Feast, while a Social Sciences object, exhibits several aspects already studied and many problems to be faced: if not to be solved at least to put in evidence new elements. The first problem is the academic literature: a vast amount of works — ethnographies especially — about many kinds of festivities of indigenous societies and a lot of researches with folkloric approach, generally  descriptive only and many of them making use of old and abandoned concepts as “spontaneous culture”, “cultural survival” and others with the same tendency. Such studies are useful for being documents with meticulously descriptive character of events themselves and the moments when they happen. However, such studies seldom present any concern with registering the cultural, political and economical contexts in which these festivals, fetes, feasts, parties and fairs happen. Excessively interested in searching for “originality”, “tradition”, “survivals” etc., many times observers have missed the transformative processes and, also, the reasons impelling them.


At the same time, the lack of theoretical reflections about Feasts is noticeable. They usually appear just as a minor point inserted in ritual’s studies or, more appropriately, in religion’s theories. Besides that, the “whole” of reflections on Feasts is composed by a large amount of subchapters, paragraphs and kindred themes (not always related to each other) dispersed through anthropological philosophical, sociological, historical and literary studies among others.


Such fragments (but also some specific approaches of Feast as a study object) are found, more frequently, in the Phenomenological School related works of authors like George Dumézil, Roger Caillois, René Girard, George Bataille and Mircea Eliade, among others. These authors, however, just improved or updated, without particularly new developments, Émile Durkheim’s reflections presented in 1912, when he stated several observations about the intimate relationship between ritual and feasts in Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse that became a common basis in subsequent bibliography. In this work Durkheim affirms that the limits that separate the representative rites of  collective recreations are not fixed (they are floatable) and he also affirms that an important characteristic of every religion is exactly the “recreational and aesthetic element” (Durkheim, 1968:542/4). Stating this, Durkheim says:


Each party, even when purely laic in its origins, has certain characteristics of religious ceremony, because in all events their main reason is to approach individuals, to agitate the masses and so create a state of effervescence, sometimes even of delirium, that is quite akin to a religious state. […] the same manifestations: screams, songs, music, violent movements, dances, the use of excitants that increase vital levels etc. can be observed, also, as much in one case as in the other. It is frequently emphasized that popular feasts lead to excesses, lose sight of the limit that separates the licit from the illicit. Equally, there are religious ceremonies that determine the necessity to violate the ordinarily more respected rules. Obviously, it is possible to differentiate between the two forms of public activity. Simple entertainment, […] does not have a serious object, while a ritual ceremony, as whole, always has a serious purpose. However, it is necessary to observe that perhaps does not exist entertainment where serious life does not have any echo. Basically, the difference lies more in the unequal proportion in which those two elements are combined». (Durkheim, 1968:547/8 the italic type is mine).


For Durkheim (and others after him), the principal characteristics of every healthy party type are: (1) – to surmount the distances among the individuals, (2) – the production of a state of “collective” effervescence and (3) – the transgression of the collective norms. Obviously, the idea of “serious” object or “serious” purpose was totally abandoned.


In group’s entertainment, just as in religion, says Durkheim, the individual “disappears” in the group and he becomes dominated by it. On those moments, in spite of – or because of – the transgressions, the group’s faiths are reaffirmed and so do the rules that turn life in society possible. In other words: the group “periodically revives the feeling of self and of unity. At the same time, the nature of social beings of the individuals is reaffirmed”. (Durkheim, 1968:536).


Durkheim says that because -in his opinion- time tends to make the collective conscience to lose its strength. Consequently, festival ceremonies are so indispensable as religious rituals to revive the “social ties” that always risks to being undone. In this sense, we could imagine that the more parties a certain group makes, the larger are the forces in the direction of the social rupture to which they resist. Parties could be viewed as a social force in the opposite direction (to resist) of your own social dissolution.


According to Durkheim, Feast is also capable to evidence the conflict between demands of “serious life” (work’s obligations, social responsibilities, restrictions etc.) and the human nature itself. According to him, religion and parties redoes and fortify the “fatigued spirit for that it’s compelling in daily work”. During some moments, in parties, individuals experiments a less tense and a more free life, a world where “their imagination is more comfortable”. (Durkheim, 1968: 543/547).


