Societies, families, and individuals seem to be programmed to do something to commemorate important events. From birthdays to the anniversaries and centenaries of important world events, there is a multitude of ways for celebrating important anniversaries.
The ways in which historic events are commemorated can change over the years, depending on how society currently views the events in question. For example, if we look at the way in which the First World War has been commemorated over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we can see significant societal shifts. Where once commemoration ceremonies tended to focus on ideas predicated around the nation state and the concept that it is noble for young men to die for their nation’s ideals, today—when vanishingly few people even remember anyone who participated in the war—commemoration activities focus more on the sorrowful nature of the original event. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the so-called “war to end all wars” was not really anything of the sort. People have begun to query the wisdom of celebrating military adventures in such a way that it gives the impression that there is something inherently noble about killing for one’s country or for an idea or philosophy.
On an individual or family level, the events we celebrate or overlook say a lot about us. Most people like to be recognised and celebrated on their birthday; it’s a little affirmation that we are loved and cared for, and that the people we know are glad that we are here. Couples often celebrate their wedding anniversary—and discord can certainly result when they have different ideas about how this important life event should be commemorated every year. The idea that we “should” commemorate life events in a certain way is so ingrained that deciding not to can be seen as rebellious or even subversive.
Commemorations are also central to a great deal of religious practice. Christians celebrate Christmas on the putative date of the birth of Jesus, for example, and Jews and Muslims have special festivities that commemorate important events in the history of their faiths. The positive aspect of these commemorations (apart from the fact that they can be great fun and involve a lot of fine dining) is that they can encourage a sense of community, of togetherness, and provide a forum in which people feel free to make expressions of love and affection. But, equally, can they sometimes cause us to identify those whose commemorations are different to ours as “other”? Can they be used as a mode of exclusion as well as inclusion?
Certainly, commemorations can be a lot more complex in certain environments, such as celebrating the holidays in a blended family in which expectations can vary and conflict or commemorating major historical events in a multi-cultural context in which there may be more than one interpretation of what happened.
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