It’s a party, and the whole world’s invited

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I love traditional festivals. No matter what the culture, even if they’re staged, traditional style festivals just seem to get under the skin. They make everything exciting – and they help to break down the boundaries between people.

Growing up in Australia, I didn’t get to experience this type of festival often, which is probably why they hold such a particular thrill for me. The closest I ever got as a child was the odd Chinese New Year event and the occasional display of Aboriginal culture. Unfortunately, to the average Aussie a festival seems to be something like Big Day Out – a day spent sweating and drinking with mates as the sun slowly burns the outline of the bits you missed with the zinc into your skin, with maybe a rock band or two for entertainment. A sense of community exists only in the minds of the rowdiest people. I suppose the lack is not really surprising, in a nation with a history only about 300 or so years old.

So living in Japan can be very exciting for me. Especially through the warmer months, there seems to be a festival everywhere you turn. Go for a stroll, and you’ll stumble upon the local young folk rhythmically hefting a local shrine’s festival float (o-mikoshi), as the older citizens shout, cheer, swig beer, dance, and play highly catchy traditional music in a semi-organised, semi-impromptu parade through the town. It’s very much a family event.

But it’s not only the community-run festivals that excite, and break down the boundaries between people.

I recently had the opportunity to witness a staged ‘festival’ organised by the management of a local airport. Strictly choreographed and organised down to the letter, and performed by professional dancers, the traditional aspects of the performance nonetheless managed to create a similar effect to genuine community festivals.

After the organised performance was finished, the barriers were moved. The performers continued dancing, the music continued playing – and in the middle of a crowded airport, passers-by joined in. And it wasn’t just Japanese people, either. In a true display of just how strong is the power of a festival to break down the boundaries between people, a foreign traveller, a Muslim woman in a headscarf, was dancing right along with and among everyone else. Never mind that this wasn’t her culture, she probably couldn’t fully communicate with any of the other dancers, and she wasn’t 100% confident with the moves of the dance – she was still a fully participating member of the celebration.

People want to interact, and want to feel like they’re an accepted part of their surroundings. They just often aren’t sure how to achieve this. The excitement and possibility of involvement of a traditional style festival doesn’t really bring people together per se – it just facilitates what people already want to do. Even in an airport, a place which to most people is nothing but a stop on the way to somewhere else, a festival that wasn’t even completely authentic had the power to create a community spirit in a room full of strangers. Gender, occupation, nationality – the power of the festival cancelled out all differences, and created a single shared commonality: pure excitement and a desire to celebrate. And even if each person was privately celebrating a different thing, just the act of celebrating gave them a togetherness that would probably have been impossible without the medium of a festival.

And to me, this is the whole point of a festival. It’s the reason that every society around the world has festivals, and honestly it’s a quality that most modern-age festivals lack. New festivals these days aren’t designed to draw a community. They’re designed to entertain a group of individuals. There’s very little room for interaction, and little attempt is made to provide any incentive towards becoming a single united group.

The relatively recent mass migration to the cities has caused people to become so used to living among strangers, with no sense of community, that they no longer make any attempt to facilitate the sense of belonging that everyone craves. We’re no longer just ignoring others; we’re ignoring our own need to belong with others. In many places, the traditional festivals of a time in which community was a much larger part of life will continue to fill the gap as much as they can. But in the meantime, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if we could devise some way to create the same sense of excitement and community in a completely modern setting.

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Festivals are not just entertainment, but are necessary for the well-being of both our communities and our selves. In what ways have you felt moved by a festival – or even a community spirit in any setting? And is modern society really losing the ability to facilitate communities? Feel free to leave any thoughts, or any stories you want to share, in the comments section below.

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