It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.In that section, Lovecraft nicely outlines the entire theme of "The Festival," namely, the unnamed narrator has returned home to Kingsport (based on Marblehead, Massachusetts, a visit to which HPL called "the high tide of my life") to participate on an ancient festival his family has kept for untold centuries. Of course, the narrator, being an outsider who's never been to the home of his ancestors, has no idea just what this festival is or why it is so important. He knows only that it is important enough that he has been summoned to this dilapidated seaside town from far away and that he must hold true to the ways of his forefathers.
The story itself is a trifling thing, one of the more insubstantial of Lovecraft's tales, which is no surprise given the early date of its composition. Beyond the central mystery of the true nature of the festival the narrator's family celebrates at Christmas-time, there's not much of a plot. And aside from the inclusion of the Necronomicon, "The Festival" doesn't have much to offer aficionados of the Cthulhu Mythos. However, what this short story possesses in abundance, and why it's stuck with me all these years, is an air of antiquity and menace, particularly the former.
Lovecraft's visit to Marblehead made such an impression on him because, in the words of his biographer S.T. Joshi:
Lovecraft felt himself united with his entire cultural and racial past. The past is real -- it is all there is; and for a few moments on a winter afternoon in Marblehead the past really was all there was.That's an experience I understand myself, given my own antiquarian tendencies, which probably explains why, as I get older, despite the vast gulfs between HPL and myself when it comes to our world views, I nevertheless have ever greater sympathy for him. In "The Festival," HPL does an astounding job of conveying the way that the past can weigh upon the present. Of course, this being a Lovecraft story, that past has a decidedly sinister cast to it, or at least an inhuman one, as he makes plain near the very beginning of the story.
That probably explains why the story frightens me. Given Lovecraft's own proclivities, I think it a testament to his craft that he was nevertheless able to present something he dearly loved -- the past -- in such a horrific light. The narrator of "The Festival" thinks only that he's participating in a family tradition and gives little thought to the nature of the tradition or why it is so important to have been passed down from father to son for untold generations. He knows only that it's "important" and gives little thought to it beyond that. Thus, his shock, upon learning the truth, is all the more potent and offers up a subtle rebuke to those of us who revere the past without any real understanding of it or why it might have been cast aside.
Lovecraft assuredly wrote better stories than "The Festival," but this one will always be a favorite of mine. I find it difficult not to read it and be affected by it, both emotionally and intellectually. And, as Halloween approaches, I am reminded of my younger self, nearly 30 years ago, reading this story for the first time and forever being changed by it.