Perhaps We Should Redefine American Holidays
Perhaps We Should Redefine American Holidays

Perhaps We Should Redefine American Holidays

We were shopping in our friendly neighborhood warehouse store yesterday and the Young Woman commented on the Christmas decorations that were already prevalent even before Halloween. Not that either of us was actually surprised. Holiday creep in store marketing has been a thing for decades as retailers try to extend what has traditionally been their most profitable season in hopes that profits will go up. While that tactic worked some 20 or so years ago when it first started, putting Christmas trees on sale before Thanksgiving, the gimmick has long ago lost its luster. Now, shoppers roll their eyes and proceed toward what they came to buy in the first place. There’s little sign that the extended season is helping sales at all.

On Monday of this week (October 9), the Harvard Business Review published an interesting article: “Why Retailers Should Retire Holiday Shopping Season.” The reason they give, when boiled down, is quite simple: it’s not making money. First, there’s the expense of all the additional marketing stores do for the holidays. Second, there’s the added stress as seasonal employees are added and more work is asked of everyone. Third, shopping patterns have changed and holiday sales don’t hold the luster they once did. None of those situations are going to get any better in the future, either. While it’s too late to make any change for this year, retailers would do well to begin scaling back next year and all but eliminate the holiday shopping season within the next five years. Given how many retail stores are suffering, the move makes absolute sense.

Of course, if/when retailers do start backing off the holiday sales, there are some who are going to be upset; mostly older folks of my generation and older and mostly those of a distinctly right-wing religious affiliation. By those mindsets, there are no “holidays,” only Christmas. Interfering with their holiday on any level results in accusations of waging a “war on Christmas.” Even attempts to be inclusive of other religious holidays during the month stir the wrath of those who feel that December belong only to them and their religious celebration.

All of which has me wondering if we, as a generalized society, should redefine American holidays. We have a unique definition of the word that doesn’t necessarily line up with the rest of the world, let alone the changing attitudes of people who live here. To some degree, that’s not surprising. We are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t use the metric system, for example. Americans have an ego larger than our land mass and we think we have the right to define things any way we wish.

When the rest of the world talks about “taking a holiday,” they’re referring to any general time off from work. As a result, you’ll hear them talk about their summer holiday in Iceland or their winter holiday in the South of France, and other little trips and jaunts throughout the year. Special days are only really holidays if everyone has the day off work, which doesn’t happen all that often.

Meanwhile, here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., we have a plethora of holidays running around. Here’s the list of federally recognized holidays (source):

Date Official Name Percentage of Americans observing Remarks
January 1 (Fixed) New Year’s Day[1] 72%[6] Celebrates the beginning of the Gregorian calendar year. Festivities include counting down to 12:00 midnight on the preceding night, New Year’s Eve, often with fireworks display and party. The ball drop at Times Square in New York City has become a national New Year’s festivity. The traditional end of Christmas and holiday season.[7] This occurs around the end of Kwanzaa.
January 15–21 (Floating Monday) Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. 26%[8] Honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights leader, who was actually born on January 15, 1929; combined with other holidays in several states. Some cities and municipalities hold parades; and more recently, the 1994 King Holiday and Service Act, which was passed to encourage Americans to transform the King Holiday into a day of citizen action volunteer service, has gained in popularity (sometimes referred to as a National Day of Service).
February 15–21 (Floating Monday) Washington’s Birthday 52%[9] Washington’s Birthday was first declared a federal holiday by an 1879 act of Congress. The Uniform Holidays Act, 1968, shifted the date of the commemoration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February (between February 15 and 21, meaning the observed holiday never falls on Washington’s actual birthday). Because of this, combined with the fact that President Lincoln’s birthday falls on February 12, many people now refer to this holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and consider it a day honoring all American presidents. However, neither the Uniform Holidays Act nor any subsequent law changed the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day. [1]
May 25–31 (Floating Monday) Memorial Day 21%[10] Honors the nation’s war dead from the Civil War onwards; marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season. (traditionally May 30, shifted by the Uniform Holidays Act 1968). The holiday is observed on the last Monday in May.
July 4 (Fixed) Independence Day Celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from British rule, also called the Fourth of July. Fireworks celebrations are held in many cities throughout the nation.
September 1–7 (Floating Monday) Labor Day One 2012 survey of American adults found that 52% celebrate Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer.[11] A separate nationwide survey of human resource professionals, conducted in 2015, found that 97% of U.S. employees provided a full paid holiday on labor day, but 41% of employers require at least some employees to work on the holiday.[12] The holiday is observed on the first Monday in September.
October 8–14 (Floating Monday) Columbus Day 8%[13] Honors Christopher Columbus, an explorer of the Americas. In some areas, it is also a celebration of Indigenous Peoples, or Italian culture and heritage. (traditionally October 12)
November 11 (Fixed) Veterans Day 43%[14] Honors all veterans of the United States armed forces. It is observed on November 11 to recall the end of World War I on that date in 1918 (major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the Armistice with Germany went into effect).
November 22–28 (Floating Thursday) Thanksgiving Day 87%[15] Traditionally celebrates the giving of thanks for the autumn harvest. Traditionally includes the sharing of a turkey dinner. The holiday is observed on the fourth Thursday in November.
December 25 (Fixed) Christmas Day 90%–95%[16][17] The most widely celebrated holiday of the Christian year, Christmas is observed as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Commonly celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike with various traditions.

