Editor’s Note: Today we present Part 1 of a two-part story on that most important subject, the party. Part 2 will run tomorrow.
Postmodern man– and postmodern woman– doesn’t know how to give a good party. It’s up to us Catholics to reclaim this lost art and share it with the world.
Why? Because good parties are intrinsic to our Catholic faith. The liturgical year is punctuated with a wide array of feast days and celebrations, many of which are Christianized versions of holidays that once closely tracked the agricultural calendar of planting and harvesting. The two largest and best-known feasts are, of course, Christmas and Easter, but there are also the two Christmas and Easter spin-offs, Epiphany and Pentecost. In addition, there’s the feast of Mary, Mother of God (New Year’s Day); Ascension Thursday; Corpus Christi; the feast of the Immaculate Conception; All Saints Day (with Halloween and the Day of the Dead); and, the most famous party of all, Mardi Gras, which has strayed far from its Catholic origin as the last celebration before the Lenten fast but still embodies a certain Catholic sensibility. Above all, every Sunday for Catholics is a feast day on which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. Only in Lent and the mini-Lent of Advent is it not party time, but even in these two seasons, there are exceptions for St. Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, St. Nicholas Day, and other feasts.
Of course, as the Church wisely realizes, feasts are more fun if preceded by fasts. The stricter the fast, the merrier the feast. Truly the Catholic tradition has mastered the art of well-timed, heavily scheduled, carefully orchestrated good times. The occasion of a sacrament — baptism, confirmation, or matrimony — is the best possible opportunity for a good party. In fact, many Catholics take it for granted that a wedding should be marked by a grand feast. The bigger and more elaborate the feast, the more it conforms to the biblical model in John 2:1-11 of the wedding feast at Cana. Mary, Jesus, and His disciples all attend. In the middle of the party, the wine runs out. Mary explains this difficult situation to her son; after all, the gospel implies, it Won’t be much of a party without wine. After an exchange with His mother, Jesus asks those in charge to fill six stone pots with water. “And they filled them to the brim,” John says. When the host tastes the water, he is startled to discover that Jesus has changed it to wine, and not just any wine but the best they will have all night. Hence, Jesus’ first miracle was not a solemn occasion, as one might expect, but a celebration.
You might expect that such a remarkable story as this, one that recounts Jesus’ first public display of divine power, would be standard fare in evangelical Protestant pulpits, where the words of the Bible take precedence over any liturgical design. Not so. If you have ever attended a Southern Baptist wedding, for example, you know why: There is no feast. The ceremony lasts perhaps 20 minutes at most, and then the entire crowd descends to the social hall under the church to eat pastel butter mints and cake and sip a tiny cup of fizzy, pink, nonalcoholic punch. Wine is forbidden by tradition, so no one is looking for any. The whole affair is over in less than an hour. Baptists may be people of the Book, but they certainly are not people of the party. So much for living the words of Scripture. How did the wedding feast, so joyously celebrated at Cana, come to be the dreary occasion that it is in the Baptist tradition? Like members of other non-liturgical faiths, Southern Baptists tend to reject regularly scheduled intervals of joy, sadness, celebration, and suffering, less for explicit doctrinal reasons than because it all just seems too, well, Catholic.
Protestants have traditionally found the Catholicity of Christian holidays deeply problematic. During the colonial period, Massachusetts actually outlawed Christmas, and the controversy about whether to put up a lighted tree in church still erupts in evangelical congregations. If Protestant Americans had been left to their own devices, we would celebrate only Thanksgiving (which is actually a version of St. Martin’s Day, November 11) and the Fourth of July.
This aspect of the Catholic faith is as conspicuous to outsiders as it is taken for granted by us: One day we are eating pancakes and throwing parties for Fat Tuesday, and the next day, Ash Wednesday, we are walking around with ashes on our foreheads repenting for our sins. What is it about us Romanists and our ways?
The Bible, it turns out, is filled with fabulous parties. Think of the parable of the prodigal son. When he returns to his father’s home with a contrite heart after living the high life, he is not given broth and sent to bed. No, his father says, “bring hither the fatted calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son,” as if to show that home is where the high life actually is.
