In contemporary usage, picnic can be defined simply as a pleasure excursion at which a meal is eaten outdoors (al fresco or en plein air), ideally taking place in a beautiful landscape such as a park, beside a lake or with an interesting view and possibly at a public event such as before an open air theatre performance, and usually in Summer.
Picnics are often family-oriented but can also be an intimate occasion between two people, or a large get-together such as company picnics and church picnics.
On romantic and family picnics a picnic basket and a blanket (to sit or recline on) are usually brought along. Outdoor games or some other form of entertainment are common at large picnics.
Some picnics are a potluck, an entertainment at which each person contributed some dish to a common table for all to share. When the picnic is not also a cookout, the food eaten is rarely hot, instead taking the form of sandwiches, finger food, fresh fruit, salad, cold meats and accompanied by chilled wine or champagne or soft drinks.
The first usage of the word is traced to the 1692 edition of Origines de la Langue Française de Ménage—which mentions 'pique-nique' as being of recent origin; it marks the first appearance of the word in print. The term was used to describe a group of people dining in a restaurant who brought their own wine. For long a picnic retained the connotation of a meal to which everyone contributed something. Whether picnic is actually based on the verb piquer which means 'pick' or 'peck' with the rhyming nique meaning "thing of little importance" is doubted; the Oxford English Dictionary says it is of unknown provenance.
The word picnic first appeared in English texts in 1748 (OED), and may have entered the English language from this French word or from the German Picknick, which may simply be a parallel borrowing from French. The practice of an elegant meal eaten out-of-doors, rather than a harvester worker's dinner in the harvest field, was connected with respite from hunting from the Middle Ages; the excuse for the pleasurable outing of 1723 in Lemoyne's painting (illustration, left) is still offered in the context of a hunt.
- In British and American English, the phrase "no picnic" is used to describe a difficult or trying situation or activity. For example, "Driving in rush hour traffic is no picnic."
- In established public parks, a picnic area generally includes picnic tables and possibly other items related to eating outdoors, such as built-in grills, water faucets, garbage containers, and restrooms.
Related historical events
After the French Revolution
in 1789, royal parks became open to the public for the first time. Picnicking in the parks became a popular activity amongst the newly enfranchised
Early in the 19th century, a fashionable group of Londoners formed the 'Picnic Society'. Members met in the Pantheon on Oxford Street. Each member was expected to provide a share of the entertainment and of the refreshments with no one particular host. Interest in the society waned in the 1850s as the founders died.
The image of picnics as a peaceful social activity can be utilised for political protest too. In this context, a picnic functions as a temporary occupation of significant public territory. A famous example of this is the Pan-European Picnic held on both sides of the Hungarian / Austrian border on the 19 August 1989 as part of the struggle towards German reunification.
In the year 2000, a 600-mile-long picnic took place from coast to coast in France to celebrate the first Bastille Day of the new Millennium. In the United States, likewise, the 4th of July celebration of American independence is a popular day for a picnic. In Italy the favourite picnic day is 'Angel's Monday', also known as Pasquetta (= 'little easter'), the day after Easter.
Cultural representations of picnics
Perhaps the most famous depiction of a picnic is Le déjeuner sur l'herbe
, painted by Edouard Manet
- "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" (1865-1866), often referred to as "The Picnic" or "The Luncheon on the Grass" in English, was one the earliest works of Manet.
- The film Picnic, which is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge, was a multiple Oscar winner from 1955. Since then the film has been remade twice, once in 1986 and again in 2000, but neither version received much acclaim.
- With Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Peter Weir constructs a film of haunting mystery. Three girls and one of their teachers on a school outing mysteriously disappear. The only one that is later found remembers almost nothing.
- Baji on the Beach, Gurinder Chada (1993). The German version of the film is titled Picknick on the Beach. Nine Indian women of various ages flee away from their everyday life into a joint excursion to the English resort town of Blackpool. A rather unharmonious journey because conflicts between generations raise emotions to a fever pitch.
- Blissfully Yours, a film with a picnic in a jungle.
- Picnickers are used to illustrate the scale of one metre in the film Powers of Ten.
- The Office Picnic (1973) is a dark comedy set in an Australian Public Service office. It was written and produced by film maker Tom Cowan, who is now famous for his work on the series Survivor.
- In 1906 the British composer John William Bratton wrote a musical piece originally titled "The Teddy Bear Two Step". It became popular in a 1908 instrumental version renamed "Teddy Bears Picnic", performed by the Arthur Pryor Band. The song regained prominence in 1932 when the Irish lyricist Jimmy Kennedy added words and it was recorded by the then popular Henry Hall (and his BBC Dance Orchestra) featuring Val Rosing (Gilbert Russell) as lead vocalist, which went on to sell a million copies. The Teddy Bears' Picnic resurfaced again in the late 1940s and early 1950s when it was used as the theme song for the Big Jon and Sparkie children's radio show. This perennial favorite has appeared on many children's recordings ever since, as well as being the theme song for the AHL's Hershey Bears hockey club. lyrics and audio from the BBC
- "Stone Soul Picnic", by Laura Nyro (released in 1968) It was a major hit for the group Fifth Dimension. cover version by Swing Out Sister
- "Malcolm's X-Ray Picnic" was a moderate hit for the indie-pop group Number One Cup.
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