Monday, January 2, 2012

The American Holiday Season

With the American holiday season pretty much at an end, my mind has turned to the holidays celebrated in the United States. Namely, I think that our holidays tend to be spread apart rather oddly. Three of the biggest holiday celebrated in the United States all fall in the last three months of the year (Halloween, Thanksgiving, and whatever early winter holiday one celebrates--Christmas, Hanukkah, and so on), while at other times of the year there are large gaps between the holidays most Americans celebrate.

It wasn't this way in medieval Europe or Great Britain, where holidays tended to be spread more or less evenly apart. Consider the traditional holiday calender celebrated in medieval England.  Candlemas fell on 2 February, at a time roughly between Christmas and Easter. Lammas on 1 August was only about 45 or so days after Midsummer (24 June, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist according to the Church). In between the major holidays were days celebrated in honour of various saints and the various local fairs that were held from time to time. Sadly, many of these days would fall into disuse in England, not to mention much of Europe. By the time the United States was founded many of these former holidays were no longer celebrated.

It is perhaps because of this that holidays celebrated in the United States are somewhat unevenly distributed.  Much of this is complicated by the fact that in the United States many of the Federal holidays are not celebrated by most of the populace, while many of the holidays celebrated by the populace are not Federally recognised. For me the perfect example of a Federal holiday not celebrated by most of the population is Labour Day. It is a holiday that has no real rituals connected to it in much of the country. At most some might go to the beach or hold a barbecue. There are no great Labour Day traditions. For many it is merely a day off and for many more--those the day is meant to honour--it is not even that. Labour Day can be contrasted with Halloween, a holiday that is not recognised by the Federal government. Despite having no Federal recognition, a good many people celebrate Halloween, perhaps most people. It is a holiday that also has its own traditions (trick or treating and so on) linked to it and even its own imagery (jack o'lanterns, black cats, bats, et. al.). I dare say, even if they don't get the day off, for many people Halloween is a real holiday, while Labour Day is not.

When one takes into account the actual holidays that Americans celebrate, the gaps between holidays can become extreme. Consider the months following New Year's Day. In January there is Martin Luther King Day, but it is more a day that one observes and remembers important people than it is a day that one celebrates and has fun--a very important day, no doubt, but not one filled with joy and family togetherness. The same holds true for President's Day in February. Now there are St. Valentine's Day in February and St. Patrick's Day in March, but both of these are highly specialised holidays. Those without a significant other tend to be left out of St. Valentine's Day--how can one celebrate a day devoted to romance and giving gifts to one's beloved when one doesn't have a beloved? St. Patrick's Day is in some ways even more specialised. Unless one is Catholic or Irish, one has little reason to celebrate the day. Given Martin Luther King Day and President's Day are more days one observes rather than celebrates, and not everyone celebrates St. Valentine's Day or St. Patrick's Day, that leaves a huge gap between the end of the holiday season and the next holidays celebrated by most Americans (which I assume would be Easter for Christians or equivalent holidays for other faiths, and Purim for those who are Jewish).

There is an even bigger gap in the late summer and early autumn, when there are not even traditional holidays of the specialised type such as St. Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. Between the Fourth of July and Halloween there are only Labour Day and Columbus Day, two holidays recognised by the Federal government that no one celebrates. The gap between the Fourth of July and Halloween is only filled by Rosh Hashanah celebrated by those of the Jewish faith and the various late summer and autumn fairs held locally among the various states. It is for that reason I've often thought that late summer and early autumn tend to be one of the glummest times of year! Of course, once one hits Halloween there are four holidays in a row (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah./the Yuletide/et. al., and New Year's Day) in a space of only three months.

Of course, I suppose one might ask why any of this matters. Well, my thought is that holidays serve an important role in society. They give us a break from the everyday routine of work and give us a chance to enjoy ourselves. Quite simply, they are an escape not unlike watching a movie or reading a book, but of a longer period. Indeed, there is a reason that many Americans look forward to Halloween and Thanksgiving. Sadly, such breaks or escapes from our everyday routine are rather unevenly distributed in the American schedule. As I pointed out earlier, there is a big gap in the summer where the only holiday is Labour Day, which I suspect the average American doesn't regard as a real holiday at all.

Unfortunately, I doubt that there is very much that can be done about the gaps in the American holiday schedule now. I rather doubt that Americans would start celebrating Lammas or any of the old, traditional holidays. At the same time I cannot see Americans adopting any new holidays that would fill the gaps, except for perhaps Dr. Seuss's birthday (which seems well on its way to becoming a national holiday) .  And sadly, I cannot see anyone making an effort to pump any sort of joy into Labour Day. In the end, I suppose we Americans are simply stuck with the holidays we already have, unless someone can develop some that can fill the gaps.

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