If its possible to argue that Durkheim extends the “civilization’s indisposition” of the western culture his contemporary to all societies and that not all of them live a “tense and less free life” or are even constrained by “daily work”, we must to consider that something in this relationship seems to make sense, because the concept of “serious life” versus “entertainment” reappears in different ways and with different names in all “ theories”  about the meaning of Parties (although the perspectives and analyses are different), which gives it some legitimacy. However, entertainment is a serious thing, and it can be even understood as a reason to work, following immediately after the fulfillment of survival needs.


For most of the authors studied, entertainment (one of the most important assumptions of Feast), is a rapid escape of the monotony of quotidian, and so “unuseful”. However, humanity requests the “serious life”. Humanity knows that without seriousness existence in society become impossible. Therefore, Feasts stops to being “useless” and gains a “function”. At the end of each party, individuals return to the “serious life” with more courage and disposition. Feast (and ritual) replenishes society of “energy” and disposition to go on. Resignation is easier when humanity realize the chaos that could be established if no rules were imposed to social life. At the same, parties are a kind of mirror where humanity reflects its hope that in a final future Men may be free as in the parties, without the bonds of the social rules.



According to Durkheim (1968:603), the collective’s energy of Feast reaches its zenith at the moment when participants achieve the greatest “effervescence’s grade». The author observes that the “effervescence» changes the psychic activities’ conditions. Vital energies are super stimulated, passions get more vivacious and sensations get stronger. Such elements contribute strongly, in all feasts, to assure this mind state by music, drinks, unusual foods, ritualized behaviors, dances, sensuality’s expression etc. In such circumstances, persons are not recognized as social actors. They are reintegrated to Nature from which Man was alienated by social organization. In the Feast, says Durkheim, and many others after him, individuals can be in direct contact with «social energy‘s source” absorbing the necessary vigor to go on without revolt and annoyance; at least until the next party. This super-energy and the individuality’s dissolution into the collectiveness are, meanwhile, always very dangerous. There are strong connections between parties and violence.


Also for Roger Caillois (1950) and Mauss & Hubert (1968), a meeting of many people who are in movement, dancing, singing, screaming etc., contributes to the production of a great amount of “energy“ which is redistributed to all participants. This statement emerges when the authors talk about sacrifice. For them, sacrifice implicates a consecration, the transformation of a profane object in sacred .  According to those authors’ argument, the victim of the sacrifice, by its transformation in a sacred object, enters in contact with religious forces that represent, in Durkheim’s theory, the vital forces that maintain the social fabric alive. Even if there is no victim, in the strict sense of the term, in other words, a living being, that sacrifices itself for the holiness through immolation, the importance of the notion of sacrifice can be grasped to understand the Party, because even at the most urban and modern parties, it is possible to notice the «sacrifice» of symbolic and material goods in favor of them. At the same time, the sacrifice notion is central to the religious theories and to the Party, as Bataille (1973) and Girard (1990) demonstrate. In these authors’ work, religion is the search of the intimacy with the divine lost with the instauration of the dichotomy subject/object. In other words: the transcendence into the world. Again, it is necessary to put this reasoning in perspective, which is related to the notions of «civilization indisposition», «immanence nostalgia», and “animality». Evidently not applying to all societies, but accepting that Party, as a ritual sacrifice, is a mediation capable to establish a temporary contact between the divine and Men’s society.


The Sacred, for Bataille, is the recovery of the intimacy between Men and the world, between the subject and the object; therefore, it is strictly related to the great majority of the parties, in all societies. However, if humankind want the return of immanence, it also knows that to surrender this intimacy is to lose his humanity. For Bataille, the problem of the impossibility to be human without becoming a thing and of escaping the limit of things without coming back to animality receives the mediating solution of the Feast. He says: “The Party is the coalition of human life. It is, for the thing and the individual, the crucible where distentions are merged into the intense intimate heat of life” (Bataille, 1973: 74).


