Festivals as Celebrations of Place in Modern Society: Two Examples from Norway

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This article concerns the role of festivals in marking places as unique and interesting in the modern world. Two festivals from two peripheral areas are discussed--one is a revitalisation of a saint's feast dating back to medieval times, and the other is a new construction from the late nineteen seventies. The article focuses on the narratives that are ritualised in the festivals, on their connection with narratives and discourses far beyond the borders of the two areas, and how the ensuing dialogue gives these remote sites a place in global discourses.


There seems to be an almost general assumption that the number of symbolic expressions, such as public festivals and rituals, is radically reduced in modern society. Many scholars have forecast that increasing secularisation, industrialisation, the rationalisation of production, mobility, the mass media, and alternative sources of entertainment, would take their toll on the number and viability of public rituals. The fact is, however, that since the 1970s, the number of public celebrations has actually been increasing in the western world (Boissevain 1992). American anthropologist Frank E. Manning states that, "Throughout both the industrialized and developing nations, new celebrations are being created and older ones revived on a scale that is surely unmatched in human history" (Manning 1983, 4). He also adds that the flowering of celebration is a truly striking aspect of contemporary society. In Norway, for example, the number of festival events has exploded over the past decade, and there now appears to be one in every local community, and one for every taste (Aftenposten 17 June, 2004). There are festivals for classical, jazz, folk, or rock music, for example. There are also festivals celebrating old wooden boats, or traditional crafts, literature and poetry festivals, or festivals focusing on a community's history and the past; the examples are legion. In fact, one could almost talk of a "festivalisation" of culture. Common aspects of festivals are that they are celebrated at regular intervals, almost like calendar rituals, and that they take place in specific locations. Thus, in addition to focusing on a particular theme, festivals are also often a celebration of the location where they take place. A place can, therefore, become inextricably linked to a certain festival, and, in this way, a community can become "the city" of the particular theme that the festival celebrates.

Very often the subject of the festivals is the local community itself; and when this is the case, the emphasis of the event is often directed to the community's past or its history. In this article, I discuss two festivals the main focus of which is the celebration of places and their past. The increasing popular interest in the past and history has been termed the "use of history" by some Swedish historians. The underlying implication here is that the past is being staged and reused for purposes other than the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, it has been argued that stories of the past are being employed to confer desired meanings on the present (Aronsson 2004). Local events, persons, myths, and narratives are being ritualised and actualised in festivals. The celebrations, therefore, are designed to make us remember the past--or those parts of it selected for retelling during the festival. Festivals dedicated to the past include those that have been newly invented, as well as revitalisations of older public rituals, or new creations with an alleged traditional content. But, irrespective of whether the festivals are old or new, they convey a message that relates not only to the contemporary local world, but also to the external world far beyond the boundaries of the immediate community. While the festivals' emphasis on the local communities' uniqueness is directed towards local identity, I would suggest, however, that if a festival is to be successful, its local narratives must stand in dialogue with those currently relevant in the outside world. …


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