Religious Education and the resacralization of festivals

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 today?

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.

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