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So! Why All the Celebrations?

Part one in a series exploring the invention of holidays.

Whew! What was that which just flew by?

Well, it’s a few days after Christmas, and I just finished my afternoon nap, and during that restful phase, I got to thinking about inventions and how it is that they have changed our lives.  My mind got to wandering, as it usually does, and the subject of inventions popped up. How I got to thinking about inventions was because my wife, Carol, said to me shortly after we retired to bed Christmas night. And oh, by the way, this all has to do with my remark about something that “just flew by.” Please be patient, and I’ll try to tie it all together.

Carol remarked about how sad it was that all the weeks of preparations moved inexorably towards a very brief period of enjoyment. Okay, so she didn’t use the word “inexorably,” but she meant it. So, if I use the word, it’s to impress you, my readers. You are impressed, aren’t you? That’s all right. Neither am I.

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But it did move inexorably.

Anyway, Carol was right. The actual act of celebrating comes and goes all too quickly. All the preparations that go into the celebrations seem, in retrospect, vain. A lot of hype is given to it by the commercial sector, and suddenly it’s all over with, for another year. It is a joyous holiday but adds pressure to each one of the days. We seem too consumed with making the most of it, only to fall short of our expectations.

And I might add that I find another problem with the holiday. It gets lost, somewhat, in being mixed with Thanksgiving. Nowadays Christmas starts getting to us shortly before Thanksgiving. In the good ole’ days, it didn’t get going until after Thanksgiving, beginning, for our town, with the annual Thanksgiving Parade, sponsored by Sperry’s Department Store.

Times have changed from those good ol’ days. Nowadays everyone and everything seems to be in too much of a rush. That includes holidays. Why I even witnessed one sale this past summer that was called “Christmas in July.” Come on, now! Really! Enough is enough. Pretty soon the commercial folk might try to tie the two holidays together, perhaps into something called Thanksmas.  Except, I can’t seem to envision a baby Jesus lying in a sleigh that is “dashing through the woods.” And the poor shepherds would have a most difficult time keeping their sheep together, what with all the traffic that will be clogging the highways. And consider the poor magi! The star would be worthless. Unless they carried a modern-day GPS, they might get hopelessly lost.

Well, to tell the truth, and I hope you are willing to grant me that I am capable of telling the truth, sometimes-while lying there, in bed, I gave some serious thought to what she had said. Christmas had come and gone. It just seemed that it happened so quickly that we didn’t have the time to truly savor it all. Or maybe it’s because most people don’t slow life down so that the holiday can be truly enjoyed. Too quickly it just comes and goes.  It seems so unfair. Why couldn’t it have lasted longer? Why couldn’t we separate the two vitally important holidays, fully separate them, and buy into the English system? You know, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and Charles Dickens, and playing darts in the pubs and plum pudding, and saluting everyone with joyous greetings and meaning them.   Of course, ol’ Scrooge would immediately jump all over that idea. Perhaps we could be a little more caring about all the ho-ho-hoing and decking the halls and whatever else helps to make the Christmas season something worth celebrating.

I understand that there are many people who get caught up in all the hustle and bustle that make up their idea of the Christmas spirit. Apparently, they love all the shopping, and planning, and partying, and caroling and wrapping and grocering-I think that means shopping for groceries and all the other “ings” that are involved.

Carol was right. It did come and go so fast. Too fast. But it’s not just Christmas, or Thanksgiving, that I am talking about; it is time itself, and how we observe it and use it. And that kind of thinking got me wondering about the word itself: holiday. How it came about. I never gave much thought to the word when I was young, especially when I was very young. As kids, we just took things in stride.  A calendar from one of the coal companies was not anything that I considered looking at. It sat in a drawer of the kitchen counter, useless to a young boy who couldn’t care less what date it was. Whatever was to come, well, let it come.  I don’t think I ever gave any thought to the idea that Christmas was a holiday. In those days, we never said “happy holiday,” as political rules demand of us these days. . We said “Merry Christmas,” or “Happy Thanksgiving,” or “Happy Easter,” and we meant it.

I think the first time that I ever considered the word holiday was in 1950, the year that I graduated from high school. I had taken on a job as a shoe salesman in a local downtown store. The only thing I knew about shoes was that they were meant to be worn on the feet. However, the shoes that were sold in the store I worked at were not expensive ones. It was a store that featured cheap shoes, for the masses. Consequently, the upper crust ignored the store. I had taken the job because I was not yet eighteen years of age, so I was not able to work in one of the factories in town, which paid better.

The days sped by, as they are apt to do, and I turned up at work on the days when I was scheduled. But then something new happened, at least new to me. When I checked in to work, one day, I was told not to show up the next day. When I asked why, I was told that it was because of the holiday, Independence Day, the Fourth of July. The store was to be closed.

Because it was a holiday, I got the day off, with pay.

