Thursday, 26 June 2008

Why Do We Celebrate?

Celebration in its simplest form is really the validation of shared beliefs and values. As you can tell from previous blog entries, I have been spending a lot of time researching celebration (read "special events" in modern terminology) from prehistory right up to the present. A tremendous body of research has accumulated from anthropology, performance studies, psychology, religion, and event management as to why people participate in celebration. Within this research, however, little time has been spent studying relationships amongst the three distinctly different key players in the event: owner/organizers, participants, and spectators. Each of these key players has a reason for being part of the event, and these reasons may not all be congruent. Although other researchers and authors (Allen et al, 2005) have included host communities, media, and co-workers in the key stakeholders list, I believe that these people are all just sub-categories of one or more of the main three categories.

Let’s take a look at these players. The first group is owner/organizers. Just who would be the organizers of a spectacle like an ancient Greek festival, a Mayan accession ceremony, or a modern rock concert? Why would anyone want to take on such a difficult task? For answers, we must turn to my personal area of expertise, special event management, or event studies as it may soon be called. It deals with the theory and practice of organizing special events. It is, as Dr. Joe Jeff Goldblatt, a pioneer in the field, called it in his first book, “the art and science of celebration.”

To put the job of event organizer in perspective, how well organizers carry out their craft really determines how successful the event will be. Often, the person who organizes an event is not the person who “owns” the event or who foots the bill. That “money person” may be someone who speaks for a larger entity such as a private company or a government organization, sometimes called a sponsor. That’s in today’s world. In the ancient world, that “money person” was probably a king or a chief priest. The organizer might have been a noble, a senior statesman, another priest, or a military officer.

For the event to be successful, these two people, the owner of the event and the organizer, must be in absolute synchronization in their understanding of why the event is taking place. Then, once they both clearly understand the underlying reason for the event, the organizer must gather together all the necessary elements to convey the message to those who are attending the event. Today, these elements may be actual participants such as talented performers, VIPs, or celebrities. They may also be technical elements such as special effects, lighting, audio, creative set designs, and staging.

The final step in the operation involves the integration of these elements using organizational flair, ritual, and psychology. If the “operation” is successful, the participants (e.g. performers or celebrities) will convey the message to the audience who will come away from the event with a feeling of attending something very unique and memorable. In other words, the shared beliefs and values will have been validated. More importantly, the spectators will maintain a loyalty to the owner of the event. This, of course, is ultimately what it is all about. In ancient societies, this was absolutely necessary for a priestly or ruling class to stay in power. Today, it is more about consumer brand loyalty. This is one of the crucial ways that celebration has evolved over the centuries. The figure above outlines in simple form how the three key players interact.

I'll discuss the reasons why each key player becomes part of celebration in a future blog.


Goldblatt, Dr. Joe Jeff. (1990). Special Events: The Art and Science of Celebration. New York: Ven Nostrand Reinhold.
Allen, J., O'Toole, W., McDonnell, I., Harris, R. (2005). Festival and Special Event Management, Third Edition. Milton, Qld., Australia: John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.