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Utopian Festivals

We’re used to the idea that a year should be punctuated by a sequence of special public days: Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, some kind of national day, May Day, the August Bank holiday etc.

But we’re not – collectively – very ambitious about the role of such occasions. They can be charming, they can be sweet, they can be (at times) rather touching. But, on the whole, we don’t take them terribly seriously and don’t expect others to. We can easily become slightly cynical and see them in terms simply of added sales of cards and confectionary.

This – however – is  a missed opportunity. The quiet scepticism we feel towards the existing calendar of festivals doesn’t show that public days have no powerful contribution to make to the development and maintenance of a good society. They’re evidence of a semi-conscious, and very accurate awareness, that we could do a lot better.

In essence, festivals originated as solutions to collective problems. Trooping the Colour (one Saturday in June since 1748) is an event designed to relieve public worry about the army’s loyalty to the British sovereign. There was a time when it was clearly very important indeed for the British population as a whole to be able to witness soldiers demonstrating their allegiance to the crown (and not to a rival political faction). But as such reassurance falls low on the agenda of public needs, that public festival loses its real purpose. It remains picturesque but it (rightly) doesn’t feel as if it really matters. On an even grander scale, something similar has happened around Easter. Easter Sunday originated as as public festival of the triumph of divine love over death: Jesus had been crucified and restored to life on the third day; and the point of the occasion was to keep that world-altering event at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But as Christian dominion recedes in people’s inner lives, Easter Sunday becomes a charming, but unfocused, day of chocolate indulgence and painted eggs.

In the Utopia, there would still be public holidays, but they’d be thought through more rigorously, expressly designed to work a therapeutic, conciliatory effect on society as a whole. The idea of designing festivals automatically sets off alarm bells in the minds of a contemporary liberal audience, who have been taught to think of East Germany and Russia at this point – but these unfortunate examples should not persuade us that good public holidays are somehow designed by history or nature and can hence never be changed. Throughout the ages, people have expressly designed events: the challenge is to do it well, rather than insist it can’t be done at all.

Here are seven kinds of public holiday that might be evolved to address some of the core collective needs of society.

One: National Pride

People with hands raised for We are the World ceremony
© Getty

It’s hugely beneficial to be able to feel enthusiastic and committed to one’s society; to feel reassured by membership of an admirable community. Collective pride takes the burden of self-regard off the individual ego. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. We can belong to something better and greater than we are.

However, pride is constantly undermined by a media that – quite rightly – wants to point out (and makes money from pointing out) just what is so wrong with our countries. It is easy to come away from the media believing that our societies are nothing but a narrow collection of violent maniacs, paedophiles, corrupt politicians and venal business people.

© AFP/Getty

The truth will, in the countries where this publication is predominantly being read (the United States, mainland Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Korea) be very different indeed. To spend a day focusing on what’s good shouldn’t sap the will for critical self-examination; it can be a vital corrective to an impulse simply to denigrate. It can stop us being so spoilt about the genuine but forgotten merits of our lands.

So the emphasis should fall on the forgotten aspects of national accomplishment. The fear is always of jingoism and militarism, in other words, that we’ll feel proud of things that aren’t worthy of regard. Yet the fact that people have often felt proud of the wrong things shouldn’t be an argument against national pride per se. The desire to feel proud of the group is an ineradicable feature, and we ignore it at our peril. To castigate it merely leaves it unattended, prone to latch onto inappropriate targets. The challenge isn’t to banish pride, but to channel it in optimal directions.

In a utopia, a national day would focus not on the things people already identify as impressive. In Germany, for instance, there wouldn’t be a big celebration of their footballing excellence: it’s not needed. The Netherlands is not in urgent need of a day to remember how great it is at cultivating tulips. The United States needs no further reminders of its military strength.

Rather, it is those things which have a genuinely admirable side, but which we are prone to ignore or underplay that need encouragement. Thus the Dutch might have Normal Day on which they feel proud of their interest in a dignified ordinary life. The British, overwhelmed by the callousness, pessimism and cynicism of their national media, would celebrate their capacity for politeness, optimism and energy. The United States, so practiced at overwhelming power, would celebrate the local and the small-scale.

