Saturday, October 27, 2012

Observances and Holidays


I'm disappointed that there will be no mail next week Wednesday.   I get USA Today Sports Weekly on Wednesdays, and I would normally look forward to their World Series coverage, but with the Halloween holiday, I guess I'll have to wait until Thursday.

Oh wait.  Wikipedia tells me that the mail is coming on time, after all.  That's weird.  Nobody cares about Columbus Day, but that's a day off for federal employees, while the commercially saturated holiday of Halloween is officially unofficial.  Of course, Columbus Day is really not a holiday at all, but an observance.  We have many days in our culture that are set aside as observances, with a select few having a festive component, which is what makes them legitimate holidays.  I've never really thought about the matter, though, since the American holidays were long established prior to my birth and have not really changed in the multiple decades that I've been around.  So we take for granted that some holidays are officially determined by federal edict (e.g. Thanksgiving), some are essentially the result of the vestiges of canon law (e.g. Easter), and some are particular ethnic observances somewhat arbitrarily elevated to transcend ethnic boundaries (e.g. St. Patrick's Day).  The common thread is that all are seized upon, promoted, and necessarily integrated into capitalist consumer society.  None of these holidays would exist as we know them to exist if there was not money to be made in their commemoration.

But then again, I think it would be reductive to argue that corporations are entirely to credit or blame for our culture's holiday structure.  To some extent, they might manufacture desire for certain kinds of celebration, but in some respects they are bound by whether a tradition exists in the first place.  "Grandparents Day" might result in modest sales bumps for certain industries, and I'm sure those same industries would love to sell products for Columbus Day, but in this case they must wait for demand to create supply.

So Halloween would not be what it is if not for a kind of national demand for a "scary" holiday that can double as a carnavalesque "dress up" holiday.  And since the ancient Celts kind of did that at this time of year, we do to.  But it's interesting to read that the practice of trick-or-treating in America is only about 100 years old, only became widespread in the 1930s, and arguably first became mainstream in the 1950s.  To put that in perspective, as Roctober traditions go, the World Series existed for an entire generation before trick or treating became in vogue. 

It seems more than a coincidence to me that the rise in popularity of this practice coincided with a rise in the reach of the retail industry.  Again, it's not like the government determined that there would be more of an emphasis placed upon this celebration.  It might not have been a completely bottom-up development, but the evolution of the holiday has been more organic than instituted (and the same case could be made for the relative prominence of Valentine's Day in our contemporary culture).

What this implies to me is that if social conditions change, it is possible for observances to become holidays.  The commercial landscape of this country changed in the early-to-mid 20th Century, and new holiday traditions developed.  And even though I've never seen new developments in my lifetime, I'm not ruling out the possibility.  It is in debate how much of a paradigm shift the arrival of online social networking has engendered.  If, a generation from now, we have turned one of our current observances into a holiday, we may have our answer.  But I'm still not holding out any hope for Columbus Day.

1 Comments:

Blogger Amanda McGovern said...

This makes me think of the classic excuse that Valentines day is just a made up holiday, brought to us by the lovely and joyous Greeting Card companies. I on the other hand have heard of many myths for Valentines day that are very similar to the Christmas myths. If a holiday is brought to us by myths but marketed by Greeting Card companies, maybe that will always have an affect on how important a holiday will become to us?

9:31 PM  

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