Zany Holidays Are as Old as God
Did you know we have a National Cheese Day in America? I saw something about it this week on my Facebook feed, so it must be true. But I looked it up anyway and it turns out we have not one but two holidays dedicated to strategically rotted milk. National Cheese Lovers Day is January 20th, whereas National Cheese Day is June 4th at least according to this site which claims to list every odd niche quasi-official holiday in America.
But let’s not dwell on these two holidays pivoting around Wisconsin’s point of asinine pride. Let’s instead discuss America’s sudden Information Age obsession with forgotten and uncelebrated holidays. Which I’m sure you’ve seen, your friends’ goofy memes about National Cat Day and such spattered across social media every week or so.
Now, we could look at this as a reaction to America’s current labor climate. After all, the wage gap is growing, the middle class is becoming the working poor, the weekend and the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week are all in jeopardy, wages are stagnant, vacations are a wealthy elite phenomenon again, so on and so forth. You watch the news; you’ve heard this song and dance. And it’s so depressing and I just don’t want to get into it.
Instead, let’s have a history lesson. Nearly 400 years ago, an English jihadist and scourge of the Irish named Oliver Cromwell came to power and established what was essentially a theological dictatorship for about a decade in England. Cromwell was a Puritan — remember this — and thus absolutely loathed everything about Catholicism. As well as anything that even halfway looked like Catholicism.
Now, the Church of England had been established for nearly a century by the time Cromwell came along. To him and his ilk, the only difference between Catholicism and Anglicanism was that the head of the Anglican Church was the King of England, and in a way he’s not very wrong. So he throws all of that out and makes all of it illegal.
One effect this had was to put a damper on saints’ days. Anglicanism still recognized a great number of Catholic saints and Cromwell just could not stand that. See, Puritanism owes a whole lot of a Swiss man named John Calvin, who believed among many other things that good work and self-occupation were how you proved you were saved by Christ. Saints’ days, meanwhile, were like a precursor to the modern bank holiday. People of all social classes simply did not work on those days, which to someone like Cromwell was just unforgivable, idleness being the straight shot to Hell in the Puritan mindset. So Cromwell and Co. rid the English lands of saints’ days, and the world still reels.
But folk had been living in America for about 30 years before Cromwell rose. Hell, the Pilgrims had been here for over a decade. The catch is that the Pilgrims were close cousins to Cromwell’s Puritans - the big difference being what to do about the English Church, which the Pilgrims figured could just be ignored. But you probably knew that. Long and overgeneralized story short, if we restrict ourselves to the realm of principles, America was founded in large part by people who did not believe in holidays, except for really huge pan-Christian ones like Easter and Christmas.
This means that the concept did not enter into the American work ethos, which goes a long way to explaining why the Establishment was so resistant to a lot of the changes demanded by labor rights activists in the late-nineteenth century. The concept of a day off was not just unheard of in the practical sense of how most people used to work with their hands and barely survive. No, the very idea of leisure and free time had been ingrained in the American psyche as something shameful. Only the rich elite and/or sinful poor indulged in it. Never mind that it was one of the few end goals - not to mention an openly celebrated goal - of the middle class and those who would aspire to it. The point is that idleness is anathema to capitalism, which finds its seeds in Puritan doctrine.
The rub is that, if we leave principles behind and talk demographics, the vast majority of early American settlers were not Puritans. Now a lot of them — northern Germans, Dutchmen, Englishmen — also did not give two flying shits about saints’ days, coming as they did from non-Catholic lands. But some — Irishmen, Frenchmen, Scots — professed Catholic or near-Catholic faiths, and thus clung to the idea that certain random days on the calendar were sacred and set aside for making lazy.
Fast forward to today, and you have this not-quite-living memory of random holidays dedicated to minor religious figures, kept alive in no small part by late-nineteenth-century immigrants who came from the more Catholic parts of Europe such as Ireland, Italy, and Poland. We have secularized this into not only weird niche national holidays, but also the small celebrations and such observed by some Americans — as well as people abroad — who are devotees of certain dead famous people. Towel Day comes to mind here, though Douglas Adams was British, so I guess that doesn’t quite fit the bill. Maybe when Eastwood finally goes someone will make a holiday out of it. Gunslinger Day or something.
Either way, people will always demand holidays and celebrations, and in this specific case, the old ways are reasserting themselves. So remember your ancestors next time you celebrate National Cake Day or National Talk Like a Pirate Day. You’re becoming more like them with each passing “fake” holiday.
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