Of course, only federal and state employees get all those days off work and the vast majority of Americans look at Washington’s Birthday (aka President’s Day) and Columbus Day as silly annoyances. An increasing number of people have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, but unless we start actually recognizing and protecting our indigenous people naming a day for them is rather empty.

Oh, but that’s not all the holidays, mind you. If one is religiously minded, then there are other holidays to throw into the mix.  I would list them all but doing so would take up pages of space and we both know that you’d just scroll past them all. As a reference point, though, consider some of the additional secular “holidays” we throw in. Things like Valentine’s Day on February 14, St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, Ground Hog Day on February 2, Mardi Gras on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (one of those floating holidays), Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Juneteenth, Halloween, Black Friday, and Kwanzaa. Put them all together and one can almost claim to be celebrating one holiday or another every day of the year. The problem is so bad that many states have had to adopt a legal list of holidays for which school students can be given an excused absence.

A bit much, don’t you think? If we’re theoretically celebrating something all the time, then every day is a holiday and holidays mean absolutely nothing. Everything becomes watered down and meaningless because, for the vast majority of Americans, holidays are just the days that banks are closed and the mail doesn’t run—an annoyance increasingly made moot thanks to modern technology.

No one wants to take their holiday off the calendar, of course. Organizations use declared holidays to bring attention to causes such as childhood diseases, women’s rights, marriage rights, and the martyrdom of people who died defending our rights and freedoms. All of those special days have a reasonably good cause behind them, but are they really holidays if less than one percent of the population even knows they exist? Show of hands: how many of us even care what today’s official observance is? Walter probably would. For 2017, October 12 is Shmini Atzeret, a Jewish holiday celebrating the love of God. Would I have known that if I didn’t have a religious calendar open in front of me? Nope. Do I care either way? Not a big, and I’m guessing that anyone who’s not Jewish probably doesn’t give a shit, either.

And that is my whole point: with all these holidays on the calendar, the vast and anxious masses across the United States don’t give a shit about these little holidays that take up space on the calendar. Most of us look upon them as a lame attempt to bolster a rapidly failing greeting card market (unlike the president, when I call something failing I cite my sources). Given that, why have holidays at all? Why not wipe the calendar clean and leave everyone to their own personal observances without trying to make everyone else follow along?

Why Do We Celebrate Holidays?

Tradition. For all of written history, which encompasses roughly the past 6,000+ years or so, humanity has celebrated holidays for one of the following reasons:

  1. Religious mandate or commemoration
  2. Nationalistic observance of nationalism
  3. Cultural festivals related to agriculture and/or nature

One thing all three categories have in common is that they give to those celebrating a sense of identity. We know who we are, and we better understand why we are who we are, because of the holidays we celebrate and/or observe. This sense of identity is important to the establishment and preservation of a culture. What is the first thing a new country does when it breaks away from another? It establishes its date of independence as a national holiday, helping to define that national culture around which they all might identify.

Such commemorations made perfect sense for the entire portion of our history wherein our cultural identity was connected either a belief system and a geographic sense of place. Those conditions have been a foundation of human reality right up until the Internet was released upon the world in 1991. Once we had the ability to be connected beyond our physical borders, however, everything began to change. Over time, we have become enlightened to what life and culture are like in geographies and religions other than our own. Histories that were once fed to us as the one-sided opinion of the victors are now challenged as we see the same history from the perspective of those who lost. We are more aware of struggles outside our own and judge our situation by comparing our lives to those of people we don’t know. We understand more than ever exactly how government works and many want to find ways to take a more active role. Our world, our belief system, and our cultures are all morphing into something different, something new.

While this “something new” amounts to change for old farts like me, though, for Millennials, those born in 1990 or later, this isn’t change. This constantly evolving, always discovering, mythology-busting reality is their culture. They don’t see life in the same, straight-forward way that their parents do/did. Facts must be challenged and their sources questioned. Traditions must be reconsidered and their origins analyzed. History must be re-written in context of who was hurt, what was fair, and whether the end result was positive or negative for all of society, not just those directly involved. Values are different because their perspective of the world is dramatically different. What’s more important is realizing that there’s no way society ever returns to the tunnel-visioned view of the past. This new culture of exploration, inquisitiveness, and demand for fairness is here to stay.

