Holidays 2010

I wrote this post about this time last year, and in it I discuss the meaning of Christmas. Since one of my most recent posts about holidays / culture has been very well received, I thought I would review some observations about holidays.

Harvard plays Yale on saturday, and my college friends are all visiting Boston to come to the game and celebrate another year gone by. The point of mentioning this is not to dwell on ivy league standards of what counts as fun; they are very low. The point is about how people keep friendships alive despite leading very busy lives. For my friends and me, the Harvard Yale game is sacred. It’s a time that everyone plans for automatically, without having to check with other people. This let’s everyone start thinking about the game far in advance, which in turn allows for much cheaper and more successful travel plans. Without this self-initiating aspect, we would probably need (and in the past have needed) in upwards of three months to plan a simple trip.

At other time of the year we are all just too busy to really make group meetings a reality, despite not living that far from each other. It’s incredible how aggressively life’s routines can grab you and not let you deviate from them. Anyway, thanksgiving is really the reason that we can make things work. See, not only does everyone know to plan to come to the game (wherever it is), but they can usually do so because it precedes thanksgiving, which is kind of a break anyway.

This pattern is significant. More than ever I think that people have unorthodox moments of rest from their schedules. There’s plenty of leisure time these days, but it’s hard to find leisure time when other people have time as well, and big national holidays are like oases on the calendar that every one automatically knows to plan for. Without these guaranteed times off, it would be hard to get together with diverse groups of people.

Christmas fulfills this social role more than ever.  There is no other time when I can see my friends from home. For me (and I’m generalizing to my generation a little bit), Christmas has NOTHING to do with gifts, food, or family (but that’s cause my immediately family keeps to  itself I suspect). All it really has to do with it for me is just not working at the same that many of my closest friends are also not working.

What really interests me though is how obsolescent these moments of SOCIETY WIDE leisure are becoming. They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to. Sure, there are coordinated days of leisure on a smaller scale all over society. Spring break is for college kids to invade economically depressed beachfront property the world over. Sundays are for watching football (if you’re into that type of thing, I mainly work). 5pm is for happy hour if you’re a professional of some type.

Think of how amazing it is that Christmas is even a holiday AT ALL. More than a thousand years ago, a person died, and this person’s death was imbued with such meaning that many Christians would become martyrs in the years following. Moreover, a massive, perhaps the most massive, institution in the middle ages — the Catholic church — rose up to declare holidays, decide doctrine, raise armies, punish those who violated church law, and commit all manner of sexual depravities (I’m thinking of the Popes of course).

A lot of this stuff seems kind of silly now (silly is the wrong word, I’ll be more neutral: it holds no appeal for me), but notice that for five days at the end of the year, most of the United States, and I believe most of Europe, puts EVERYTHING ON HOLD. The stock market is closed, people barely work, there’s not voting, no meetings are held. What I want people to appreciate from reading this post is the unbelievable amount of social control, energy, money, suffering, and raw cultural capital that went into getting people to celebrate something so intensely, so completely, and for so long throughout history.

To a lesser extent, the same is true for the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. There is a whole system of value and implicit social organization behind these holidays that is not likely to be matched anytime soon. Indeed, I think the age of such comprehensive and powerful cultural symbols if fading fast in all areas of life (we’re drifting away from marriage as an institution. Should we freak out about this fact or try and adapt ourselves to new norms regarding sex, childrearing, and commitment to other people).

In short, we aren’t making any more Christmases. To make Christmas requied a type of enforced intellectual unity and social stratification that isn’t even comprehensible to our liberal, laissez-faire imaginations (and for that I’m grateful). We often marvel at what it took to create buildings, or nations or trips to the moon, but we forget what lies behind something as simple as going home to see the family over the holidays.

In the future, all holidays will be local, provisional and small. All Christmases in the future will be nothing but Harvard-Yales, brief stopping points for a small group of people. Rather than finding an old custom sacred, will have to invent our own sacred times and traditions. It’s a bigger task than we realize, and sometimes we cling to older traditions rather than create our own. There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s hard to build traditions and sometimes daunting too.

However, I think society-wide, there is an obsession with social networking, which is none other than anxiety about having to create our own sacred times and spaces. The allure of social networking sites and thousands of invisible “friends” should be obvious if my reading of holidays is true. We are coming to a time where we cannot rely on powerfully enforced traditions to keep us in contact with the people we care about (will my kids even “come home” for Christmas, for how much longer will our culture encourage that?). Instead, as I already said, we have to roll up our sleeves and build things worth celebrating.


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