Holidays in America: Part 1

The story of Thanksgiving: classic or big lie?
Holidays in America generally underwent three stages:

1. They were boring.
2. They were less boring.
3. They were radically less boring (for children).

1. They were boring.

I'm not familiar with Native American customs re: holidays. I do know that the Puritans were not big fans of European/Christian holidays (and presumably nobody else's either). One of the things they threw overboard in their jaunts across the "pond" was holiday customs associated with Christmas, Easter, and what we now think of as Halloween.

The Puritans weren't simply being killjoys. In fact, many people who would eschew Puritan culture and beliefs would agree with their reasoning re: holidays. In England, most major holidays had become the equivalent of our New Year's Eve--with drinking and carousing and general, obnoxious heartiness. There was a commercial element (stronger in later centuries yet still present) whereby merchants made money off all the drinking and carousing and general, obnoxious heartiness.

The Puritans weren't the only ones who noticed and got annoyed--local governments were equally concerned. "Drinking," "carousing" and "heartiness" sound relatively benign until one adds in "soccer-fan-like hooliganism." Holidays had become actually dangerous.

If you are a bunch of Puritans trying to create a new, anti-high-church society, getting rid of holidays makes sense not only from a theological standpoint but from a civil order one.

Sarah Josepha Hale
Naturally, holidays crept back in. Although Thanksgiving for the Puritans was nothing like the story you may have learned in elementary school, days of thanksgiving were common long before Sarah Howe got her bloomers in a twist and started hounding Lincoln about making it a national holiday (specifically, the New England version).

Human nature being what it is, we need breaks from the daily grind. I find the Fall semester easier to handle than the Spring semester in terms of energy--it is a little under four months; it has nicely spaced holidays (Labor Day, Columbus Day, Halloween) with one large holiday (Thanksgiving), which still doesn't take up the whole week, ending with several large holidays, specifically Christmas.

The pace is perfect. The semester runs along at a jolly clip with enough "off" days to give students and teachers a "breather" but not too many "off" days to extend the semester too long. Plus there is enough common culture (specifically around Thanksgiving) for people to share stories and feel a common bond.

Even the pagan gods on Supernatural
enjoy the cultural trappings of modern Christmases!
Spring is difficult: it lasts forever; Spring break gets in the way; too many holidays occur at the beginning of the semester, not enough in the middle (March). The largest holidays are enormously important to individual groups; from an American cultural point of view, they not only don't supply a common currency, they don't have the commercial power of the Fall holidays. Easter, Passover, and occasionally Ramadan (which occurs in different seasons depending on the year) are far more religious in nature than most other holidays, making them difficult to commercialize and institutionalize.

Joseph Campbell once bemoaned the lack of a common "mythology" among Americans. I'm a fan of the effects of multiculturalism, one of which is a lack of a common "mythology." I'm also a fan of most separations of church & state (I don't support prayer in public school as a institutionalized feature, for example). But I do understand Campbell's unhappiness. In a secular culture, the Fall holidays focus more on common human conditions, such as harvesting and getting people through the dark days of the year, than on theological beliefs. Consequently, the Fall holidays create more unity as people transition from holiday to work to holiday again.

Common or not, that transition is necessary. And I love all holidays, so more will follow . . . !


FreeLiveFree said...

The thing about schools is that the fall is the start of the school year. I can only talk about my experience as a student, but I was excited at the beginning of the year. By Spring, I just wanted it to end. A few more holidays would have made it easier.

The most peculiar American holiday is Valentine's Day. This is a holiday manufactured by the greeting card companies that has little to do with the actual St. Valentine. The Simpson's portrayal of "Love Day" is pretty accurate. I'm pretty pro-free market, but I hate Valentine's Day.

Katherine Woodbury said...

St. Valentine's Day's commercialism is apparently very old. According to America's Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, St. Valentine's Day was celebrated in Europe from the beginning with cards and poems. As you say, it has no thematic or theological or even faintly plausible connection to St. Valentine. It appears that the medievals needed a saint to excuse sending each other love letters and St. Valentine was it!

It reminds me of letters written during the medieval era in which students ask parents for money. According to one source I read, students could purchase fill-in-the-blank letters asking for money. Ah, the consistency of human nature!

Joe said...

I've long advocated moving Christmas to late July. By New Years, I'm burned out on the whole holiday thing. Besides, if you are living in the cold, who wants time off then? (From that perspective, May would be perfect for Christmas in Las Vegas.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

That's what some Australians do! Their thinking is, "I'd rather eat a hot roast in my 'winter' than in my 'summer.'"