Another argument for all these holidays is that they provide times for families to get together, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We, as a society, have a soft spot for families, Even sitcoms can make us tear up a bit when a tender family scene is invoked. Surely, we wouldn’t want to do anything that would keep families from getting together, would we?

Have you looked around the table at Christmas lately? Family isn’t quite so important to everyone and the younger adults in our families aren’t as worried about whether they’re present on a particular holiday or not. There’s a good reason for that. Those who are close to their extended families, particularly mom and/or dad, never move that far away and see their families on a regular basis through the year. So, if they miss a Thanksgiving dinner because they have a chance to visit friends in Norway that week, it’s not a big deal. They’ll see everyone when they get back. For those who aren’t close to their extended families, especially in situations where abuse was a part of their childhood, these “forced” times together are just painful. Adult children look for any excuse possible to avoid having to do holidays with the family.

This holiday-driven family time is a relatively short-lived tradition in the first place. Prior to the mid-20th century, people didn’t travel to be with family for holidays because they couldn’t. Few owned cars and there was no commercial air travel. When the holidays came around, people invited their neighbors, not family, to come over and share their food with them. There was a sense of warmth and community because they were with friends by choice, not a sense of familial obligation. Only after World War II, when children from the Midwest began fleeing for the coasts by the millions, did parents start asking children to come home for Christmas. The travel industry saw this as a way to make money and began marketing the “Home for Christmas” concept and it quickly caught hold.

Now, however, those who travel prefer to do so on their own timetable. When we visit relatives, we do so at times of the year when it fits our schedule and we can afford to do so easily. That means we’re more likely to visit Grandma in the summer when discount airlines offer large savings on tickets,  or early fall when gas prices historically dip (hence, the advent of a fall break in the school schedule). Millennials are more likely to take trips to see family almost any time other than holidays because visiting family is what they do when there’s not a better, more fun experience to be had. Family is who you visit between festivals and on your way home from that trip to Italy. Those with small children are more likely to stay home for gift-giving holidays especially because the cost of shipping presents back and forth is often more than the cost of the presents themselves. Parents can give their children a better holiday experience if Grandma and Grandpa come to them.

All the reasons we once had for indulging in holidays are rapidly making less and less sense as our culture morphs into an experience-based and away from religious and historical observances. Too many holidays now either don’t make a like of sense, such as Columbus Day or create social expectations we don’t want, such as Valentine’s Day. With the reasons for celebrating going away, now would be a good time for us to completely redefine the American holiday.

Time For A Sensible Approach

Doing away with holidays completely doesn’t make as much sense as doing away with holiday marketing. Yet, there are some similarities between leveling out sales in retail to reduce the emphasis on end-of-year selling and redefining holidays so that we’re not stuck in a litany of forced activities that don’t make sense. We can, and should, improve on the entire concept of holidays so that everyone is a lot happier. Of course, we know exactly how to make that happen.

1.Clear the calendar and start over. Make a clean break and make sure everyone knows about it. No more nonsense, partisan, political, or special-interest holidays. We can’t get a new start if we’re still hanging on to old ideas and concepts. This is going to be troubling for all us baby boomers because we’re emotionally attached to all those holidays.  We have memories, both good and bad, around each one and we are fearful of letting those go. We also don’t like giving up our traditions. Like every aging generation before us, we like what we know and abhor being asked to change.

What my peers need to realize is that this society is less ours and more that of our children. We’re dying off and in the next few years, the number of deaths is going to skyrocket at close to the same rate as our births did. I’ve seriously given some thought to getting back into the funeral home business because it’s about to get very lucrative.  The future belongs to our children and grandchildren and we need to help them make the societal and cultural transitions that work better for them. Standing in the way of change just because we’re comfortable with the status quo is selfish.

2.Establish two distinct holiday periods. Make the first full week of July and the third week of December national holidays. Close all government services and offices for that week and let everyone who can have the entire week off. Let’s get real: productivity during those two weeks are already at their lowest, so declaring those two weeks as holidays isn’t going to change anything. People take full weeks around July 4 and December 25, so let’s go ahead and give everyone those two weeks as a national minimum.

Yes, some individualized adjustments are necessary. Everyone taking off work at the same time isn’t practical, at least not yet. For the time being, we still need people running retail stores, convenience stores, and dining establishments. We are likely to see that change dramatically over the next 30 years as those industries completely morph with technology, but for now, the economy still needs those employees, so some will need to take their holidays either the week before or the week after, alternating the schedules so that everyone gets equal time off. What’s important, though, is that we all get that same holiday with no connection to religion, geography, relationship status, national heritage, or any other criteria that celebrates one person over another. Equal time to celebrate whatever you feel like celebrating.