“Wow!’ I thought. Do I get paid to not work? I was astounded. It had never before dawned on me that not working would be so lucrative. I had never given much thought about my dad’s schedule, how it was that he was home certain days of the year. Whenever he was home, it just was. It never dawned on me to ask him why he was home on a select few of the days. As I said before, it just was.

“Wow!” I reflected, again. “ Is that ever neat! “ And you say that I get paid?”

“That’s the way it works,” I was told.

But those long-gone days of youth and ignorance have passed me by. At least the youthful part has passed me by. I’d like to think that I still retain a semblance of wisdom and intelligence.

Through the years I have celebrated hundreds of holidays, and have taken them for granted, just as I have taken the word holiday. Appreciated, but taken for granted. Holidays came along as posted by the calendar that sat in that drawer by the phone. Only, this more modern version of a calendar was issued by a local funeral home. So, some things do change.

It was a few days ago when Carol gave me something to think about, to consider the idea of holidays from both an objective and a personal point of view. Where did these holidays come from? How is it that they are here? Who’s responsible for these inventions? For inventions they surely are.

When I first got serious about researching the subject of holidays, I thought it would be a simple thing. Get the computer and printer warmed up, and type in the words “Invention of holidays.” I didn’t expect much. But as with most things that can be approached through the internet, the subject revealed itself to be of enormous interest to the magical world of the WEB. Tons of material came up. I just needed to weed through much of it, until I found that which was reliable.

Who doesn’t love inventions? I love inventions, of all kinds. After all, I have lived through the atom bomb, robots, eating burgers under the McDonalds sign, and Legos, and a changeover from an icebox to a refrigerator, and jet airplanes, and moon shots, and nuclear energy, and attempts to contact beings on other planets, and replacement of a hip…and I could go on and on. You tap into your bank of memories and I am sure you will find that your life has changed, sometimes for the better, because of inventions. Sometimes, in both the near and distant past, someone came up with an idea. And poof! Like magic, the idea became an invention.

But for my money, all those noted inventions pale in comparison to the invention of holidays. Why? Because holidays grant us time to revel, to love, to salute, to lie back, to watch a parade, to share with family, to picnic, to go skating, to nestle under warm blankets, and…you get the idea, I am sure. And what’re more, holidays belong to everyone. They are very democratic. And they don’t necessarily require us to spend a ton of money. In fact, as noted above, they often are profitable.

My curiosity got the best of me. The more I researched, the more  I wanted to know about this wonderful invention. Thus, with my trusty computer, a world of information was available. So it was that I turned sleuth.

When the different sites showed up, I was surprised at how much information was available. I was dumbfounded, if not overwhelmed. A ton of websites showed up, all competing as experts in my search area. I spent a lot of time reading through the various sites, and finally discarded most of them, mostly relying on one site over the others.  One site promised more facts, as well as more curiosities. That site is The U.S. Printing Office.

I have to admit that, at first,  I figured that something that came from the government just had to be more reliable than all the other sites. Okay! So I might just be living a foolish dream. All too often, in the past, I have witnessed nothing less than dishonesty and misdirection when it comes to official documents. But in this case, I found that what was spewed out seemed credible, reliable, and, certainly most important, authoritative.

Anyway, that thing that just flew by, which I mentioned in my opening remarks, was a holiday. and certainly, it was an invention, if we are to analyze the word carefully. At some point in time, there was something that had not existed but then did come to exist. It started as an idea. An idea. Oh, I imagine it was well-intended. And when I was a little tyke-isn’t tyke a wonderful word?-I enjoyed it all, the whole of it. I just didn’t realize that someone had given a name to an idea.

The word-historians tell us that the word holiday comes from the words holy and day, which came from the Old English word halig daeg. Please don’t ask me to pronounce the word. The only problem I have with that old definition is the contention that holidays are holy. To my ear, it takes something of the pleasurable out of it and turns it into something that is demanding, overly reverential, utterly sacred. Too often religion takes some of the pleasure out of events. Even the adjective somber comes into play. But if we look sharply, we can discover a whole new meaning of the word. There are a lot of holidays that have nothing or very little to do with holiness. One wonders how it is that the old English word eventually became so inclusive.

A good example of this idea is New Years Day, a day that is supposedly celebrated by resolving, with good intentions, to do better, to live our lives more fully. One wonders how many of the resolutions are kept. .

Many years ago my wife and I stopped going out on New Years’ Eve to celebrate the coming of another year. After all, it is New Years Day that is the holiday; yet it is New Year’s Eve which gets all the attention, and not because it is a holy day. Many are those who find it difficult to celebrate New Years Day, the actual holiday, simply because of the effects of what the Old English called bottle-ache. And there is nothing holy in the effects.

Holidays! What do they mean to you? How do you celebrate them? Are they truly meaningful? How did they come about?


Check back next week as Larry concludes his in-depth look at holidays and all they encompass.

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