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Commemoration proliferation: When every day is a holiday



John Burger - published on 05/18/17

Growing list of special "days" gives everyone an excuse to celebrate

It’s a new day. Do you know what “day” it is?

If you turn on the TV or radio or turn to social media when you get up in the morning, chances are you’re going to hear someone say something like, “It’s National X Day” — X standing for someone’s favorite activity, hobby, food, product or cause.

Such “days” seem to have proliferated in recent years. We now have things like International Beer Day, Equal Pay Day, and International Friendship Day.

The list is as long as your imagination.

There was a time when holidays were relatively few and far between. A “red letter day” might come along every month or so. In the United States, the list of official holidays, including New Year’s Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, reflected a culture that was strictly American and generally Christian.

Those are some of the days we “get off of work,” and the introduction of the Monday holiday in 1968 assured that we’d always get a paid day off, with a three-day weekend to boot, even if the “real” Memorial Day happened to fall on a Saturday or Sunday.

Religious observances, of course, have been a strong part of the American experience, and the most important ones—notably Good Friday for Christians and Yom Kippur for Jews—were usually honored by employers as a time when the observant deserved the day off.

Nowadays, it seems like someone is celebrating something every day of the year, even if it’s not a “day off.” Some of the old religious observances have morphed into secular holidays, such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween. The growing multicultural nature of our society has given celebrations such as Chinese New Year and Ramadan greater prominence. Not to mention the alternatives to Christmas—Kwaanza and Festivus.

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day have spawned commemorations to celebrate grandparents, siblings and other relatives. Causes, like environmentalism, are given their due, both on a national and international level: Earth Day has been joined by things such as Equal Pay Day and World Autism Awareness Day. And commerce has jumped on the bandwagon with events such as Burger Day and Margarita Day.

To make sure no day on the calendar is empty, we now have things like Talk Like a Pirate Day and Squirrel Appreciation Day.

The partying has gotten to such a point that Jono Alderson created a website called Days of the Year to try to keep track of it all. Go to the homepage and you’ll see that today has four commemorations: Visit Your Relatives Day, Museum Day, Notebook Day, and No Dirty Dishes Day.

Who woulda thunk it?

Chene Heady, associate professor of literature at Longwood University, takes the long view when it comes to holidays. In his recently published book Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life, he recounts the changes he experienced in his life when he tried to live as though the Church’s calendar, not the secular one, stood at the center of his life.

In an interview, Heady noted that in Christian Europe, prior to the 19th century, holidays were all based on the liturgical calendar, the Church’s daily commemoration of events in the life of Christ or the saints.

“Every day did have a meaning, and many of them were celebrated,” Heady said. “Some employers in England complained that workers got one day in three off. There were saints who were important to different towns and different trades and different occupations.”

In the 19th century, the practice went by the wayside. “It was said to be superstitious. It was felt to present an economic problem, because time is money,” Heady explained. “It’s not a coincidence that by this time Charles Dickens portrayed Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ as someone complaining that his worker wanted to take a day off for Christmas, on the grounds that it’s inefficient, that these holidays don’t do anything, that we need to work and make money.”

Society’s elites tried to turn most days into “just part of the work week,” without any special meaning, he said.

But people have a natural need to commemorate something, it seems. Even an atheist like Auguste Comte recognized that. Comte, a French sociologist who founded a movement called positivism, proposed a “secular liturgical calendar,” Heady noted, which honored “heroes of science or democracy.”

“He felt that people couldn’t live without that daily sense of meaning in their lives that the liturgical calendar provided, and if you didn’t give them a substitute they would eventually fall back on the Church,” Heady said. “He did that very consciously, and I do kind of wonder if this [current] proliferation of days for everything is our culture unconsciously groping for the idea that each day should be given meaning for something.”

It is, Heady speculates, a way to fill the vacuum in the lives of people who have abandoned or forgotten how to observe a liturgical calendar.

Earth Day is one example. “It’s a celebration they can have in public schools that doesn’t violate the church-state ban,” said Andrew T. Seeley, a tutor (professor) at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.

“The more successful and widely observed of the new holidays are also those which, like the old saints days, are observed with collective and individual rituals,” Heady observed. Elements might include “colors that are worn (pink or rainbow), processions through town (the 5K breast cancer run, the gay pride parade), physical activities that are performed (the earth day tree planting),” he said.

“I think this lends credence to the idea that we are unconsciously trying to fill the cultural void left by the loss of the liturgical calendar—but doing so in ways that reflect a fragmented vision of the world and society,” Heady concluded.

At the same time, the proliferation of observances may be watering down the very idea of celebration. Seeley feels that many of the traditional holidays have lost their significance for many Americans and have become little more than an excuse for a day off and a party.

“I’m worried that our society has become a-historical and very secular,” Seeley said, citing TV news interviews of random people on the street, unable to answer basic questions about American history. While so many traditional holidays, such as Memorial Day, are about remembering someone or something, much of society does not seem to care about the past, he lamented.

“It’s all about now and the future,” Seeley said. “So I don’t know how much some of these holidays mean to them, even something like the Fourth of July, how much people who are basically illiterate about the Revolutionary War are aware of its significance, other than a time to have parties and watch fireworks.”

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