Freedom and Duty Take a Holiday

When you read this column, you might still be suffering from H.O.S. (Holiday Overload Syndrome). Not only did we recently stagger through such a strange Christmas, Chanukah, and New Year’s, but we are now firmly wedged between Martin Luther King Day and Valentine's-President’s Day. 


I think that a glance at the holidays we Americans do celebrate each year might tell us quite a lot about our values as a nation. If we eliminate religious holidays, since they exclude those not of a certain faith, and eliminate the Birthdays (Lincoln, Washington, King), since they celebrate a life rather than an ideal, we are left with twelve secular holidays. Although they seem widely varied, the holidays actually divide evenly into just two rather surprising categories.

Six of the twelve celebrate Duty: the demanding role of Soldier (Veteran’s and Memorial Day) and Worker (Labor Day), Faithful Lover (Valentine’s Day), and perhaps the most binding — Mother’s and Father’s Day. I remember as a youngster asking a teacher why there was no Children’s Day. “Because EVERY day is Children’s Day,” she sighed.

Oddly, the other six holidays celebrate the very opposite ideal from duty—Freedom: Political (July 4th), Religious (Thanksgiving), Alcoholic (St. Patrick’s Day!), Freedom from our past mistakes (New Year’s Day), Freedom from our fear of future death (Halloween, with all the comic ghosts, cadavers, and skeletons) and Freedom from taste and restraint (April Fool’s Day).

The Duty Holidays are observed quite solemnly with mealtime prayers at Thanksgiving, gravesite ceremonies on Memorial Day, familial visits and sentimental cards to our parents in May and June. The Freedom Holidays, of course, are celebrated wildly with fireworks on the Fourth; trick-or-treating on Halloween, green beer on St. Patty’s Day, noisemakers on New Year’s and practical jokes on April Fool’s.

Why would we Americans choose to celebrate such opposing ideals as Duty and Freedom? I suppose it is because we know that these particular values are at heart quite similar and complementary. On New Year’s Eve, for example, we may try to drown out thoughts of duty with champagne and noisemakers, but we also use the very next day to think up the most binding (not to mention unrealistic) resolutions for the coming twelve months. And though Memorial Day honors those who gave the ultimate commitment to our country, the gravesite speeches always focus on one subject more than any other: freedom.

And aren’t we Americans clever to parcel out just about one holiday per month to keep our celebrations spread evenly throughout the year: January’s New Year; February’s Valentine; March’s St. Patrick; April Fool’s; Mother’s and Father’s Day in May and June; July Fourth; September’s Labor Day; October’s Halloween; November’s Thanksgiving; December’s Christmas and Chanukah. The only exception is August, the one month with nary a day set aside for celebration. Why should this month be void of holiday? It must be because August has always been the traditional month for family vacation and therefore needs no one special day of rest. Personally I'd like to see a national holiday declared on August first, which is already DOGUST first, a universal birthday for shelter animals day.

But let’s distinguish vacations from holidays. Both should free us from daily routine and renew us through a change in our usual schedule. But vacations stress the FREEDOM, while holidays—in their original sense of Holy Day—should stress the DUTY OF OBSERVANCE. As Americans, we have always been conscious of the fact that Duty without Freedom  leads to Tyranny, but it is also true that Freedom without Duty can lead to Chaos.  So if we ever begin to feel over-holidayed, especially when we are impatient for the banks and post offices  to reopen after Easter or Christmas, we should remember a sad truth nicely expressed by Mark Twain:  “Pity the poor atheist;  he can never celebrate a holiday.”

All non-atheists can give a rousing “Amen!” to that.

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