A couple weeks ago, my family, my dad, and my brother gathered together to make sausage. I’ve made sausage ever since I was a little boy. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter of my grandparent’s ranch, helping my grandma separate pork casings and check for holes. I remember helping my grandfather butcher a pig or two that he bought at auction to mix with the venison — I watched as a living animal became tranformed into food.
Sausage making has always been a sort of celebration. In the cutting and grinding of meat, the mixing of spices, in the stuffing and the smoking, there is ample time for celebrating. We retell hunting stories and dream of next season. We laugh at the funny or scary stories that the year’s hunt produced. We reflect on weather and missed opportunities. We give thanks for the pure and nutritious wild game we have harvested.
All of this celebration happens in the midst of good work. We are busy from morning to evening with cutting, cleaning, stuffing, smoking, and packaging. By the end of the day, we’re tired but happy at having put away food for the coming winter. The day is full of stories old and new, laughs, and memories…
I’ve been thinking about celebration a lot lately. As the holidays quickly approach I’ve been questioning what we celebrate and why we celebrate it. I’ve been thinking about how much of our cultural celebration has been co-opted.
Walk through any supermarket and one will see the “celebration industry” in full form. A cake is made from a box or purchased. Party decorations are readily available, pre-packaged, and licensed. One can even order balloons to be delivered instead of blowing them up themselves. What we call “celebrations” can easily fit into a shopping basket.
All of these products, of course, are promoted as making these celebrations “more convenient.” They’re marketed as taking the stress out of parties. What we forget is that celebration is more than just the party. Celebration is a matter of good work done together before and after the gathering. It is telling stories over a sink, or good-natured teasing, or of giving thanks for the past. This “good work” is largely removed from our pre-packaged celebrations. We hire florists and caterers. We buy branded themes of party favors and overly-sugared cakes. At the end of our so-called “celebration” we’re left with a trashcan full of plastic table clothes and a sugar hang-over. This is not true celebration.
Another problem with celebration is that we need something to celebrate. Celebration often comes at the end of a long and arduous journey — at the end of a marathon, the birth of a child, or the end of a hunt. These types of celebrations acknowledge the hard work and struggle that the participants have undergone. Of course, the highly commercialized holidays we celebrate — secular Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving — in no way celebrate our accomplishments or struggles. They are merely celebration for the sake of celebration. These holidays no longer celebrate a successful harvest, the struggles of saints, or the birth of hope. We’ve replaced the meaning of these holidays with hearts, turkeys, and tinsel, a poor substitute. If anything, secular Christmas and Thanksgiving are meaningful if only for the good work that is shared in preparing the afternoon meal of turkey and cranberry sauce.
Finally, “entertainment” has largely replaced celebration. If celebration is giving thanks and good work done together, entertainment is a passive substitute. Celebrating a winning football team or our favorite actor receiving an Oscar may give us the same sense of pleasure and pride, but it is a poor alternative. It may quench our thirst for a sense of accomplishment, but we have not shared with others in good work, in struggle, in success.
With these thoughts in mind, I’m half-tempted to abandon many of the holidays we celebrate. And as I make seafood chowder and bread bowls for old friends this weekend, hopefully I’ll be a little more mindful of the good work that accompanies our gathering together — our celebration.