The Feast also mean the annihilation of the differences among individuals and, for this reason, is associated to violence and conflict, because differences are what maintain order. To understand those subjects it is necessary to remember the basic presupposition of the Girard’s religious theory: the mimetic desire. The mimesis, that can be thought as a factor of social integration, is also a factor of destruction and of dissolution, because all individuals want the same objects and, so, become rivals and violent. Therefore the «social body” creates injunctions, that are always antimimetic and are condition for order. In spite of the injunctions, though, the mimetic desire continues acting and conflicts appear between people and groups. To reestablish order, religion and sacrifice exist. Men, after representing a mimetic crisis (the ritual, the party) concentrate all their violence at the sacrificial victim, the “scapegoat «. The opposition of all against all is translated, through sacrifice, in opposition of all against one. Therefore, order is restored (Girard, 1990), being commemorated.


The notion of Feast as re-establishment of order or denial of it is continually discussed by countless authors, always following the same lines. Only Jean Duvignaud (1983) radicalizes the Feast’s theory, not viewing it as a regeneration attempt or a way of reaffirming an effective social order, but viewing it as a rupture, total anarchy, with a subversive and negative power. For Duvignaud (1983: 212), the power of  feast is not exclusive of this or that culture, but permeates all of them, as a great destructor. The Feast evidences “the capacity that all human groups have of freeing themselves and facing a radical disparity meeting the lawless and formless universe that is Nature in its innocent simplicity». Duvignaud believes that this capacity is being won, today, by capitalist production and by industrial growth.


This kind of «decadence» of  Feast is also observed by Michel Maffesoli when studying the origin and the decadence of group life in western societies and the dioninisus and prometeus aspects of the same ones. For him, the causes of the decadence of celebration, would be individualism and contemporary utilitarism (that, according to him, are also already entering decadence, propitiating the reappearance of parties and  «tribes»), principles that are opposed to luddism, to expenditure, to uselessness, «confusional state and orgiasm» that constitute the essence of feast. Maffesoli uses the term ecstasy to refer to what Durkheim called effervescence, that is, «the excess», the individual’s “transcendence» inside a wider group; the «self» that it is diluted in the collective. He still affirms that Feast and ecstasy are the two biggest enemies of the individualization principle that seems to control social relationships in contemporary society and, going further, he believes that the «Feast revolt” in all its » features » are impending. Maffesoli also believes, like Durkheim, that Feast (or the «orgiasm») allows the structuring and the regeneration of the society. Against the crescent individualism, salvation would be in the inherent holism of parties. He says:


“A city, a people, even a more or less restricted group of individuals, that don’t achieve an expression for its collectively excess, its insanity, its fantasies, dissolves quickly». (Maffesoli, 1985: 23). 


To understand why, in spite of evidences to the contrary, especially in development countries, certain authors (Caillois, 1950; Eliade, 1972; Duvignaud, 1983; Girard, 1990 and others) speak of the decadence of Feast, it is necessary to keep in mind that most of them have been studied in «simple» societies. In them, perhaps, it is possible to imagine that the contact with cultures that privilege the capitalist, industrial system, that exhorts the rationalization of time, the economy of goods etc., has brought a «neglect» of certain traditions, although it is possible to certify ourselves that many of them maintain exactly their Parties as a contact point with their culture and tradition.


