Celebrations are pervasive. At a personal level they include birthdays, funerals, weddings, get-togethers, award ceremonies, and parties organised for any number of reasons. At a community level they include faith-based services, public holidays, commemorations and community festivals. These are just a selection. I argue that there is a need to better understand what role celebrations can play to improve health and wellbeing and not just for individuals but for communities.
In this thesis I examine the experiences, context, processes and politics of celebrations and how they contribute to both personal and collective health and wellbeing. Of course, some celebrations make a more meaningful contribution than others. And it is the nature of that difference I seek to understand. The two leading research questions I address are:
• How do celebrations contribute to personal and collective health and wellbeing?
• What is ‘healthy’ celebration practice?
There are three sections in this thesis. In the first I describe and discuss the Australian context of celebration activities. I also explore definitions of celebrations. I consider celebrations to be an active process made up of both play and ritual. Celebrations seek to focus people’s attention, and intention, in a positive way. The resulting celebratory act(s) are a cultural expression of what a particular individual or community values. There are a diversity of celebration forms and practices - open, spontaneous, planned and formal. Each celebration is influenced by, and influences, the context in which it occurs. I will be focusing on celebrations occurring within a community context. A community may be a family, an organization, local community, shared interest group or a whole of society grouping.
In the second section of the thesis I analyse the relationship of celebrations to various dimensions of health and wellbeing. These dimensions include: social connectedness, identity, transitions and lifespan development, and community capacity. A major part of my fieldwork was undertaken in Victoria where I studied 20 community celebrations.
The community celebrations I examined in varying degrees, did positively contribute to personal and collective wellbeing. They did so because they included positive and personally meaningful activities. They explored identity. Celebrations played a role in supporting transitions leading to ongoing healthy development. They provided opportunities for learning; not just knowledge but allowed values to be explored and skills and resources to be gained. They brought people together to interact and fostered a sense of belonging. Celebrations that were health enhancing valued diversity but also explored what unites people. My research confirmed that celebrations can foster our connections; to ourselves, others, the earth, time and the spiritual. They can build relationships between individuals, groups and organizations. They can be spaces that allow for personal and collective healing.
But the degree to which these positive dimensions can be achieved depends on the nature or quality of the celebration practice. And it is the practice of planning and facilitating celebrations that is the focus of the third section of the thesis. Some celebration practices are health enhancing while others are not. Celebrations can be an opportunity to explore not just ourselves but our communities and how they oppress particular individuals and groups. Many contemporary celebrations do not feel authentic or resonate with people. They often remain at the surface and focus on passive forms of entertainment and the consumption of goods. Deeper engagement can be facilitated through more participatory and creative activities such as dance, playing music, story -making and -telling and ritual; particularly when engaged in with conscious intention.
Celebrations at the individual level can be a positive, affirming experience that is personally meaningful and enables people to move towards their potential. At a collective level they build relationships between the individual, groups and places. They highlight the interconnectedness between all things. And as such they are an integral part of community life.
I conclude by presenting an analytical framework to help understand the nature of celebration practice that is less or more likely to facilitate health and wellbeing. I try to adopt the viewpoint of a practitioner interested in the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. I anticipate this knowledge will stimulate discussion particularly within the health and community sector about how celebration practice can be integrated into the work of health professionals and community workers.