US President Barack Obama(C) visits a lo
© AFP/Getty

Rather than cheer at politicians or the fly-by of aircraft, national pride would be directed at things like the national electricity grid, parents with children under three, tunnelling engineers, locomotive drivers, accountants (and the forgotten good they perform), those everywhere who forbear and forgive, prisoners who repent, the makers of simple, honest household goods, cardiac surgeons…

The purpose of the national day shouldn’t be to celebrate what already goes quite well. It would be to highlight the fragile but best tendencies of the nation.

Two: Carnival

Most prosperous societies project powerful constraints on public behaviour. There is huge emphasis placed upon being responsible, reliable and in control of one’s desires. Particularly around sex. Energy and ambition have been channelled into work.

But there are terrible costs to all this. Our picture of normality becomes crushing. It does not acknowledge the darker sides of our characters, it keeps us too tightly harnessed. Many of us therefore blow up at random moments. We can’t take the discipline any more. We do something a little crazy and can pay a very heavy price as a result.

Good societies know about our more chaotic sides and are keen to channel rather than repress them. That is the function of Carnival in the Utopia. Carnival night would be a small moment in the year collectively devoted to the unconstrained libido.

Brazil Begins Carnival Celebration
© Getty

After 3pm, everyone (however blissful their relationship) would be expected to get slightly drunk and to head out without their partner; all the clubs would have been commandeered for the night by the state; eye masks would be distributed on buses and trains. One would be encouraged to start talking to anyone at all, one could join a mass of writhing naked bodies or present oneself to be flogged; or kiss whomever happened to be nearby. As the night progressed, it would all get more and more frantic. Until, towards dawn, sirens would sound. Everything would have to stop and the world would return to normal. Special buses would take people home; asking someone what they had done that night would be as impolite and taboo as requesting to know the contents of their will. Serene music would be played on the radio.

The festival would offer protection against feelings of shame. Our picture of normality would become more realistic and more sane. Our vagabond urges wouldn’t have such disastrous consequences. We would end up kinder to others – and to ourselves – until the next Carnival night.

Three: Resentment

We get driven quietly demented by other people. There are things we resent about our parents, partners, children. The stored up agitation and frustration festers. We find indirect, subtle ways of punishing others for the things that upset us. We’re too polite, cautious and worried about hurting others to do much about these things. But relationships get awkward and difficult and bitterness can take hold.

Lover's Chat
© Getty

Resentment Day is designed to help us deal with this kind of situation. On this special day, there would be permission – in fact a requirement – to explain the basis of all of one’s resentments to other people. Half the time, you would be on the receiving end and this would mean having to be patient and entirely without any desire for vengeance. There would be huge investment in the role of listening to the painful things others articulate. The day’s heros would be the listeners. One would not be allowed to shout, or accuse back or get furious or run away.

Resentment Day would end with public ceremonies focused on the elemental griefs of the human condition. It would be collectively asserted that: we are all always anxious; are never fully understood; always carry a pang of loneliness; have potential that is never adequately realised; squander our chances and learn only too late what we should have valued when we had the chance. It is a ceremony to contain and reset our individual dissatisfactions with one another. At midnight, the sky over every city would be illuminated with fireworks which spelt out the closing message: why weep over particular sorrows when the whole of life calls for tears?

Four: Revelation Day

On Revelation Day, we would be entitled – actually required – to tell those close to us something that we’d like them to know but which normally we resist saying – because we fear their reaction. It would be a condition that the other person couldn’t get furious or vindictive, whatever it was. They would have to listen patiently. A typical revelation gift would be a fifteen-minute hour glass – because this is how long the other would be required to listen in silence. Then, of course, one would have to hear the revelations of other people.

