Festivus Minimus

Michael Metzger

“The trick is not to arrange a festival,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “but to find people who can enjoy it.” He recognized we live in an age of pseudo-festivals.

Ever wondered what defines a festival? I do on occasion, particularly this week. The Annapolis Film Festival begins this Thursday. It features over 60 films from 20 countries. Last year 16,000 people attended, remarkable for a six-year-old event.

The roots of festival lie in seeing life as having two types of activities.[1] One type is “useful” in the sense that its purpose is dependent on something else. Washing dishes for example. Not very meaningful by itself. Its purpose lies in seeing value in keeping things clean. Most college students (more often the male species) see little value in that.

The second type of activity is meaningful in itself. A day at the beach. Playing with your grandkids. Taking a walk with your spouse. These activities bring deep joy. Time seems to stop. We never want these experiences to end.

Nietzsche recognized this. “Joy wills eternity, wills deep, deep eternity.” In the second type of activity, we pass beyond this life and experience eternity. Time is no more.

The Greek theologian Athanasius wrote this in the fourth century: “To us who live here our festivals are an unobstructed passage to that life.”[2] In celebrating genuine festivals, we pass beyond the barriers of this present life on earth. We taste transcendence, eternity.

Nietzsche knew this. True festival is based on an activity that’s meaningful by itself. It points to the Great Beyond. But Nietzsche recognized how confidence in God’s existence was fading in the late 1800s. God wasn’t real. The Christian God was a pseudo-God.

With a pseudo-God we only do pseudo-work. If our activities are merely “useful”—utilitarian—they don’t point to eternity. We’re left with mere “values” (a term Nietzsche coined). That’s pseudo-work, which is not very satisfying.

Pseudo-festivals spring from pseudo-work. Films, friends, and food make for a fun time. But without eternity, the beer buzz is more an escape from the toil and trouble of work than a taste of eternity. Pseudo-festivals offer pseudo-transcendence.

I’m not saying the Annapolis Film Festival is pseudo-festival. It’s like everything else in our fallen world—part genuine, part pseudo. I’m part genuine, part pseudo-follower of Jesus. Wish it wasn’t so, but its true. I seek to improve, which is one reason Kathy and I are involved in the Annapolis Film Festival. We enjoy it, host film producers at our home, and feel there are likely ways it can be improved.

The same can be said about the church, the bride of Christ. She’s part genuine, part pseudo. The pseudo part is we’ve forgotten that, according to Greek myth, all great festivals had their origins in funeral rites. That’s why Passion Week precedes Easter, the highest festival in the church calendar.

Passion comes from the French paseo, meaning intense suffering. We get two words from paseo: passive and passion. Passion is yielding your life to God (as Jesus did), being prepared to die for your beliefs.

Today’s passion is part genuine, part pseudo. People claim to be passionate about almost everything—sushi, sports, working out, worship. I doubt we’re willing to die for sushi. Most of what we hear today is pseudo-passion. We’re untrained in genuine passion.

Origen said the naming of specific holy days was done only for the sake of the untrained, the “uninitiated” and “beginners” who were not yet capable of celebrating the “eternal festival.”[3] Passion Week is training for genuine festivus. We could stand a little training in this.

Festivus entered the American lexicon with the 1997 Seinfeld episode, “The Strike.” It was funny but pseudo-festival. In 2002, Baltimore Raven’s head coach Brian Billick—apparently a superstitious fellow—banned the use of the words “playoffs” and “Super Bowl.” He called them “Festivus” and “Festivus Maximus.” Origen likely would have changed it to “Festivus Minimus.”

The Danish anthropologist Adolphe Jensen wrote that “for a festival to emerge out of human efforts, something divine must be added.”[4] Even the atheist Nietzsche recognized that, without God, there is no genuine festival. That’s why it’s easy to arrange a festival but difficult to find people who can discern if it’s the real deal.


[1] Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (St. Augustine’s Press, 1963)

[2] The Festal Epistles of St. Athanasius

[3] Origen, Contra Celsum, 8, 22.

[4] Jensen, Mythos and Kult, 68.


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  1. Fascinating that I just returned from a robust weekend of celebrating Barbershop Harmony and watching the musical competition, certainly a festival on its face. But, how did it end? The championship chorus from Nashville, TN ended its champion show by singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in counterpoint to a Latin phrase arranged in Barbershop style that, when translated, is an overt reminder to point our efforts to know God. This is particularly interesting in that The Barbershop Harmony Society is not a “religious” organization. The closing celebration at the international “festival” in Las Vegas last summer included 200 voices from two different top-notch Barbershop choruses singing Ode to Joy. In each of these cases my attitude, which was already quite celebratory, was lifted toward the Cross celebrating in a non-religious organization.

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