In Brazilian society, however, this «decadence» of Feast observed by the foreign authors is not perceived; especially in relation to the cultures of third world countries. Just on the contrary. Every time there appear more and more reasons to celebrate every kind of things and more ways of doing it. Brazil, being a country in capitalist development should be, according to the presuppositions of Duvignaud, living this decadence of the Feast. However, the opposite happens. At first, the impoverishment of some parties certainly can be noticed, if compared to the ones that took place in last century and at the beginning of this one (like the Folia de Reis and Divino Espírito Santo’s Feast, for instance, which were much more pompous), especially in the aesthetic and alimentary aspects. It is also possible to notice the absence, in the first half of the twentieth century, of the elites in (said) more “popular feasts», such as street carnivals, of which they withdrew, in some areas. Mello Moraes Filho (1979), Câmara Cascudo (1969), Gilberto Freire (1995) and others observed the transformations of these feasts. The first two, especially, perceive the loss «of the beauty and of the luxury», lamenting the introduction of innovations that «disfigure the tradition”; and Freire interprets this transformation as due to social changes like the abolishment of slavery and the proclamation of the Republic. Now, however, the feasts grow in all senses (participation and luxury, for example) and the «elites» returns to this feasts, it being usual to see them in Carnivals and others parties. And it is also necessary to point out the enrichment of other parties that, in time, acquired a lot in symbols and wealth. Such is the case of the largest Brazilian Feasts like the Carnival or, still, the Cirio de Nazareth, in Pará, and Northeastern São João. The touristic calendar published by the City Halls of the Brazilian inland does not allow one to reach the conclusion that the number of parties is in decadence.


The contradiction between the logic of accumulation versus waste, in feasts, seems to be solved, in Brazil, in a reasonably less tense way. Everything indicates that capitalism co-opted the popular feasts and it was co-opted by them; but, also, that people are reinventing their parties in the new life conditions resulting from new economical and social contexts. It also can be observed, that the traditional popular feasts (mainly the religious ones), shared by a great number of people, have fragmented in different forms of celebrating as groups were being formed due to the crescent process of capitalist development and the consequent social division of work, spaces, social classes and of growth of different religious denominations with varied ways of celebration. However, great feasts appeared or have been preserved in regional attraction centers.




Feast is still related to several other themes, according to the object that the authors analyze or the kind of feast that is being studied. Once that in the Brazilian case, Feast is essentially related to religion (although not always the feeling of participation in the religious universe that involves the feast is true), it is important to understand one of the more discussed aspects, which are the relationships between feast and ritual.


There are at least two main and divergent positions on ritual. One of them, Gluckman, affirms that ritual is always related to the religious or mystic domain (Gluckman, 1966). The other, not religious, expands the application of ritual concept to other fields of social life which is defended by Edmund Leach. For Leach, there is no important difference between «communicative» behavior and «magic» behavior. The participants of the magic ritual are also communicating some thing to a certain addressee and, for this reason, their message can be studied and deciphered with the same means that are used to understand, for instance, a political ceremony. Any kind of ritual uses a language, verbal and/or non-verbal, condensed and very repetitive, so that the ambiguity of the message transmitted diminishes. According to this concept, the ritual always say something about somewhat that is not the ritual itself. In other words: the ritual, by itself is not enough for the apprehension of the sense (Leach, 1972). That is why Feast can be a privileged dimension for the study of societies and groups.


In Brazil, the relationships between ritual and communicative behavior are tight, feasts having, generally, both purposes. The great majority maintains its religious character, although they contain, at the same time, aspects quite secularized, that tend to create conflicts with the Church, because many times popular participation is more about the ludic aspect of the entertainment and happiness, than about the religious aspect. Besides, disputes for the political and economical control of the party are also frequent. This happens in the intensely popular Catholicism practiced in cities of the inland of the country, as in the Afro-Brazilian cults, for example in  the Iemanjá Feast on 2 February (and in the New Year’s Eve Party), on the entire Brazilian coast, that has become another touristic attraction, to which participate followers and laymen, the latter in bigger numbers. The communicative aspect not just appears properly in the religious ambit, of communication with the sacred, but also in the elements that are introduced at the parties. This can happen at the religious feast, with the introduction of profane elements, as can happen in the profane parties, with religious elements. So, in the Divino’s Feast or in Corpus Christi Feast it is possible to read incentive messages to the prevention of AIDS in the flowers tapestry on which the procession walks. In the other hand,  the presence of the orishas is usual  in great allegorical cars of the schools of samba of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo or, even of Jesus Christ as the introduced by Joãosinho Trinta in one of the memorable scripts of the school of samba Unidos da Beija-Flor: “Ratos e Baratas, larguem a minha fantasia” (Rats and cockroaches, set free my fantasy).


