The paradoxes of 'celebration'

As the holiday season wraps up, the Monitor's language columnist ponders the vocabulary of 'making merry.'

One of my little language projects over this holiday season just past has been to get a better grasp of what the essence of "celebration" is – at least from the perspective of etymology and usage.

After a little poking around, I've come to see that our vocabulary of celebration includes, sometimes within a single word, both exuberance and solemnity.

Just about six months ago, the "Tip of the Week" column from the newsletter Copyediting focused on "circular definitions" in dictionaries. For example, "try" might be defined as "attempt," and "attempt" defined as "try."

The "Tip of the Week" explored in more detail circular definitions of celebrate and observe, along with keep and solemnize.

The distinction between celebrate and observe, the writer noted, "is fuzzy at best." Keeping Christmas suggests to me keeping it stored in an attic. And solemnize seems, in emotional tone at least, as far away from celebrate as the winter solstice is from the summer.

Our English word celebrate comes from the Latin celebrare, "to assemble to honor." So gathering seems essential, etymologically speaking at least, to celebration – whether the gathering is at a house of worship, at the family homestead, or in the public square.

As a verb to describe concrete action, we typically encounter celebrate in captions of news photos of public figures with their fists in the air, or in even goofier poses.

But celebrate also can mean "to publish" and "to praise," as in a "celebrated author." In this sense it refers not to a group action in the moment but to countless individual actions over time. Celebrate also includes the idea of being "much practiced," as in a "celebrated tradition."

"Kept solemn" is another idea connected to celebrate. And centuries before a "celebrity" was someone on the cover of a magazine, it was a solemn religious rite – or so I learn from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Observe is a synonym for celebrate, but it has a much cooler tone, doesn't it? If words had color schemes, celebrate would be pyrotechnical reds and oranges, and observe would be grays and earth tones.

Observe suggests detachment; but to celebrate is to take part. Idiomatically "to observe" a holiday means the same thing as to celebrate, but it does suggest a looking on from a distance, I think. Rather the way some Boston drivers "observe" a stop sign – and roll on by.

This past holiday season I encountered a young woman who likes to celebrate her "favorite winter holiday" by burning her trash.

No, really. The holiday in question is the winter solstice, and the ritual involves building a bonfire and throwing onto it bits of paper reminding her of whatever she wants to leave behind.

I didn't know the practice, and so I went a-Googling and found this account: "I went to a great winter solstice party where they made an effigy of a man out of sticks, and built a beautiful big bonfire.... Everyone has an opportunity to write down what they wanted to leave behind and what they wanted to manifest on scraps of paper, and tuck the scraps into the hands of the stick man before he burned."

May 2011 be a good year for you – however you celebrate.

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