We’ve got our holidays. It’s time to parrrr-taaaaay!
. . . maybe. Depending on who we are, and what the occasion is.
At the extreme non-celebration end of the spectrum, many of those awareness days I mentioned before basically aren’t holidays at all, in the sense that we don’t actually celebrate them. Maybe you said “arrrr” a few times on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, but the United States’ National Cat Day on October 29th probably didn’t get so much as a tweet from you. And several holidays in the U.S. basically amount to a hook for stores to hang a sale on, plus maybe a day off depending on what your job is. At the opposite end, you have major festivals that turn regular life upside down for days on end.
That change to regular life is key, I think. For something to count as “celebration,” it has include some element that’s out of the ordinary. Not massively so — it’s still a holiday even if everybody isn’t dressed up and dancing in the streets — but some kind of step away from the routine.
Such a step can go in either direction. Not all holidays are celebratory in the sense of being fun; some of them are somber and ascetic instead. Fasting is one of the most common ways to express this kind of observance, showing up around the world in holidays like Ramadan (Islam), Yom Kippur (Judaism), Lent (various Christian denominations), Maha Shivaratri (Hinduism), and so forth. Other forms of self-denial are possible, too, such as giving up ordinary pleasures like music, extinguishing all fires, conducting a night-long vigil, or wearing simple clothing. You’ll often find this paired with activities like prayer or the study of scripture, so that thoughts aren’t merely turned away from the ordinary world, but toward the divine.
That kind of observance most commonly happens in the context of religious celebration, rather than secular. But if you flip it around to the fun side, you’ll see that many of the same parts of life get affected.
Food is a huge part of how we celebrate — not surprising, when you consider how many of our holidays are linked to the agricultural calendar! Not to mention the role meals play in social bonding. We don’t just gather together as families or communities to share a feast; we also develop traditions of making and/or eating particular things at particular times. These may bear important symbolism (the bitter herbs of a Passover Seder), historical significance (turkey and similar New World foods at Thanksgiving), or superstitions (black-eyed peas in the southern U.S. for prosperity in the new year). Sometimes these associations are loose enough to permit eating those foods at other times of year . . . but something deep in my soul rebels at the thought of having a treat like krumkake outside of the Christmas season. There’s no practical reason not to do it, but psychologically, it just feels wrong.
Decorations can also be a big deal, and the inverse of doing things like putting out all fires. Lots of winter holidays focus on the idea of light, whereas in the summertime that’s mostly confined to spectacles like fireworks. We make wreaths and garlands of evergreens or flowers, depending on the season, or drape buildings and vehicles in bunting. For Diwali, it’s common to decorate the floor with rangolis, designs executed in materials like colored sand or flower petals. National holidays usually feature the flag quite prominently. And we decorate ourselves, too! This may consist only of putting on your “holiday best,” especially if you don’t have a lot of money to spare, but wearing particular colors or special articles of clothing is another way to mark the occasion.
Some holidays also involve special performances. Christmas is notorious for bringing with it an air-saturating quantity of holiday music, but in other cultures there might be occasion-specific songs for the New Year or another holiday. Depending on how your society feels about theatre, there might be plays re-enacting the story behind the holiday — good for teaching children these tales — or perhaps ritual performances by the whole community. May Day has its distinctive maypole dance (sometimes also seen at Midsummer). Even games can be part of the celebration.
Other things fall under the header of “superstition” (not meant in a pejorative sense) or just plain old “tradition.” In the Japanese Setsubun holiday, you’re supposed to throw roasted soybeans at a shrine or temple, out your front door, or at a family member in a demon mask, shouting “Demons out! Fortune in!” to drive away bad luck; during Obon, the holiday honoring ancestors, you go to the cemetery to clean up family graves. Such things are often highly specific to the event in question: you don’t see costumed people going door-to-door in search of candy on Easter, nor hunting for dyed eggs on Halloween. And while Christmas is an occasion for gift-giving, the Fourth of July, not so much.
Finally, sometimes getting away from normal life is a very literal and physical process. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed this for 2020, a lot of holidays are used as an occasion for family gatherings, and in our mobile modern society, that may mean traveling to another town, region, or even country. Some events, like the Muslim Hajj, draw people to a specific location, while others just scatter them to vacation spots like the beach or some ski-worthy mountains. And I’ll note that while we think of “days off work” as a modern invention, that’s far from true: festival days in medieval Europe frequently added up to more days off per year than a twenty-first employee can expect. (Though then as now, there are tasks of daily life that can’t be tossed aside, even if it’s supposed to be a day of contemplation or pleasure.)
In the end, it all comes down to that notion of doing something out of the ordinary — something that makes that day different from all other days, to borrow a phrasing from the Passover Seder. And we need those breaks from the routine, whether they’re a party or a fast, to shake up the tedium of our daily lives.