© Flickr/Fernando Mafra

There’d be tears along the way. It would be hard at moments. We’d learn some fascinating and distressing things: about infidelity, addictions, lies, betrayals… And yet many people would find that the day would end with enthusiastic love making. The cultural assumptions around Revelation Day would be that it was not to do with breaking up or with seeking to cause the other pain. Telling others would be a mark of great trust – and acceptance would be utterly heroic. There would be pervasive social pressure to use the opportunity in good faith. Occasionally people would get stigmatised as Revelation Day abusers – a hard reputation to live down. For the most part, the day would be cherished as an occasion to reveal and properly accept each other’s humanity.

Five: Empathy

Life is so full of demands, one is so much at risk of being depleted and over-strained, that it’s entirely understandable that we restrict the circle of people with whom we identify.

But on Empathy Day, there would be a deliberate, highly social attempt to change our habits. A central premise of Empathy Day would be that we find it quite hard to see where we are excessively negative and hostile about a particular group of people. Lack of empathy often lurks behind what feel like rational condemnations. So a crucial moment in this would be a diagnostic test – which would usually be done in the morning. All media outlets would be required by law to promote the test. On whom is one tempted to look down? For what groups does one reserve special ire? For some there would be an urgent need to develop empathy with marginal and disadvantaged groups. But for others, this might not be where empathy was currently lacking. They might find that it was deadbeat dads (or rich socialists or Evangelical Christians, or ultra-orthodox Jews or people who like Kim Kardashian or support the Muslim Brotherhood) that they loathed.

The aim of empathy would not be that one started to feel particularly sorry for the other group. Or started to admire them. Empathy is about the possibility of identification. When you empathise you don’t necessarily agree at all. But you do see how someone can be human, can be a bit like you, and end up where they are.

Empathy generates self-knowledge and a more accurate perception of the world. Empathy is a cure for the blindness that commitment to certain causes risks bringing with it. Someone wanting to change public attitudes to the melting of the polar ice would – on Empathy Day – be helped to recognise from the inside how boring and annoying their concerns could feel to someone else. On Empathy Day, you would be asked to describe (without being snide or ironic) why it would be attractive to support a political movement that currently appalled you or left you cold. Empathy Day would amount to a thrilling day of travel into obscure territory, the minds of those who scare you or leave you indifferent.

Six: Stoic Day

On this day, people would collectively try out exposing themselves – in imagination – to the most frightening scenarios. For a day, the whole nation would submit to austerity rations pegged to the living standards of the poorest nation on earth (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Everyone would have to wash their own clothes by hand. Clingy people would try out living alone. There would be exercises in self-reliance. Central heating and air conditioning would be forbidden. The news would be dominated by stories of what goes on in palliative care units and hospices. Prominent figures would make speeches about the brevity of life.

The point would be to accommodate ourselves to the pains and sorrows which may and will come our way. Its aim would be to cultivate a species of courage. What we know always has less power over our imaginations. But the bigger payoff of the day would be a greater appreciation of things we had come to take for granted. For a little while at least after the day, we would be properly grateful for our advantages.

Seven: Perspective

This would be a sequence of events across the year which would help us keep our troubles, disappointments (and hopes) in proportion. A central event in this festival would be Cloud Day, an annual event which would take place early in the evening on 2nd October. Everyone would take time (usually around fifteen minutes) to contemplate the sky. There would be quite a bit of build up; celebrities would discuss their favourite kinds of clouds and why these mean so much to them and what they are hoping to see this year. The elderly would reminisce about the spectacular 1981 cumulonimbus. Young people would be earnestly instructed on appropriate behaviour and how to cultivate the correct inward attitude. We’d learn to put our troubles up against a broader canvas – and feel their weight and size diminish accordingly.


Rather than feel embarrassed about collective events, the Utopian society would recognise that we need help in scheduling certain emotions and attitudes. We might agree with these in theory, but privately, don’t get around to emphasising them sufficiently. The festivals would take care of this for us: they would make sure that we were regularly brought into contact with dispositions that we most need in order to thrive, tolerate one another and face the great challenges of existence.

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