Ethnic Festivals


The term ‘ethnic’ relates to a population subgroup , within a larger or dominant national or cultural group, with a common national or cultural tradition. According to Kristin Kuutma, ethnicity is an observable and instrumental element of cultural communication. The modern world continues to witness a growing yearning for ethnic recognition in individuals and groups, a search for ethnic identity and a conscious portrayal of distinctive ethnic traits. A festival creates a platform for the manifestation of ethnicity and cultural unity with the special motive to demonstrate a particular identity. A festival could be a cultural performance which is scheduled, temporally and spatially bounded, programmed and characterized by public enthusiasm and cooperation. Festivals provide an opportunity to observe the communicative system of the culture which is being conveyed through complex performance events. Although a festival involves large scale social units, there most generally occurs a small scale social interactional communication. Ethnic festivals, have gained popularity in the last half of the twentieth century as pride in origins, customs, and traditions have risen to the fore. Events on an annual basis, commemorated for years by members of a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, provide a reason for celebrating. Religious rituals, as well as foods, music, dancing, and other festivities, are shared, fostering and expressing a sense of ethnic culture.

According to Beverly J. Stoeltje, festivals occur at calendrically regulated intervals, are public in nature, participatory in ethos, complex in structure, multiple in voice, scene an purpose. A sense of shared responsibility and reciprocity ensure continuity and participation in the festival through the distribution of prestige and production. A festival performance serves the purpose of articulating a group’s heritage creates a feeling of one-ness and unity among the people. Activities conducted during the festival reflect the concerns of the community, thus providing the scenery for expressing particular ethnicity while suggesting personal affirmation and regenerating social life. Festivals strengthen the identity of the group and its power to act in its own interest.

In the context of modernity there are two concepts related to festivals which are rituals and spectacle. A ritual is more or less a performance involving utterances and formal acts based on the belief’s of the ethnic group. A ritual is generally regarded as a mode of communication associated with the concerns and practice of religion. According to Manning, a spectacle is a phenomenon characteristic of modern societies. It is a large scale, extravagant cultural production, a performance with dialogic, polyphonic and polythematic communication. Cultural productions commonly described as spectacles include various festivals which could be ethnic, regional and national celebrations, public entertainment extravaganzas, civic and political ceremonies. A spectacle has often been defined as an event of entertainment and detachment.

According to John Mac Aloon, a festival is a joyous celebration of unity, accomplishment and excellence while a festival is a grandiloquent display of cultural performances causing a sense of wonderment and awe among the viewers. Victor Turner has regarded spectacles to be one of the many performance genres in which people enact different roles yet symbolize the assumptions, norms and conventional roles that govern their ordinary lives. He claims that these genres are the surrogates of religious rituals in traditional societies but emphasizes on the fact that they have greater opportunity for creativity and change.

Ethnic festivals around the world

In Estonia, cultural festivals are expressive instruments of social practice. They have a song festival which manifests their ethnic identity. Singing in groups is an observable cultural expression and has served as cultural response to particular political processes. They have three types of song festivals. The first one is the Estonian national song festival ‘Laulupidu’, which is conducted every five years. It is the most conspicuous and massive manifestation of Estonian identity. The second is the Setu song festival ‘leelpaev’ is a small community festival held every three years by the Setus, an ethnic group inhabiting the south-eastern region of Estonia who maintain distinct cultural and ethnic characteristics and dialects. The third is the Slavic song dance festival Slavyanskiy venok which has been adopted by the Russian, Ukraine and Byelorussian communities of Estonia to celebrate Slavic identity.

The Water Splashing Festival of the Dai ethnic minority is an annual event hat falls during the New Year celebrations of the Dai Calendar. It is the most important festival observed by the Dai ethnic people of Xishuangbanna Prefecture. It takes place in Southeast Asian countries such as Burma, Cambodia. Laos, Thailand, Yunnan and China. It is called the ‘Water Festival’ by Westerners because people splash water at one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the new year. Traditionally people gently sprinkled water on one another as a sign of respect, but as the new year falls during the hottest month in South East Asia, many people end up dousing strangers and passersby in vehicles in boisterous celebration. The act of pouring water is also a show of blessings and good wishes. It is believed that on this Water Festival, everything old must be thrown away, or it will bring the owner bad luck. It involves three days of celebrations that include sincere, yet light-hearted religious rituals that end in merrymaking, where everyone ends up getting splashed or sprayed with water.

There are other ethnic festivals which are not associated with religious activities. The semi annual Kiowa Black Leggings dance recognizes the role of warriors and soldiers in the tribe. It involves music, dance, and the exchange of gifts to honour the men and women who have served the Kiowa people and the United States. The Black Leggings is a celebration that faded and was revitalized. The essence of these festivals is that they are organized for community members by other members.

Other examples of ethnic festivals aimed at the outside world include the Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. This group actually creates a mock Greek village to transport visitors to their homeland. Months before the festival, church members bake copious amounts of cookies and sheets of baklava. Dancers perform in recreated costumes reflecting the wealth of the Greek traditional dress. A similar event is hosted at Oklahoma City’s St. George Greek Orthodox Church .Yukon and Prague also hold community-based festivals. In 1952 the Prague celebration, named for a Czech baked delicacy, the kolache, was first held. Oklahoma’s other Czech heritage festival was first celebrated in 1966 to commemorate Yukon’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

Yet another type of local festival in Oklahoma arose from interest in multicultural diversity. These events sometimes grew out of celebrations originally by and for an ethnically diverse community. In Krebs, where several nationalities lived and worked in the local coal mines, the Italian festival started as the annual July Festival of Mount Carmel. Along with religious services, a barbecue and fireworks display originally distinguished the day. As the town’s population dwindled, the festival too began to fade. In the late 1980s it was revived and focused on bringing tourists to rural Krebs. Traditional Italian activities such as bocce ball games became a popular feature. This annual summer event was transformed eventually into the Krebs Ethnic Festival. Two vastly popular multiethnic gatherings in Oklahoma take place in Lawton and at Rose State College in Midwest City. With exhibits and displays, music and dance performances, and food sales, the general public is introduced to the culture and history of the region’s ethnic groups.


Significance of Ethnic Festivals

Festivals are celebrations that include many traditional expressions, including food, music, dance, prayer, costume, and games. They are vital parts of family and community. Festivals internally build group identity and serve as a way to bring affiliated individuals together, either for solidarity or to educate children and to share a variety of traditions. Contemporary festivals often have an important economic dimension as well. Churches have long used them as fundraisers. Local chambers of commerce also see them as sources of revenue and tourism dollars. Ethnic festivals are customary to a particular cultural group or tribe. They symbolize the values and traditions of the people belonging to the group and are usually based on stories of their ancestors. When these festivals come around and people celebrate them, the children belonging to that particular group are made aware of the brave achievements of their ancestors or the importance of carrying out certain rituals. As they are conducted with pomp and glory, it is a time people take off their busy routines to be with their families and embrace the culture they are a part of. Meanings conveyed at these occasions are only recognized by members of that community, strengthening the ties between them. They serve to reinforce an identity based upon a shared faith or history.

Further Reading

Fromm, A. B. (2007). FESTIVALS. Retrieved August 29, 2014, from

Kuutma, K. (n.d.). Festival as communicative performance. Retrieved August 29, 2014, from

Peck, D. (2014). 82.05.03: Multicultural Education: A Calendar of Ethnic Festivals and Celebrations. Retrieved August 29, 2014, from


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