GF or TGIF?

For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.

No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.

Elihu_Vedder_-_Soul_in_Bondage_-_Google_Art_Project

Holiday Fervor

AmericaFavHoliTime comes in different varieties. In temperate regions where the changing seasons keep the time of year for us, we tend to have seasonal holidays. Christmas and other December holidays mark the shortest days of the year with the hope that light will soon become more abundant. Spring rituals, near the time of the vernal equinox, encourage the return of fertility to the earth. Autumnal holidays mark the approach of darkness once again as the world twirls endlessly on. Summer, bright and warm, doesn’t really lend itself to so many holidays. These thoughts came back to me as I read Bruce David Forbes’s America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. Forbes doesn’t cover all the special days, but focuses on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These are five holidays marked, in some sense, by spending. They are often, although Forbes doesn’t really spend too much time on it, the focal point of cultural wars where various Christian groups wish to reclaim a certain day for its “rightful heritage.”

One of the real values of books like America’s Favorite Holidays is that it is clear that these claims of “keeping Christ in Christmas” and its kin are samples of collective amnesia. Many “Christmas” traditions predated Christianity. Others developed concurrent with it, but in “pagan” contexts. Christmas trees, for example, didn’t originate in the latitudes of Bethlehem. The same may be said for just about any holiday. Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, of the five explored, are the lone exceptions. These are fairly recent holidays and neither one marks a solstice or equinox. They celebrate aspects of life we value, making them sacred time. Don’t expect to get Valentine’s Day off of work, however. Capitalism never makes room for love.

Christmas, of course, is the holiday most under dispute. All holidays may be commercialized, but for Christmas spending is central. Forbes insightfully shows that Christmas is, and may always have been, both a cultural holiday and a religious holiday. The cultural aspect of the season is the one that most people celebrate. The birth of Jesus—which we are fairly certain was not in December—was a latter add-on. A baptism, if you will, of a pre-existing holiday. The winter solstice holiday is a staple of cultures in climes where the difference in available light and warmth is appreciable. It marks the point of the year when things start getting better. Yes, the real cold of winter has not yet set in, and there will be months of snow and ice. Still, once the solstice is passed, there is more light to help us cope. Celebrating sacred time, whether secular or not, is the natural reaction of people who crave light over darkness.

Retrograde Hollow-days

Surrounded by the intoxicatingly ebullient aroma of balsam, it is difficult to believe that it is not yet Christmas. As 4-Hers decorate their wreathes, in November, I recall that the first signs of Christmas appeared in the stores before its unexpected cousin Halloween this year. In fact, stores hawking Christmas remain open year round. This retrograde motion of the holidays in time belies the very concept of the “holy day.” Ancients, and not-so-ancients, believed that there actually was something different about particular days. The trimmings and the trappings were secondary to the point of the day; something momentous had transpired on this very day, making it unlike any other. With the advent of industrialization and its unrelenting work ethic, holidays came to represent a kind of mini-exodus, a release from labor that falls outside the insufficient weekend. Leisure time encourages shopping. A modern holiday is born.

A child's Christmas in Bucharest

The increase in labor-saving devices has placed us in a twilight of leisure. Holidays can be anticipated many months in advance—gifts purchased earlier and earlier, until the holiday itself seems to pale by comparison. Moving retrograde into other seasons. The joys of the consumer holiday are hollow. It is too easily forgotten that money is a symbol, a mere medium of exchange. It has become an end in itself. Just two centuries ago nobody would have dreamed of collecting the symbolic patina of a capitalist system for a profession. Now accounting may lead to great wealth. The wealth, however, is transparent. Millionaires, like emperors, are disinclined to have the fact that their clothes are immaterial pointed out. They are, after all, where we want to be. Let the one with no dreams pop the first seam.

Holidays have the capacity to give symbolic meaning to life. They emphasize the cycles of nature and of life itself: birth, procreation, death. Removed from context, however, they lose their meaning and become just another excuse to spend too much, eat too much, drink too much. We call it celebrating. Those on the receiving end of the cash flow have the most to gain by promoting such hollow-days. Nothing is so easily exploited as child-like anticipation. The scent of balsam takes me back to a far-distant childhood this November night. The memories, no matter how dysfunctional the setting, are serene and full of anticipation. The symbolism suggests this may not be vanity after all. Until the bank statement comes, and the hollow-days begin all over again.