'Tis Always Some Season

By Stephen Prothero
Sunday, December 23, 2007

The holiday season is once again upon us. But are holidays ever really out of season?

Wiccans like to say that every day is a holiday. By that they mean that there is no real distinction between Christmas and the days before it and after it. Each day the sun rises and sets; each day is a surprise in waiting. When I say that every day is a holiday, I mean that every day, literally, is a holiday.

Every Christmas my brother gives me a calendar that includes all sorts of wacky holidays. According to his 2007 calendar, today is Roots Day (as in celebrate your ethnic heritage) and tomorrow is Egg Nog Day (as in dairy plus sugar plus lots of alcohol). Cartoonists Against Crime Day (Oct. 25) has already passed, as has Admit You're Happy Day (Aug. 8) and Quirky Country Music Song Titles Day (March 27).

Each day on the calendar commemorates some sort of food, from caviar to cheeseballs to Creamsicles. And don't get me started on the holy days, which are as endless as divinity itself.

I have been kvetching for some time about Americans' religious illiteracy -- how their faith outstrips their religious knowledge. But when it comes to holy days, it is almost impossible to keep up. Keeping track of the dates held sacred by Jews and Christians is hard enough, especially if your taste in festivals runs to the saints. But bring other religions into the mix, and soon you are trying to remember Buddha's birthday and the Diwali festival of the Hindus and the Eid holiday of the Muslims and the martyrdom of the Sikh guru Arjan Dev.

A few years ago, I received a letter from a group of Boston-area chaplains accompanied by an interfaith calendar. The letter urged professors to be broad-minded enough to excuse students from class for religious reasons, and the calendar indicated precisely when such broad-mindedness might be called for. Because I have a lot of students who are observant Jews, I found the list of Jewish holy days helpful, albeit imprecise. (Is Purim the sort of festival that precludes work and study?) But my overall response to the list was laughter, because the blank days on the calendar were few and far between.

Should I dismiss my Swedish students for Santa Lucia Day? My Mexican students for Cinco de Mayo? I was glad to learn that members of the American Humanist Association celebrate the birthday of the great British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell. I could not help wondering, however, whether a single atheist has ever asked for permission to skip, say, Philosophy 101 on Bertrand Russell Day (May 18). And WWBD (What Would Bertrand Do?) if one did?

Although holidays (and holy days) like to pretend that they're as old as creation, they're all made up. I'm not sure who was behind National Raisin Bran Cereal Day (Nov. 15), but it's not hard to suspect that Kellogg's had something to do with it. A widespread urban legend credits the Hallmark company with inventing Mother's Day. Not true. But mothers had been around for a while before President Woodrow Wilson gave them a national holiday in 1914. The same goes for Jesus, whose followers haggled for centuries over his true birth date before fixing (fairly randomly) on Dec. 25.

People like me who study religion for a living are fond of making the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Churches, synagogues, mosques and other sacred spaces are set apart from more quotidian ones. That's what makes us lower our voices to a whisper or cover our shoulders as we cross the threshold from the street to the sanctuary. And so it goes with holy days, which are set apart from more quotidian times. Or are they? One hallmark of contemporary America is our tendency to mix promiscuously the sacred and the profane, piety and politics, faith and economics, religion and entertainment. So it should not be surprising that here there is only the finest of lines between a holy day and a holiday.

In fact, the only surefire strategy for earning a constitutional seal of approval for the Nativity display at your local City Hall is to be certain that it has, as the Supreme Court requires, a secular purpose. Only if the sacred (Mary and Jesus and menorahs) is mixed with the secular (reindeers and Santa Claus and snowmen), and only if the purpose is, say, spreading good will (as opposed to, say, preaching the gospel of Christ) will these displays pass constitutional muster.

I know that the "Happy Holidays" greeting is under attack for being insufficiently specific. If you mean "Merry Christmas," just say it, Bill O'Reilly and his friends on the religious right tell us. But I'm starting to see the virtues of the generic salutation here. Who, after all, can keep track of all this merrymaking?

Wiccans celebrated the winter solstice yesterday. And today is, as "Seinfeld" aficionados will remember, Festivus, the secular holiday that spoofs the Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa triumvirate with such symbols as an unadorned aluminum pole (in lieu of a Christmas tree) and such practices as the "Airing of Grievances" over all the evils that friends and family have visited upon you in the preceding year.

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