I have recollections of an earlier Shap publication in which
an R.E. teacher wrote of exploring the concept of time. I don’t
think this was any abstruse philosophical argument about the nature
of time, in fact it is the visual image of an hourglass that remains
with me, an existential symbol of passing time. As I write a clock
ticks, rhythmical, even purposeful; a calendar is also at hand
marking time, bringing me abruptly to attention as birthdays and
anniversaries, celebratory and solemn, pass by. There is also
a natural rhythm — it is dark outside — and in the garden snowdrops,
crocuses and incipient daffodils point to this rhythm too.
This issue of time is not without significance in approaching
festivals. The existential dimension of time, the firm natural
rhythm at the heart of experience, humankind’s attempts to structure
time and find meaning in its inexorable flow are issues at the
heart of festivals, which may in fact be alternatively labelled
Sacred Times.1 To start with time perhaps alerts us to the profundity
of festivals, and guards against superficiality in teaching.
A quick survey of recent publications for religious education
especially for the primary and middle school, shows a preponderance
of books about festivals. The attractions of festivals as a topic
are obvious: colourful celebrations, special foods, the exchange
of gifts, new clothes, and stories may quickly engage children
— indeed within religious traditions these may be some of the
means by which religious faith is transmitted. Passover celebrated
in a Jewish home integrates story and symbolic foods and invites
children to question and taste: religious education in turn may
acquire a methodology from the ways in which a community itself
celebrates. Judaism provides a rich resource in just this way:
consider for example Succot or the minor festivals of Hanukkah
and Purim. But there is a trap here too; perhaps the teacher finds
little to say about Shavuot; or Pentecost holds less attraction
than Christmas; and Diwali dominates the Hindu calendar in the
classroom, whilst Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha are stretched out
in some books in ways which give greater prominence to them than
the Muslim community might wish. Behind these simple observations
lie some pertinent questions:
- Firstly, does current interest in festivals
in R.E. suggest — albeit unwittingly — that festivals are equally
significant in all faiths?
- Secondly, in handling festivals is R.E. (aided
by publishers with an eye to primary and middle schools) in
danger of focusing on the superficial: the outward manifestations
of festivals or those festivals which seem most colourful?
- Thirdly, does religious education impose
its own patterns on festivals? Just as in the past there was
a kind of school Christianity is there a danger that attenuated
festivals now become the order of the day?
- Fourthly, are festivals in R.E. in danger
of becoming divorced from the religious traditions of which
they are an integral part?
To each of these questions I would wish to respond with at least
a qualified affirmative, and then to add that these need not be
the paths which are followed. Here I wish to return to the issue
of time, since reflection on this seems to provide some clues.
Firstly, reflection on a calendar (or calendars) within a faith
highlights the way in which festivals relate to time, and to time
perceived in a number of ways: How, if at all, does a festival
relate to a natural rhythm, be it lunar, solar, seasonal? How
does it relate to the life of the community in a perceived historical
or mythical past? Are some festivals within the calendar of greater
importance than others — Easter in the Christian, for example
— or are they contingent on other sacred times? Are some calendars
less full, less insistent on festivals because all time is sacred
and marked out by ritual observance? Such questions are useful
preliminaries to approaching festivals within a given tradition;
the answers will both vary and coalesce across traditions. Such
considerations immediately set a festival within the context of
the faith from which it is drawn, within the context of time which
is, in turn, related to a faith’s world view. This may be regarded
as a primary context, others such as place being secondary, though
important, as we grapple with the essence of a festival and its
geographical variations in practice and application.
The notion of the essence of a festival may appear too static.
By essence here I mean that festivals seem to share a number of
essential characteristics: these may provide a framework for handling
festivals in school. Secondly I mean that it is possible to ask
what are the distinctive emphases of this festival, which both
derive from and contribute to the complex phenomenon which is
this religion: thus,~ what are the essential Christian beliefs
communicated through the Christian festival of Easter: from where
do they come and how do they influence Christian life and practice
Consideration of a framework may help to tackle the question
of superficiality and also provide a tool for assessing models
of festivals adopted in text books. I have argued elsewhere for
a framework for handling Christian festivals.2 I suggest here
that it might be successfully applied on a wider scale. Four key
elements form the framework: story, symbol, the celebrating community,
experience and meaning: it cannot be stressed too strongly that
these elements are interactive. Interactive, that is, with each
other, but again using my exploration of time, interactive too
with changing circumstances — a Christian festival celebrated
today is arguably both the same as and different from that celebrated
500 years ago. The questions and needs of Christian communities
and individuals to which it speaks are likewise both the same
and different. If we follow the four elements suggested we may
recognise too that in different festivals, and in different faiths,
their weighting will be different.
Each element now deserves brief comment. Story: the term itself
must not be interpreted too narrowly: ‘that which is told’ might
constitute a more flexible terminology. At the individual level
stories have the capacity to involve the whole person, they invite
engagement. Through the vehicle of stories new perspectives are
opened up with vast potential for change, renewal and growth.
There is a personal dimension to hearing a story in the context
of a festival. Secondly, stories told in such a context articulate
what the faith community believes to be of ultimate importance;
story is thus bound up with identity; it marks out boundaries,
it is a unifying force, but also a source of creative tension
as successive generations come to terms with its meanings. Thirdly,
the telling of the story within the context of an annual or periodic
cycle of festivals offers continuity within a religious tradition.
The festival may make present the events which a story recalls;
responses are evoked; reaffirmation and renewal mark out a continuing
path and quest.
Distinctive symbols and symbolic actions may also be associated
with a festival. Universal symbols such as light and darkness
take on specific and individual meaning in different traditions;
others such as food and dress may be peculiar to one faith. Like
story (which in its own right may function symbolically) symbols
have the capacity to engage the individual in the action of the
festival; they may encapsulate essential beliefs underlying the
festival and provide a medium for individual and community learning
at a variety of levels of understanding and perception.
Celebration implies community; shared meals, shared worship,
shared actions, shared journeys, shared experience of a special
time or moment. Drama is part of festival. Festival is necessarily
a community affair, belonging to the faith community, but frequently
public too with all the implications that carries in a multi-faith
world. Like story, celebration forges identity and establishes
new bonds; it is a springtime for a community.
Experience and meaning run through all that has been said of
story, symbol and celebration: it could not be otherwise — and
I thus feel some frustration with books which explore various
facets of festival and tag on meaning at the end. Somehow they
have missed the point of festival. Story, symbol and celebration
convey meaning and speak to human experience as they interact,
and even the casual observer may be caught up in their dynamic.
Finally it is worth identifying which key beliefs of a faith
are conveyed through its festivals, or even through one festival,
and to reflect on other ways in which those beliefs have been
conveyed and lived in the past, and continue to be in the present.
This helps to see festivals in a wider perspective: as affirming
at sacred times what is always present within the tradition.
1. cf. Ninian Smart, Background to the Long Search, BBC 1977,
pp.77—87 when the comparable phrase Holy Times is used.
2. See M. Hayward, Christian Festivals, in C. Erricker (Ed.)
Teaching Christianity, Lutterworth 1987.