My commuter railway sent out the warning on a Friday afternoon in late December: No alcoholic beverages would be allowed on the trains this weekend. It was not a new temperance message or Bloombergian attempt to control our vices, just a safety announcement on the eve of SantaCon, an event in New York and many other cities, during which Kris Kringle-disguised revelers drink themselves silly through a weekend before Christmas.
Holiday alternatives are multiplying. One can proceed from a SantaCon party to Festivus (“for the rest of us,” as the Seinfeld episode says, a holiday, as Peter Augustine Lawler recently noted, which neatly inverts Christmas themes) through the obscene circus that Valentine’s Dayor, sorry, “V” Dayhas become, and then, with only a slight bump for Good Friday, enter an Easter of chocolate eggs and bunnies before the real holiday in this new calendar, Earth Day. And in the fall comes the re-paganized Halloween, not to mention lesser celebrations like Movember and the truly hideous, retail-industry invented day of Thanksgetting.
The secularization of the culture proceeds apace, and it is never clearer than in what and how we observe holidays. A generation ago, American society observed the major Christian feasts, even if sometimes in the breach, and had that supplemented with a series of days of national importance. One could observe, or not, but the calendar maintained what the larger society considered worthy of public recognition.
Now no more. New and competing sets of holidays displace traditional feasts. Concerns over which holidays to observe have become so fraught that some school districts have dispensed with holidays altogether, for fear of offending some group, say, Muslims, who observe different religious holidays, or atheists, who observe none. The University of Missouri has identified pagan or Wiccan holidays as among those for which students can be excused from taking an exam.
And a new ideology has transformed many of them from the inside. This change in our civil religion is as important, perhaps more so, as the more public legal and political battles in the public square. Historian Christopher Dawson liked to say the word culture derives from “cult,” the process of organized worship. It makes a difference whether people publicly acknowledge the God of Abraham and Isaac rather than Wotan or the invented religions of science fiction television shows. People going to Burning Man rather than Midnight Mass will necessarily have different attitudes and produce a different culture. And Earth Day is very different from the localist, humane Arbor Day that is has replaced.
Three distinct movements have caused this explosion of different celebrations. The first is the increasing de-Christianization of the country. Where citizens either are embarrassed by, or do not acknowledge, the Christian roots of our calendar, it is no surprise that SantaCons reign, Christmas becomes the “sparkly season,” schools break for a generic “winter holiday,” and every connection with a holiday’s religious roots is banished. The remaining public displays of traditional religious holidays face legal challenges, resulting in the tortuous religious liberty jurisprudence over how many reindeer can de-sacralize a crèche in a city square. Many of these assaults on holidays have come from those opposed to the Christian tradition in the first place. Thus the recent controversy in Detroit, when the Satanic Temple was allowed to place its own display on the lawn in front of the State Capitol.
The second movement is the growing diversity of our society. In some school districts, Ramadan is more important than Easter, and so other holidays are filling school and work calendars. Many workplaces already recognize their employees will not necessarily want Good Friday, Christmas, or Yom Kippur as holidays. This is a salutary recognition of the nation’s enduring theism, and of humanity’s natural urge toward transcendence. However, it is often joined to an aggressive multiculturalism that uses the pluralism of our society to impose a secularist ideology. This movement has a counter-current as well; groups of “traditionalist” Christians fighting to return neglected aspects of the Christian calendar back into public view.
The final piece of this puzzle is the nonstop commercialization of everything. Thanksgetting, which I first heard on commercials this year, is an example. Black Friday was bad enough; now the entire weekend is being treated as an exercise in consumerism. As Alexis McCrossen remarks in her 2001 book Holy Day, Holiday, which is a history of “the American Sunday,” debates over the meaning of setting aside days for worship or “rest” are part of the national character, and in a nation as large as ours, many traditions can and should be accommodated. Recent transformations of the notion of holiday contain new elements of irreverence, however, such as the antipathy toward any public recognition of religious faith. They aren’t out to diversify our days of worship. They aim to eliminate the holiness of holidays altogether.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.kirkcenter.org).