Monday, February 21, 2011


In the 1942 film classic Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby buys a farmhouse, intending to retire, but soon turns it into an Inn (complete with lavish entertainment) that’s open only on holidays. That was when holidays were still something special.

When I was growing up, the term “spring break” was foreign to us. (If we heard it at all, it was in the annual news coverage of misbehaving college students in Florida – nothing that had anything to do directly with us). Of course, we had our “Easter Vacation,” a substatial "break" beginning at mid-day on the Wednesday of Holy Week and continuing through all of Easter Week. But in addition to our “Easter Vacation,” we also had a whole bunch of holidays.

The “spring term,” which began officially on or near February 1 (thus inadvertently replicating ancient Celtic seasonal consciousness), included several such holidays. February gave us Lincoln’s (February 12) and Washington’s (February 22) Birthdays. March 17 was St. Patrick’s Day – not a legal holiday, of course, but a holiday for Catholic school children in New York, whose “rightly constituted principal patron” St. Patrick is. May brought another religious holiday - Ascension Thursday - and a big legal holiday, Memorial Day, which we typically observed (as the holiday was originally intended to be observed) by visiting the cemetery.

Whatever still lingered of the properly civic meaning of those legal holidays was eviscerated in 1971, when the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 went into effect. This law moved four federal legal holidays (Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day) from their proper dates to designated Mondays – in order to create four fixed 3-day weekends for federal employees (and by extension others as well). Veterans Day was soon moved back to its traditional date (November 11), but none of the other holidays has had a comparable constituency sufficiently concerned about its essential civic meaning to get its traditional date restored.

In a sense, none of this matters much anymore. Along with the loss of the civic significance of days like Washington’s Birthday, has come the loss of any real sense of “holiday” at all. More and more people have to work on the holiday. Schools and even banks are now open in some jurisdictions. Even the parish office is open today!

Of course, it also used to be the case that there was a weekly holiday called Sunday, to which these occasional extra holidays were wonderful additions. When Constantine the Great declared Sunday a legal holiday in the Roman Empire in A.D. 321, he did a true service to humanity (not quite, but almost, as significant as his legalization of Christianity). It is obviously no accident that with the decline of public Christianity in the West has come the decline of Sunday as a real holiday when people don’t do ordinary activities and instead worship God and enjoy life. Sunday may still appear printed in red on our calendars, a vestigial relic of our once Christian culture. Likewise, Washington’s Birthday may also still appear in red, a relic of our once vibrant civic culture. With Sunday the ur-holiday now diminished almost beyond recognition, is it any wonder Washington’s Birthday now seems so insignificant – both diminished along with the world which produced them?

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