For Religion Anthropology, there are no doubts that feasts constitute a kind of manifestation that appertaing, in general, to the study of the rites. Hence, the theoretical formulations in this domain are valid for festive rituals and, also, for ritual parties. All these positions indicate that it is still necessary to search for the specificities of Feast. What is a Feast? What is a Party?


The definitions of Feast


Maybe it was Durkheim who first observed the recreational and liberating function of the parties (religious or not), and was Sigmund Freud in Totem and Taboo (1974) who proposed a definition that would be used later by Caillois (1950) for the first time:


  «A festival is an allowed excess or, better, obligatory. The solemn rupture of a prohibition» (Freud,1974:168).


Feast are related, therefore, to the «holiness of transgression», already mentioned. It manifests the sacredness of the norms of the social life by its ritual violation; it is an alteration of order, inversion of the injunctions and of the social limits; it is a coalition in an immense fraternity, by opposing common social life, which classifies and separates. Although Caillois has increased:


» In its full form […], a feast should be defined as the paroxysm of the (ideal) society, that is purified and that is renewed by it. It is not just its culmination point according to the economical point of view. It is the moment of wealth circulation, the one of the most considerable changes, the one of the influential distribution of accumulated wealth. The feast appears as the total phenomenon that manifests the glory of the collectivity and the “revigoration» of self: the group commemorates births, which prove its prosperity and assure its future. It receives new members in its midst through the initiation that founds its vigor. It takes notice of its dead and solemnly affirms them its loyalty. It is at the same time the occasion that, in hierarchical societies, the different social classes approach and fraternize and when, in the fratrias societies, the complementary and antagonistic groups mix; they attest their solidarity and they make the mystic principles that they embody cooperate with the work of the creation which, ordinarily is believed, should not be mixed «. (Caillois, 1950:166).



Feast seems, really, to oscillate between two poles: the ceremony (as an external and regular form of a cult) and the festivity (as a demonstration of happiness and great pleasure). They can be differentiated from daily rites by their amplitude and from mere entertainment by their density. Actually, the two elements are similar. Durkheim had already observed that the recreational aspect of the religion and the religious ceremonies are, partly, a performance (a dramatic representation in the case of a myth or an aspect of it and of a historical event). This mixed character can be taken as a fundamental element in the feast definition, because it seems to be fundamentally ambiguous: each party refers to a sacred object and needs profane behaviors. Each party surpasses the designated time, although it is just to uncoil itself in a pure succession of instants, of which the extreme case is the «happening». Each feast happens in an “extra-quotidian way”, but it needs to select characteristic elements of workaday life. Each party is ritualized in a way that allows it to be identified, but surpasses the rite by interventions in its free elements.


However, there are kinds of parties where these aspects appear to be dissociated and even opposed. The reason for these dissociations and interpenetrations seems to be related to the symbolic character of parties. There is always something to be celebrated, even if the object is seemingly irrelevant . The symbol’s function seems not to be then, simply, to mean the object, the event, but to celebrate it, in using all the means of expression to enhance the value that is attributed to this object. Isambert (1982: 311/14), studying popular Catholicism in France, points out that the party definition demands that it is necessary to define its context, which helps to distinguish them. 


Participation and time as classificatory criteria

Since each feast is a collective act, it not only suggests the presence of a group but, also, its participation, which differentiates a feast from a pure spetacle. For this reason, some events (as festivals, shows etc.) cannot be considered to be feasts at sensu stricto. The participation criterion seems to be fundamental in the definition of feasts and, historically, negotiations of several kinds, among different social classes, levels, types etc. have been accomplished in order to obtain larger adhesion to them.


Feast duration can also be pointed as a classificatory principle: in its highest sense, everything is feast throughout the duration of the feast, which makes it a total social fact, in the maussian sense. A multiplicity of relationships of several natures (religious, economical, artistic, ludic etc.) distinguishes them from a simple ceremony. Isambert (1982: 315) defines the feast as the symbolic “celebration of an object [event, man or god, natural phenomenon, etc.] in a consecrated time for a multiplicity of collective activities of expressive function”. That definition seems quite appropriate for the construction of a typology of feasts, once observing the terms of this definition, we can see that each one is in itself variable, being possible to conceive, theoretically, so many varieties of feasts as many combinations possible among the terms.


