What's the difference between a dinner, and a feast? Anthropologists and archaeologists spend a lot of time thinking about this question. We all have our small gatherings, where we break bread and share stories. But real feasting is a tradition that much of the western world has lost.
Here's what a feast might have meant to our ancestors. Imagine there's a big party. Every friend and relative you have — in fact, everyone within a 20-mile radius — will be there. You've come to celebrate a seasonal bounty — salmon, strawberry, acorn — without which you and everyone you know would starve. You will make your most important business transactions here. Fail to make these deals, and you won't have enough food to survive the winter. You'll probably meet your future spouse at this party, or arrange to meet prospective marriage partners for your children. Every member of your community belongs to a clan or secret society, and you'll have functions that you'll need to perform as part of that membership. Finally, you'll help perform important ceremonies that will renew the fertility and life force of the world; failing to hold the ceremony correctly risks the lives and well being of every living thing on the planet. This party will go on for days.
Tribal members often tell me that non-tribal people sometimes don't understand how interrelated things are — the natural environment, health, food, family, ceremony, culture — and if you look at the importance of feasts, you see how all of these are embodied in one event, that the act of participating in a feast is the physical manifestation of us knowing how complicated the world is and where we fit into it.
I wonder, when we abandoned feasts, if we disconnected the relationship between food, spirit, family and business. I think we've lost something here. This holiday season, hold your own feast, reconnect with your kin and friends, renew your relationship with the world — and invite everyone.
With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.