I read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast before I knew the term describing moveable feast days on the calender. Comparing Hemingway's famous quote about Paris:

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

with what happens in the liturgical calender, I can't see what he's talking about.

So, a feast date is chosen because of where it falls in relation to some other annually changing dates; thus it "moves" every year. How is Paris like one of these feast dates, in the way Hemingway describes it? I understand him to mean that you may leave Paris, but Paris never leaves you. But that doesn't mean it stays the same. You don't stay the same. And other places stay with you too. Easter stays the same--same celebration for the same reason, no matter what you do.

Phrase finder traces its figurative usage back to 1882, before Hemingway, to a newspaper from Bismarck, North Dakota:

The most sublime creation of modern times is the ideal woman of the average man. She is a migratory bird, a sort of movable feast as it were.

But that doesn't have much bearing on holidays that occur on different days from year to year either. The ideal woman is different for every man, and this quote makes her sound fleeting, out of reach. True, the piece hedges with "as it were", but it seems that they are using the expression somewhat idiomatically--the "as it were" suggests that.

From 2000, a book called Spirituality, Healing and Medicine: Return to Silence states:

"Indeed, maybe the reason that we fail to categorize health is just that we do not wish to locate it, it is a moveable feast."

This idiomatic usage of the term suggests that health is hard to codify or pin down, which, again, doesn't relate with a religious holiday that is classifiable, though it moves.

A radio broadcaster was talking about a Christmas party here in Barcelona that would be at the beach this year. It was on a hotel roof last year. He called it "a moveable feast". He's right; it is a moveable feast, but not by any relationship to the idiomatic use of the term. I'm italicizing idiomatic because, I can't grasp the sense of the idiom, though it exists. In fact, the free dictionary defines it and then discounts its figurative usage.

  1. Lit. a religious holiday that is on a different date from year to year. Easter is the best known movable feast.
  2. Fig. a meal that is served in motion or with different portions of the meal served at different locations. (Jocular or a complete misunderstanding of {1} but in wide use.) We enjoyed a real movable feast on the train from Washington to Miami.

This definition seems to be the least like the other usages, but googling "a moveable feast catering" shows that people around the anglophone world are jocularly using the term this way.

My question isn't to do with understanding Hemingway's use of the expression, but what the expression "A Moveable Feast" means at all. Is it right to call it an expression or phrase or idiom? Or did Hemingway just hoodwink us into using some clever bit of liturgical jargon whenever we wanted to say something is constantly changing? If not, if it describes something, what does it describe?

  • 1
    Hemingway's usage is a nonce usage, and he explains it: feast = something delightful one can dip into, whether memories or remembered practices ('If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris'); moveable = you can take it with you wherever you go. Normally, 'moveable feast' used idiomatically means something which is scheduled (or just happens) at crazy intervals - or in strangely variable ways ('It means different things to different people and varies from place to place'- internet). Dec 17, 2013 at 17:30
  • @EdwinAshworth I agree about Hemingway, however, lots of other people use it for things that they can't dip into but would like to. So, what is the "moving" element of it? The way it changes depending on your perspective or the way it stays just out of reach, like in "women are a moveable feast"?
    – tylerharms
    Dec 18, 2013 at 18:20
  • As in the 'health' quote you give, I think it is the 'X is hard to codify or pin down' – perhaps because it's in a state of flux, perhaps even including where we arrange that that's the way it stays. I think that Easter was accepted as a moveable feast, with a tricky formula to determine when exactly it fell, to stop two parties fighting over two rival suggested dates (by keeping them slightly confused). Movable almost as in 'La donna e mobile'. Dec 18, 2013 at 20:45

2 Answers 2


Thank you for this inquiry. It is rich in meaning.

Movable feast was historically liturgical, with Easter, as you pointed out, being its most famous example. Hemingway probably appropriated it in his notes for his heady cultural experiences in Paris, but in fact, it was his wife Mary who named the book which was published posthumously. The story behind it is charming.

It probably started out as a liturgical appellation, but was taken over by the public to mean all the things you mentioned, including progressive dinners. Its recent use has most commonly been in magazines, explaining why it is used with abandon for any purpose desired.

Therefore, you are correct to say it is not an idiom. I would say it was first an appellation for a feast day which has been appropriated by the secular public as a phrase serving a number of possible uses.

  • Does it mean, though, something transitory and fun? Something hard to understand? Something that we want but can't reach? Hemingway's referring to something within his grasp, but many other people use it for something out of reach.
    – tylerharms
    Dec 18, 2013 at 18:17
  • I would say it's not transitory, that it is inside of us, and we can access it whenever we want. To attain it, one might just need courage and vision for the experiences that would nourish them, so to speak, and once having feasted, they carry that inside of them, as Hemingway did. Dec 18, 2013 at 18:26

The phrase has an odd poetry to it, and the dictionary usage isn't part of most people's general conversation, so people have freely adapted it based on the words themselves rather than by strict analogy to the actual definition.

In addition, the secondary definition of a traveling meal --sometimes also called a progressive dinner --quite possibly rivals the original definition in wideness of usage.

As far as Hemingway's usage, it reminds me of another quote --I'm afraid I couldn't track down the speaker or exact phrasing --to the effect that "childhood is the meal that we feast on for the rest of our lives," meaning that the experiences of our youth continue to nurture us spiritually even as we travel away from them, a moveable feast.

EDIT: I found the quote I mentioned above, it is Leon Uris, from his book Trinity: "If you're lucky enough to fall in love, that's one thing. Otherwise all that was ever truly beautiful to me was boyhood. It's the meal we sup on for the rest of our lives. Love puts the icing on life. But if you don't find it...you must call on your childhood memories over and over till you do."

  • What have they adapted it to mean? Do we just figure that out in context?
    – tylerharms
    Dec 17, 2013 at 17:55
  • @tylerharms For the usages that follow Hemingway, something you feast upon, not physically but spiritually or emotionally, that is not tied to a particular place and time, but is moveable. As you noted, the other usages you cited are not entirely consistent with this one. Dec 17, 2013 at 18:15

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