3.Put an emphasis on personal holidays. Everyone gets their birthday as a holiday and their immediate family (spouse and children) get the day as well. That’s not going to be as big a financial hit for employers as one might think. First, Millennials are already taking their birthday as a vacation day or personal day already. The attitude toward birthdays is less centered on receiving gifts from other people and more around creating memorable experiences for oneself. We give ourselves the things that we want so that we’re not disappointed by the agenda someone else set for us. Second, Millennials are having smaller and smaller families often with only one or two children, or none at all. So, the overall number of people affected by one person’s birthday is rather limited.

From a retail perspective, this could be a water-raising concept. Instead of seasonal sales, which have proven to be increasingly less effective, give everyone a steep “Black Friday” type discount on their birthday. This spreads both the cost and the advantage of deep discounting evenly across the entire year rather than lumping it all toward the end of the year where things can, and have, skew horribly wrong. Millennials have already shown that they’re more likely to buy for themselves than other people, so play to that on the day when they’re thinking the most about themselves.   Remember, someone has a birthday every day of the year. This approach is more likely to create a steady stream of customers and avoids the costly end-of-year nightmares.

4.Leave religious observances to the religious and give everyone else equal time off. One area where the American calendar is horribly biased is in the emphasis on Christian observances over those from any other religion. Christians traditionally have little trouble arguing for days off around Christmas and Easter, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have much fmor difficulty arguing for time off on their holiest of days. And if one isn’t religious at all, then you’re screwed altogether; either one accepts time off around a religious holiday or just keeps on working. As our society grows more diverse and less religious, this biased approach to holidays makes absolutely no sense at all.

However, that’s not to say that people of faith shouldn’t be allowed to observe their religious holidays. I tend to like the stance taken by the New Jersey Board of Education which created “The List of Religious Holidays Permitting Student Absence from School. (PDF) ” The concept is a simple one: no one is prohibited from taking a day off to observe a recognized religious holiday. The list not only includes all major Christian, Jewish, and Muslim holidays, but also includes holidays for less popular religions such as Baha’i, Scientology, and Wicca. Fairness is the goal, with no one religion superceding another. What’s missing, though, is an equal allowance for those who don’t hold any religious belief at all, or at least are not part of an organized religion. For those people, who currently number about 35 % of the population, an equal amount of time off must be alotted to use at their discrestion according to their personal belief system. Give everyone the same opportunity but force no one to observe someone else’s religious holiday.

5.Create more emphasis on personal days with a push toward mental health and volunteerism. I have always been a bit jealous of the European concept of “taking a Holiday” for anything from a vacation in the Alps to a day off to attend to car repairs. Limiting holidays to observances outside our control wreeks too much of communism, where individual choice is severely limited and sameness is applauded. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me and it certainly doesn’t work for upcoming generations that are more bent than ever on doing things their own way when they want to do them. A calendar full of holidays in which they have no say nor interest doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense is encouraging people to take time for themselves and for others. Mental health remains the top drain on corporate productivity from top to bottom. We wear out, burn out, drop out, and ruin ourselves from an environment that pushes endless work. Redefining holidays to include personal time off allows us the freedom to take a break without having to do anything beyond taking care of ourselves. Breathing. Seeing to our own needs. Addressing the external issues that create stress. At the same time, we are in danger of becoming so inwardly focused that we forget there are even greater needs outside us. One of the most attractive perks companies can offer is paid time off to volunteer. Companies as diverse as Timberland and Salesforce are already doing this, offering up to 40 pain hours a year to volunteer. This means you can actually take time for the special cause beyond just copy/pasting something on Facebook. You can be that big brother/big sister or help with a non-profit’s fundraiser without taking a chunk out of your personal revenue.

Holidays Reimagined

There are a lot of options for holidays that improves upon the current over-filled calendar of days with little national meaning and that few observe. We can keep familiy and religious traditions without forcing everyone else to play along. There are eoptions that make more sense and allow holidays to be more personal, more meaningful, and more enjoyable. We don’t have to keep doing things the same way.

Abiding comes easier for everyone when we remove the obstacles of mandatory social inclusion. If holidays do not hold meaning for us, what’s the point? If I don’t believe that a ghost impregnated a virgin then why should I be expected to buy presents and wear ugly sweaters? If I like buying presents and wearing ugly sweaters then why should I have to wait until the 25th of December to do so? Abiding is finding the flow where one best fits with the universe and going with it. Religious or not, nationalistic or not, let’s redefine holidays to be those breaks we need, not what someone else thinks we should have.

This is how we create a better world for everyone.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

And now …

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redfining Holidays
Photo credit: Frost Queen by charles i. letbetter. Model: Rebekkah McGrath. Makeup: Jennifer Baxter

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