Uncle Josh on Sacred and Commercial Holidays

This morning Stephanie endured a bit of my decaffeinated rambling on the way to work about how we name our days and holidays. It started when she described a text-based conversation with a friend who forgot that this is Holy Week and a Very Busy Time for those of us in church choirs and altar guilds. Then Stephanie mentioned that this friend doesn’t call Easter “Easter” but “Resurrection Day” and that sounded very strange to me. Almost secular. Commercial, even.
And that’s the start of this strange ramble.
First, I acknowledge there is some hypocrisy to naming the most important Christian Holy Day after a pagan European fertility goddess, but that wasn’t really the point. I also realized that all our names for the day of the week are pagan in nature. Again, not the point but a mere pair of digressions that I usually spout off before getting to the point.
The point is this: Americans recognize both secular holidays and religious holy days (admittedly, only Christian holy days filter through to secular side) but we also have an American Sacred story that is not a story of prophets but a story of idealists. No church called for Thanksgiving, for example, but this purely secular celebration pairs so nicely with the best of our religious ideas that it’s part of our American Sacred traditions. The Fourth of July is the same sort of celebration around a secular ideal that binds us as Americans.
I think the dividing line between the sacred and secular is if the word “Day” appears in the title. And by secular, at this point I really mean commercial, and this has taken away the American Sacred aspects of certain holidays.
  • Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering and honoring those who died in military service. We buy cars instead.
  • Veterans Day is supposed to be about remembering and honoring all those who have served in our military. We buy appliances instead.
  • Labor Day is supposed to be about honoring the contribution of honest work (the stuff Mike Rowe highlights in his shows). We buy school supplies instead.
Consider these alternatives
  • Thanksgiving is meant to be with friends and family and share the bounty of our harvests. We don’t buy anything until Black Friday (and stores that push Black Friday into Thanksgiving take a financial hit instead). The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is just a long line of commercials with marching-band breaks.
  • The Fourth of July is a celebration of our common identity as Americans, a multi-cultural group of immigrants who hold up independence as an eternal truth. We may hit the stores for an Independence Day sale, but not a Fourth of July sale.
  • Easter is the central holy day for Christians, and it has been very hard for the consumerists to do more than sell marshmallow peeps and chocolate.
Christmas is the exception to the rule. Christmas is a mish-mash of many traditions and there is very little about the birth of Jesus that matters to how we celebrate it. Christmas is so big it has before and after sales. There are entire year-round industries that revolve around Christmas that you don’t get with other holidays. In Oregon, Christmas Trees are a crop. We had no ethical issues with buying trees, cutting them down, and recycling them, because they were almost taken out of the ecology as a matter of economics.
And then there are the “cultural” holidays that Americans use as an excuse to try different kinds of alcohol: Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, and Mardi Gras come to mind. We may spend money, but it’s not a consumerist frenzy; it’s an experiential frenzy instead.
I suspect holy days from non-Christian┬átraditions could get more publicity in this country if they used “Something Day” instead of Kwanzaa or Rosh Hashana. On the other hand, by not attaching “Day” to these names, they can maintain the purity of the holy day and not mar them with sales. We’ve already lost Christmas.