Posted on December 21, 2018

When Shakespeare asked, ‘What’s in a name?’ He was talking about a rose and its smell. And, yet, the bard himself and his literary works have inspired ‘festivals‘ around the world.

Or are they ‘events’?

At first glance, it seems as though the two terms are synonymous. But when you spend a bit more time with the words, slosh them around in your mind, you start to get the sense that the two should be different.

After all, when you think of festivals, you think of revelry, carnivals, summer, fireworks and lots of food. And when you think of ‘events’, the focus gets broader. Maybe an event is something photographers, and the press are keen to cover, like a movie premiere. Maybe an ‘event’ is a networking session between professionals. Maybe an ‘event’ is your little sister getting ready for her very first school dance.

Maybe it’s all of the above. And perhaps a festival is an event.

No matter how blurred the meanings, however, there are some key differences (and similarities) between the two that might end up making things a little more slippery -— or clearing them right up.

So what are the differences between festivals and events?

Festivals

Regarding language, a festival is a ‘kind of celebration done to mark or commemorate a special or significant occasion’. Besides this, the definition of festival also includes:

  • An expected happening that has a pre-defined special day or time
  • Occurs at regular intervals
  • Usually repeated every year, as part of a tradition

They could also be planned to last a series of days with mini-programs, performances and themed activities.

Festivals also usually involve a large group of people that come together, as part of the immediate community but, when large enough, or historical enough, can attract people from around the world. Examples of this are the Rio Carnival or Coachella.

Festivals were historically steeped in the commemoration and celebration of certain cultural and social mores. They included traditions and rituals. For example, ‘Holi‘, the Indian festival of spring, traditionally includes a form of play where people who come together throw brightly coloured powder on each other in celebration of the oncoming spring season.

There is a sense of a shared history, a joyous atmosphere and, most specifically, a demonstrated celebration amongst festival-goers. As such, festivals have evolved to be religious, seasonal, historical, or cultural.

Events

Taking that same ‘broad’ definition, an ‘event’ is something remarkable or noteworthy that occurs at some point. It could just be a one-time occurrence, or it could characterise a series of happenings that are all linked.

An event marks a period in time and space as something memorable. In that way, it does have the sense of the ‘collective’ that a festival does. While an event can include celebrations, it doesn’t have to always be festive in nature.

An event can be something like Comic-Con, a convention that brings together those who love comics and its cultural offshoots and contemporaries.

Is a Festival an ‘Event’?

Depending on the language and the cultural traditions of the country, a ‘festival’ can be considered a type or a subset of an event. In other words, within a broader interpretation, a cultural event that recurs every year could be called a festival.

1. Festivals call for a shared heritage and community

When it comes to cultural festivals, there’s another dimension that is at play. There is the sense that these festivals relate to a community’s sense of shared identity. This could be through language, food, practices or a combination of all three.

This means that the programming and content of these cultural ‘events’, if we agree that festivals are a kind of event, must serve the purposes of reflecting these practices back to the community and preserving them.

Recently, this sense of a ‘community’ has taken on a broader meaning itself. For example, where before, communities would be linked to certain ethnicities, geographical location, a shared language or practice and belief, now communities can include activities, interests, hobbies, passions and preferences.

For example, a group of martial artists specialising in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu would be considered a community. A group of individuals who share a love for blues and jazz could also be considered a community. For them, these passions and interests make up a part of their preferences and, so, form a larger part of their identity.

2. Economic Impact

When you search for a festival, the difference between festivals and events could be its economic impact. For example, which type brings in economic gain or makes a long-ranging economic impact? What do people expect when it comes to an event, versus a festival?

When you find a festival that you want to attend, it could be structured in one of two ways: either, the entry is free and there are smaller stalls and mini-activities that charge a fee, or the festival charges an entrance fee.

Meanwhile, events can also have a one-time fee associated with them, charged at entry, or through the purchase of a ticket.

If we agree that festivals are a type of event, then it can be seen that a multi-day festival has multiple events within it. When you search for a festival, you want to be able to find details of those events so you can plan your experience.

3. Theme and Purpose

According to Ros Derrett, researcher at the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW, community-based festivals are ‘events’ that allow those within a community to link these occurrences to a physical, natural space.

He calls these ‘community cultural events’ and says that festivals offer the chance for individuals to be more invested in their physical locations and tangible traditions and cultures.

Festivals promote a ‘stewardship of the land’. And the community cultural events that are planned around this goal sees events as a subset of festivals.

That is to say when the purpose is shared heritage, history or even preservation of these, and a celebration of these, even in cases that involve tourism, festivals involve community cultural events. And this is true even if these ‘events’ occur every year, as festivals do.

But in the case where events are organised for goals other than community building or helping residents identify, build or locate a sense of identity through the happenings, these ‘events’ are more ephemeral and professional in nature. This definition of ‘events’ necessarily divests festivals and any celebration from it.

So these events are put on to bring in an excepted short-term or immediate cash flow from participants. However, the economic impact of a festival might be much more long-lasting, since it occurs every year, and socially, as it pulls in people from across the world.

4. Organising Structure

The organisation of festivals and events largely depends upon the body that administers and organises them.

For example, for-profit bodies like businesses, companies or commercial and regulatory bodies might put on events that are multi-day and also involve entertainment (both markers of a festival) and yet charge an entrance and access fee.

When you search for a festival, you may find a festival that charges attendees at the gate as well as charging for access to smaller activities, or that is food stalls based. This kind of programming and content structure can have a long-term, financial impact on a community.

Events of a more professional nature or even those events that are smaller in venue or have a limited number of ‘seats’ available for sale might ask for RSVPs. In this way, an event could be said to have a more immediate and shorter-term impact.

Yet, festivals could also be a strategic blend of the two. When people search for a festival these days, they could run into programming and an organising structure that is set up partly to encourage locals to find a festival where they can partake new traditions within a modern city, and partly to promote festival tourism.

In Toronto, Canada, the city’s two-week arts-and-literature festival known as ‘Luminato‘ has a mixture of ‘events’ spanning the two-week time-frame. Search for a festival and you’ll see that some of the events within Luminato are public and so they require no RSVP and no access fee.

Others are more exclusive and require tickets to be bought in advance for the specific ‘events’, while the entire ‘festival’ is still considered ‘free’. This is a decision that was made by the organisers of Luminato.

Living as we do in a modern, secular society, the majority of English-speaking countries with a younger-parent population are experiencing a new trend. In countries like Australia, Canada, the U.S., England, Germany, and more, a younger population with growing families are sharing their passions, hobbies and interests with their own children through festivals.

Are these festivals and events, then, our children’s new traditions? Just as we now look back fondly on festivals and events that were cultural or religious, will the kids of the 2010s and beyond look back at festivals revolving around the arts and niche interests of their parents as a tradition they recall, a beloved childhood memory?

It may well be so: Festivals are more and more being marketed as “kid-friendly” or “babies-welcome”. In fact, almost 70% of parents say they would rather take their children to a festival over relaxing at the beach when taking a holiday.

According to new research, more than half of parents attending festivals like the Glastonbury festival say they find “real benefit” in taking their children to a festival.

One in four (22 per cent) think they are excellent opportunities to share music tastes with their children, helping to create memories of a lifetime. Source: The Mirror

Parents that share a personal interest in and passion for activities or arts like rock music festivals, literary festivals, motorcycle festivals and even surf festivals are bringing their children to these ‘events’ and sharing their love for these passions with their children.

And, increasingly, attending these festivals with parents is becoming a beloved tradition, an event to remember as the next generation grows older.