Festivity: Rejoicing, mirth, gaiety, such as befits a feast

Christmas Eve, by George Cruikshank
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Christmas Eve as illustrated by George Cruikshank

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas.

Charles Dickens, “Christmas Festivities”, Bell’s Life in London (1835)

Dickens would have considered The Oikofuge a misanthrope indeed, and would not be the first to do so, but the title of his short story (later collected as “A Christmas Dinner”) gives me the hook for this year’s Christmas word.

A festivity is an occasion on which one is festive, the original meaning of which is “pertaining to a feast”. Nowadays, though, festive has come to have connotations of joy and mirth and gladness. And the current Festive Season has links to both feasting and (as Dickens pointed out) “jovial feelings” of various kinds. A festival was originally a time for feasting, usually tied to the ecclesiastical calendar of feast days, but now has broader connections to themed celebrations, in the form of book festivals, music festivals, and so on. Things pertaining to festivals are festal; and if you write a treatise concerning ecclesiastical festivals, you have written a festilogy.

All these words come from Latin festum, “feast day”. So also, by a more circuitous route, does festoon, originally the name for a garland of flowers hanging in a curve between two points of support. Nowadays, we can refer to anything hanging in that sort of curve as a festoon. The word comes from Italian festone, which is thought to derive from festum—festoons were apparently considered to be appropriate feast-day decorations. The French turned festum into fête, a word we borrowed directly into English, originally as another word for festival, but now rather downgraded to designate mild-mannered charity bazaars. We also stole fest from the Germans, embedded in the word festschrift (“festival writing”), which refers to a collection of writings in honour of a scholar or author. And of course the idea of an Oktoberfest beer festival is no longer confined to Munich, these days.

Latin festum is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as dhes, which seems to have been used in relation to religious concepts like gods and sacred places—and its various descendants in English tend to be connected to religion, in one way or another, as we’ll see. Dhes also found its way into Archaic Latin as fesiae, which was transformed into Classical Latin feriae, “religious holiday”, from which we derive our noun fair, which originally referred to mass gatherings of buyers and sellers during religious festivals, but now is also used to designate other gatherings with a holiday atmosphere, such as a fun fair*. Latin feriae also came into English as feria, an ecclesiastical term for a day of the week that isn’t Sunday. A greater feria is such a day of the week that has some special religious significance, like Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday.

A suffixed form of dhes reconstructed as dhesnom also ended up in Latin as fanum, “temple”. This gives us a largely disused English word for a temple, fane, which generally only turns up in wilfully archaic writings nowadays. Something profane is literally “outside the temple”. And our word fanatic comes from Latin fanaticus, “belonging to a temple”. Make of that what you will.

In Classical Greek, dhes gave rise to theos, “divine being”, which has been a fruitful source of god-words in English, from atheism (“no god”) to pantheism (“god everywhere”) via monotheism and polytheism. Sitting between mono- (one god) and poly- (lots of gods) is the rather rarely encountered henotheism, which is a belief that only one god is relevant to one’s own tribe, while accepting that other people may have other gods. A pantheon is a temple dedicated to all gods. An apotheosis is a promotion to godhood, though its meaning has worn smooth enough over the years that achieving A-list celebrity status also counts. An entheogen is a drug that creates a sensation of divine inspiration. (The term was coined in 1979 as a way of emphasizing the spiritual nature of the experience induced, while dodging the negative connotations acquired by hallucinogen and psychedelic.) Enthusiasm was original a state of divine inspiration—another word with a meaning that has worn down over time. And the cacao tree, from which we derive chocolate, belongs to the genus Theobroma (“food of the gods”).

A theophany is a “god manifestation”. This is the name the Eastern Christian calendar applies to the feast day known as Epiphany in the West, which falls on January 6th, marking the traditional date of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Male children born on that date were sometimes named Theophanes, while female children were given the name Theophania—the origin of the English girl’s name, Tiffany. And the names Dorothy and Theodore both come from theos, “god”, coupled with doron, “gift”, albeit with the male order reversing the female.

There are many more theos words, and I’ve merely cantered through the ones I find interesting, in the hope you’ll feel the same way. But to end this festive post, I’ll loop back to Latin festum, and mention the “non-commercial secular holiday” Festivus. In Latin, festivus is an adjective, meaning “pertaining to feasts”, but that seems not to have been in the mind of Daniel O’Keefe when the name for an idiosyncratic family celebration “just popped into his head” in 1966. Originally a rather protean affair, the concept leaked into consensus reality when O’Keefe’s son, Dan, ended up as a writer for the television series Seinfeld. “Festivus for the rest of us” featured in a 1997 episode entitled “The Strike”, in which the date was nailed down to December 23rd, and the various components of the celebration (including the “Airing of Grievances”) were laid out.

I’m making this post on December 22nd, so you may well become aware of it in time to construct your own Festivus Pole, and to admire its simplicity, lack of decoration, and philosophical opposition to all that a Dickensian Christmas stands for. Have a good one, or at least have one as good as circumstances permit.

* The Oikofuge’s misanthropy, previously established, means that that phrase fun fair came very close to featuring scare quotes on the fun. But hey, it’s Christmas …

10 thoughts on “Festivity”

    1. It shouldn’t let you do that, but it does, sometimes.
      I presume that’s how my little essay on the Lomond Hills managed to achieve a suspiciously exact 100 likes in the space of a day. Someone really liked it, it seems.

  1. Very interesting, particularly for me, fanatic enthusiasm & the given names. I guess someone feted also comes originally from ‘feasted’. Unsurprised & delighted to find you’ve already done a post on solstice, whose (inanimate whose?) non-commercial, fire & nature-focused festive traditions I much prefer. Loved the note on Jerusalem artichoke!

  2. Yes, the French have a verb fêter, “to celebrate”, which was originally “to hold a feast”.
    The OED has some nineteenth-century examples of the verb to fête in English, meaning “to celebrate” or “to honour”, but it seems to crop up only as a past participle adjective these days, speaking of someone being fêted.

  3. I remember particularly people talking ‘fêter’ in the context of birthdays, where one might say “comment vas-tu fêter ton anniversaire?” I rather like the idea of ‘feasting birthdays’ (communal) more than the common association of birthdays with presents (individualistic/commercial).

  4. Ah, you neglected a fest Dr. Grant.

    The classic slugfest.

    Oddly enough, despite participating in at least…Lord, I can’t give you an accurate number…at least a dozen I’d say with complete honesty, there was never a happy mollusk in sight. (I did see a lot of stars though.)

    Sorry I wasn’t able to post earlier in the holiday season. The annual warning that you’re surely in for some nocturnal nightshirt aerobatics is something I usually look forward to.

    Hoping you have a great New Year Doc.

  5. I also skipped gabfest, lovefest and gorefest, Don. It seems to be a suffix that’s quite productive in American English, for some reason. Lexico has a long list, most of which I’ve never encountered in the wild.

    And a Happy New Year to you, too.

  6. And just in passing…
    I still think you’re in for an acute case of Ebenezer;s Syndrome some time in the future…

  7. Well, after Christmas coming at the height of the omicron outbreak in these parts, I think a fair number of people are coming round to the idea that having “national holidays” on fixed calendar dates is just bonkers.

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