between people.

(For example, the period of national grief following the 2011 Norwegian shootings by Anders Breivik.)

Rites of Passage

Weddings are probably the most common of rites across cultures. Like many seasonal festivals, celebrations based on rites of passage help resolve the the in-between stage where a person’s identity in the group is uncertain. Ceremonies that mark a child’s initiation into manhood presents him to the group in his new social role and signals to others how they are to treat him.

(For example, the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah.)

Featured Image: The Carnival holiday celebrated in Olinda, Brazil. Credit: LeRoc.