St. Clement of Alexandria wrote: “The repentant son came to the pitying father, never hoping for these things — the best robe, and the ring, and the shoes — or to taste the fatted calf, or to share in gladness, or enjoy music and dances; he would have been contented with obtaining what in his own estimation he deemed himself worthy.”
Instead, he got it all. That’s a party.
Given this spirit of liberality in one of Jesus’ own parables, a good Catholic should be prepared to throw a great party whenever the opportunity arises. Now, it’s true that merrymaking cannot be the sum total of the way we live. The ever-stern St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, warns against excessive frivolity. But he does affirm that balls and festivities are not evil in themselves and can even be used for good. “It is lawful to amuse yourself, to dance, dress, feast, and see seemly plays,” he affirms. The proviso is that the good times must not hinder, but help, devotion. Indeed they can and do.
What is striking about modern life is how dull our attempts at frivolity often turn out to be, not only because they are not interrupted by fasting and prayer, as they should be, but also because we have lost the art of how to throw a good party.
We’ve all had the experience of walking into a party where we know only a few people, and all the rest are talking among themselves. We find someone we know and hope he doesn’t mind if we talk exclusively to him for, oh, the entire length of the party.
We know we are supposed to mingle with the others, but no matter how many tips on that we’ve heard or read, mingling never seems to work. Some people resent intrusions into their conversations, and in any case, there usually doesn’t seem to be much to talk about. The most we can hope for is a good opportunity to make an inconspicuous exit.
Thousands of parties like this come and go without leaving any impression on the guests. The host is left with a huge mess and not much else to show for it. It’s no wonder that many people are disinclined to hold parties, or that they do it only when they have to, or that they invite only the in-crowd when they can get away with it, or that they never attempt much in the way of food and drink beyond chips and beer.
Find a Reason to Party
It doesn’t have to be this way. All parties should have an ostensible reason for being. This is what makes them communal occasions and provides a reason why all these people should be together in one spot at the same time. With a theme, people have a mental hook, so that they can later think: “I loved that St. Cecilia party!” Fortunately, our liturgical calendar provides plenty of ideas for themes. Saints’ days are the perfect excuses for celebrations, and it helps that these days rarely step on the more conventional party excuses of everyone else.
For example, this article originally appeared close to the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist on August 29. I can recall one great party in honor of this saint for which the hostess made goat’s head soup. We slurped it down and toasted this great man of God. Irresistible! Even non-Catholic guests (and there were plenty of them at the John the Baptist party) enjoy partaking in these festive aspects of Catholic life.
Here’s why theme parties are out of fashion: We live in a culture obsessed with the fear of violating someone else’s conscience. We don’t impose our values on others, and we never assert the superiority of our own or point out problems with others’ points of view. If we happen to have values, that’s fine, but we dare not suggest that others should adopt them. That would be bad form.
A theme party is typically seen as an imposition on the conscience. For example, say you invite guests to your house to celebrate the feast of St. Blaise on February 3. What if they don’t like this saint, or they think saints are generally weird? What if they aren’t in the mood? Why should your priorities trump theirs? Isn’t it manipulative to tell people how they should feel? These are the kinds of deconstructionist fears that tacitly haunt us and keep us from setting a theme for an evening.
The Catholic liturgy, however, assigns themes to practically every day. We are supposed to mourn on Good Friday and then two days later shout, “Alleluia!” Is this manipulative? Not at all. Theologian Michael Foley of Boston College points out that the purpose of gathering together is to experience something together. He writes in his online liturgy manual: “From the exilic pining of Septuagesima to the austerity of Lent, from the grief of Passiontide to the jubilance of the Pasch, the Church, by staggering its feasts and observances in a particular order, enables the faithful to experience a number of holy feelings as one. Indeed, the emotional range of the traditional Roman rite is perhaps the most variegated in all of Christendom.”
Liturgical themes for parties are great, especially if they involve a sacrament. But the theme doesn’t have to be solemn and liturgical. It can be a mere excuse: to celebrate the opening of a great bottle of wine, to commemorate the hanging of a new painting, to mark the first day of summer, to eat an unusual food, to blow off steam after final exams. It takes very little creativity to come up with a good idea for a party. Even foolish themes are fun, like the “white elephant” parties of the 1950s, to which guests brought worthless gifts.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for the conclusion of this story.
This essay first appeared in the July 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.