Festive is a popular adjective this season, like it or not. We toss it with the lights, mix it with the carols, and blend it with the eggnog. It’s persistent, and every Christmas season it cheers us up again.
Festive has a history. An Old English word, it derives from the Medieval Latin noun festivalis which indicates a church festival or holiday. Today, festive always means fun, and if we see “festive” describing the occasion, we ditch the jeans and dress a little more nicely.
Festive is also joyful. Last week, I saw A Christmas Carol at Seattle’s ACT theater. We braved the rain, traffic, and dark December morning and drove into town to watch the play with hundreds of others, many of them middle school kids. The air fairly crackled with festive candles, tunes, movements, laughter, and quiet sobs as Scrooge—as Scrooge always does—finds his heart and gets his second chance to be a better person. Then when Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one,” it’s pure grace on stage. Dickens’ perennial play forces us to slow down, listen to our past, think of our present, and hope for our future.
And the result is joyful. Happiness is doable, perhaps in a Starbucks latte. However, joy is not in our control. In his book Wishful Thinking, Frederic Buechner, minister and author, says that “joy is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” On stage, A Christmas Carol blends joy, grace, and love. It’s festive in a grandly emotional way.
Festive is celebratory. Yesterday, I listened to a church Christmas concert. The blended voices of the choir, the brass and string instruments, the candle-lighting—these celebrated the birth of Christ, as they have done for eons. Again, it was a dark, wet December afternoon, but it brought “us” together regardless of our age, race, or social status. We were truly kindred, gathered together as one family for at least one hour and a few odd minutes. No Fake News allowed, we heard pure truth.
Festive is idiomatic. Volunteering at Language Institute, I have recently found myself explaining our Christmas idioms to quite well-educated, visiting/studying Asians who gather there to learn to speak casual American English. Christmas festive can “ring silver bells,” “deck the halls,” and even warn not to “get your tinsel in a tangle.” Say “Frosty the Snowman” or “the Grinch,” and everyone knows. Even though it’s dark and dreary in December, we’re “full of the joys of the season.” We might say “the more the merrier,” and seasonal lights make everything seem “lit up like a Christmas tree.”
Festive is traditional. Families hand down “festive” recipes from generation to generation, haul off to tree-farms for that fresh, just-right tree, and hang up time-worn or brand-new stockings, often hand made for their owners. Whatever the traditions, old or new, they help us forget differences and remember what’s brought us together in the first place.
Yet for many, festive has failed, and December’s dark looms over all. It can seem a time bereft of meaning, tradition, hope, or joy. Regardless, God’s light still shines on us all, believers and non-believers alike, because God is unconditional love.
Ultimately, then, festive is innately hopeful. It can fill our own Scrooge-like hearts with “second chances” at life choices as we welcome the embodiment of love, the Christ child whom we celebrate at this season. Indeed, Christmas is a blessing for us all, year after year, even when the festive is hard to find. It’s a glowing ember blown to life in joy, celebration, tradition, and in such sweet, hopeful words as Tiny Tim’s, “God bless us, every one!”
During her lengthy teaching career, Julia H. Young taught university English classes in Alabama, Texas, and Washington State. Most recently, she was an Associate Professor of English at Northwest College/University from 1991 to 2013. Now retired, she is a freelance editor.