Jean Duvignaud (1976, 1983), when searching for a feast definition also arrives at a classification that reiterates the participation as a fundamental element of Feast and that allows to divide them in two basic types: Participation’s Feasts and Representation’s Feasts. 
In the category of Participation’s Feasts public ceremonies are included in which the community participates as a group. The participants are conscious of the myths that are represented, as well as the symbols and the rituals used. According to Duvignaud, some religious feasts, as the orgies of the Antique, the candomblé’s parties in Brazil (Amaral, 2002) and most of the carnivals belong to this category. 
In the category of  Representation’s Feasts are those that present «actors» and «spectators». The actors, who may be in restricted number, participate directly of the organized feast for the spectators who in turn participate indirectly of the event to which they attribute, however, a given significance and by which they are more or less affected. The important element is that the participants are in limited number while the spectators are very numerous, especially today, with the direct television reports. It is necessary to underline that the spectators and the actors are conscious of the «game’s rules» (rites, ceremonies and symbols), but that they «perceive» the event in a different way according to the role that is attributed to them. In the meantime, there is an intermediate possibility. In Brazil, now, great Feasts as Círio de Nazaré, the Carnival and Northeastern São João should be placed in an intermediate category between the two stipulated by Jean Duvignaud, because they are Participation’s Feasts when analyzed in a local context and Representation’s Feasts when analyzed in national context, once they are transmitted to the whole country by the television channels. The narration of the events ensures those that attend the feast through TV the understanding of what is being dramatized and of what the exact meaning of the feast, besides what is is common to all the feasts: the mediation among the incompatibles of human life (life and death, sacred and profane, nature and culture etc.) happiness, social surpassing and euphoria (Amaral, 2000).


The distinction that could be established by Duvignaud between Participation’s Feasts and Representation’s Feasts seems due to the evolution of feast in the midst of the societies, from Antiquity to our days. Once societies became complex and that class differences and economic activity became evident, the role of a feast was modified: its representative character became more evident, because a class many times “represents itself “ to the other. The sense of feast seems to have changed when they found an active and collective conscience that was believed capable to modify their own structures and that, as a consequence, «discovered» history (Duvignaud, 1976; Balandier 1971, 1982). Therefore, commemorative ceremonies only appear when civilizations or societies are very strongly constituted to know what they have acquired and, consequently, to define themselves in function of a past. Which is, according to Lévi-Strauss, the conscience of History (Lévi-Strauss, 1983); each commemoration, also mentions Roger Caillois (1950) and Mircea Eliade (1972), is a return to the origins: an uchronia that mantains history alive.


For Duvignaud, who views the feast as the potential destructor of all societies, the «commemorative representations” (representation’s feasts) are very little destructive. They do not bring, in any way, by themselves, the negative force of nature, since they would seek to reiterate the value of social life, giving it a positive strength. They are commemorations. As, for instance, feasts that commemorate victories or celebrations that mark, in principalities or European monarchies, various moments of a prince’s life or of a sovereign – his birth, his marriage, his children’s birth, his death. For Duvignaud these are commemorations of the rulers’ blood, nothing related, therefore, to the revolutionary or destructive potential that he attributes to other feasts (Duvignaud, 1983). This sort of commemoration was used intensely by the European settlers in Brazil and elsewhere where, allies to the Church, used them as a way to insert themselves, showing dominance and presence of the Crowns in the New World (Priore, 1984).


Hence, it is necessary to admit that Feast is more than its moment, involving complex dimensions, and that the current analysis is just an aspect of a vaster definition search: an attempt is made to explain the Feast, but this is a question made by and to our civilization for some two or three centuries. Without answer. A question so much more intriguing and surprising when one thinks of parties in times when market economy and industrial growth created social conditions that would tend to eliminate these manifestations which would not characterize societies dominated by western productivity and rationality.