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What makes a holiday a holiday? Or, what makes a holiday worthy of a celebratory logo on the world’s most popular website like Google? This question recently prompted me to talk with Michael Lopez, Google’s lead logo designer, to find an answer.

September 19, for instance, is Rosh Hashanah. You’ll see synagogues celebrating the Jewish New Year and you’ll hear the “ Shana tova! ” greeting on the streets of New York. But if Google is true to form, you won’t find it a special Google logo marking the day. In the past, however, you will have found Google celebrations of both the Persian and Chinese New Year observances.

Most Google users probably see the cute little drawings marking a special event as just that—cute. And cute seems to be exactly what Google is aiming for.

“We have a group of Googlers that select the doodles that appear on Google,” Lopez told me in an e-mail.

The answers to all of my questions had the same sing-song assonance. “We gather ideas for doodles from Googlers and from our users,” wrote Lopez. “The doodle selection process aims to celebrate interesting events and anniversaries around the world that reflect Google’s personality and love of innovation.”

I can buy that. Past “Google doodles” have celebrated the birthdays of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (May 22), who invented the modern detective formula, Edvard “The Scream” Munch (Dec. 12) and Opera great Luciano Pavarotti (Oct. 12).

That architect Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8) and abstract artist René Magritte (Nov. 21) both got “doodles” makes you wonder if some well-placed “Googler” is a Paul Simon fan—he wrote songs about both. But then Google seems to like architects and off-the-beaten-path artists: witness the “doodles” for Walter Gropius (May 18), Diego Velázquez, (June 6), and Andy Warhol (Aug. 6).

But not as much as they love astronomers. Giovanni Schiaparelli (March 14),  Percival Lowell (March 13), cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (March 9) and Sputnik (Oct. 4) have each gotten a Google Doodle.

There is a clear skew toward the scientific in Google doodles. Scientists from Leonardo da Vinci (April 15) to Charles Darwin (Feb. 12) get mentions. Religious figures from Mohammed to Mother Teresa do not. The only religious figures regularly enshrined in logos are Martin Luther King Jr. and St. Patrick—but both are celebrated for their secular legacies, not their religious accomplishments. The only other religious figure I find in the history of Google logos is St. George, shown in storybook form with his dragon.

Easter is given an egg or bunny theme but otherwise Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious holidays haven’t merited mention yet—Christmas and Hanukah get “Season’s Greetings” treatment.

So, what’s the big deal? Google is a company whose biggest asset is an algorithm. It’s not surprising that such a company chooses its holidays according to computer-geek criteria.

But the sheer number and variety of Google’s holidays make the absence of religion stick out like a bruised reed.

Users thought it was a big deal that Google used to ignore military holidays like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day. After a complaint campaign in 2006 and 2007, Google now honors veterans—always keeping in mind, however, as Lopez puts it: “A doodle is not the most appropriate way to recognize certain events, especially those that are more somber in nature.”

All the same, you can see why the Veterans were upset.

We mark holidays in America by bulletin boards and windows—the teacher’s bulletin board, the stores’ window. Google is the one bulletin board that decorates countless American offices, the one window that millions of Americans gaze through each day.

Perhaps religious people should be upset, too.

Surely it means something that the mighty Google has celebrated holi, the Hindu festival of color, and Japan’s Shichi-go-san prayer day but never Yom Kippur or Good Friday, let alone Ramadan.

Sociological theorists such as Amitai Etzioni break holidays into “recommitment holidays” and “tension management” holidays.

Mardis Gras, Purim, and New Year’s Eve are “tension management” holidays—days when certain moral norms are considered temporarily suspended.

Easter is a recommitment holiday, when we renew our baptismal promises and recommit ourselves to belief in the resurrection. So is Passover, when Jews gather around the Seder table to renew and reenact the birth of their covenant.

The traditional versions of both kinds of holidays have usually been associated with religious feasts. Google is addressing both kinds of holidays, too.

Google’s first special holiday logo marked the Burning Man festival in the summer of 1999. The Burning Man festival is a quasi-pagan Nevada event at which revelers celebrate the summer solstice by burning a giant wooden effigy. It’s kind of Guy Fawkes Day for a post-Christian world. It’s famous for its hedonism—and its nudism. It’s a ritualized “tension management” extravaganza.

The story goes that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin put the special logo up to explain where they were, in case anything happened on the Google site while they were gone. Google doodles haven’t revisited the Burning Man festival since then, but they love to mark equinoxes and solstices

Google also loves recommitment holidays.

Google makes a special effort to play up the Olympics—you may remember its Beijing logo, with the animated Chinese marchers parading with a Google banner. The Olympics are the global values-recommitment event of our day.

Also, since 2001, Google has been sure to mark every “Earth Day.” Last year, Google even created a special recommitment page for Earth Day, renewing the baptismal promises of environmentalism.

“What did you do for Earth Day ’08?” It asked, and answered: “People around the world made promises . . . they promised to : Carry reusable shopping bags. Help plant trees. Take shorter showers. Install energy efficient light bulbs. Pay bills online. Ride a bike to work. Recycle more. Save up for a hybrid car. . . . However you decided to combat climate change, we were glad to hear all about it and truly appreciated your participation.”

When governments try to remake countries—whether as regime-changers or invaders—they target recommitment holidays. Fortunately, early Americans abolished merely British celebrations and made July 4 a recommitment day, featuring readings of the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union outlawed Russian celebrations and mandated May and November festivals to honor communist victories and socialized labor.

The Catholic Church, of course, transformed many secular holidays in its day into celebrations of aspects of the faith. The Church is good at this. On any given day at Mass with the monks here in Atchison, you’ll hear commemorations of saints as well as campus milestones and the death anniversaries of confreres from the 150 years of the college. This is very Catholic. One could almost explain the Church’s very existence as a place where history meets eternity and the two walk together as one.

But the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church. Google is Google.

A dark take on Google holidays could see it making its own deliberate effort to transform the holiday structure. Maybe Google is defanging Christmas and Easter on purpose, and pouncing (prematurely) on scientific developments like the “missing link” fossil of Darwinius masillae (doodled on May 20, 2009) in order to supplant outworn religious myths it doesn’t like with brightly illustrated new scientific ones it does likes.

Maybe Google is gathering a worldwide campus to its side to recommit us to the earth, and memorializing its confreres of scientific progress in a relentless dedication to a godless project that sees its great ritualistic self-expression in dancing naked around a giant bonfire in Nevada.

Or maybe Google is just being cute.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which.

“People seem to really look forward to going to our homepage and seeing what new doodle is on there,” Google’s Lopez wrote to me. “Some users have described how they started their own Google doodle collection, and some simply tell us how the logos bring them smiles through the day.”

Here’s a partial transcript of my interview with Lopez:

Me: “How many complaints do you get regarding the selection of holidays?”

Google: “[A]s you may imagine, it’s difficult for us to choose which events to celebrate on our site. We have a long list of holidays that we’d like to celebrate in the future. We have to balance this rotating calendar with the need to maintain the consistency of the Google homepage. Some holidays that we haven’t celebrated in the past will be rotated into our holiday doodles for future years.”

Me: “Can you give me a run-down of what holidays are coming up that will get logos?”

Google: “Our users enjoy being greeted with a surprise doodle when they come to the Google homepage so I’m unable to share future doodles we have planned.”

Me: “What is your policy regarding religious holidays?”

Google: “See my answer to your 1st question.”

In other words, Google doodles where Google chooses.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, pray for us.

Tom Hoopes, former editor at the National Catholic Register and Faith & Family magazine, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

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