The High Holy Days of the American Experience

Happy_holidays With the emergence of Black Friday as an unofficial American holiday (holy day), I have been giving some thought to the purpose of holidays in the experience of a culture/people.  The word “holiday” comes from the concept of a “holy day,” or a day of commemoration, celebration, or observance. Every religion has its holy days and feast days that commemorate different aspects of their religion or cultural/national story. America, being a secular culture, also has no shortage of holidays to mark the year, give meaning to people’s lives, and to serve as touchstones for our shared cultural experience.  Watching the crowds of people overwhelm shopping malls and stores today causes me to the think that Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving when retailers put on massive sales to clear out inventory and put their books “in the black”) has now been added to the pantheon of American holidays.  Some of these days are purely secular and some have religious overtones, but all exist currently because they support some aspect of the American story.

The American Dream, as introduced by James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book, The American Epic, went something like this: "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement."  This opportunity was to be available to all irrespective of race, creed, gender, or class. In other words, America was to be an egalitarian society where anyone could achieve their goals of personal advancement, prosperity, safety, and security. This became the definition of freedom and was, in many ways, a good thing. Basically, the American Dream involves the hope that every person can advance, improve themselves, and live their best life possible in a nation that is established for that purpose. All of society is to align itself with the goal of helping the individual live out the American Ethos of the pursuit of personal happiness.  As the Dream has grown, it has slowly pushed out care for the other.  Consumerism and individualism have become manifestations of this pursuit, and education, family, community, and even God/religion are seen as valuable so long as they help us achieve the fulfillment of our dreams.

Because of this, I firmly believe that the American Experience is not secular at all. It is highly religious in the ways that all religions are. Regarding consumerism as a manifestation of the American Dream gone mad, Anthony B. Robinson says,

Is it too much to suggest that consumerism has become a kind of alternative faith, a religion of sorts? Religions are characterized by some vision of a good life, by their rituals and by a particular language. Consumerism seems to be developing all three apace.

Consumerism's vision of the good life is the gaining of goods and experiences. Consumerism also has its own rituals that form and promote consumer character. The acquisition of credit cards and debit cards by the young becomes some sort of rite of passage. The Friday after Thanksgiving is consumerism's high holy day, the No. 1 shopping day of the year. How much we shop during the Christmas season is an indicator of our national health. Television offers the liturgy of consumerism 24/7, and wonder of wonders, we consent to having it piped into our homes!

One might even do a compare- and-contrast between religion's historic and characteristic virtues and consumerism's virtues or qualities of character. For faith and religion, the crowning virtue is love, a capacity for other regard. For consumerism, self-regard would lead the list. No. 2 in a listing of religious virtues would be joy with the associated notion of contentment. Yet for consumerism, discontent is essential. One must be in a constant state of anxiety about keeping up, having the newest and the latest. Virtue No. 3 of the spiritual life is peace and harmony with others. But for consumerism, envy is to be preferred. (

Robinson’s point is well-taken.  If consumerism has developed as a religious impulse, I would suggest that it is just one of several religiously-oriented manifestations of the “secular” American Dream. Others would include, as previously noted, individualism, self-actualization, materialism, romantic love as self-salvation, civic duty, and political identity/power as our hope for making all of our dreams come true.  All of these aspects of American life are mythologized through the telling of our national story. That story is clearly told through the calendar and the canonization of ideals through our national holidays/holy days.

Here is a sketch of the year through the lense of the American cultural calendar. I live in the South, so some of this is reflective of my region of the country. It might vary a bit in other parts of America. What kind of story does this American liturgical calendar tell?

January 1st – New Year’s Day. The beginning of the New Year filled with hope and change. Resolutions for personal change dominate this day and the weeks following.

Martin Luther King’s Birthday – third Monday in January celebrating Civil Rights for African Americans. 3 day weekend.

Super Bowl Sunday – 1st Sunday in February.  One of the biggest gathering days of the year, as millions of Americans gather together for Super Bowl parties.

February 14th – Valentine’s Day.  Celebration of romantic love as a high virtue.  Love as self-sacrifice is often replaced with “I love you because of how you make me feel about me.”

Washington’s Birthday – third Monday in February, celebrating our Founding Fathers and presidents. 3 day weekend.

Easter Weekend – 3 day weekend in March/April.  Easter bunnies, eggs, and Easter baskets full of candy.  Of course, Jesus’ Resurrection is also celebrated on this day.

Spring Break – big travel weekend sometime in March/April. Millions of students are out of school and families often travel on some form of vacation.

April 15th – Tax Day. Render to Caesar . . .

Mother’s Day – Second Sunday in May.  Day to honor Mothers.

Memorial Day – 4th Monday in May – Celebration of those who gave their lives for America. Also marks the traditional beginning of summer, marked by cook outs and vacationing on the 3 day weekend.

Summer Vacation – end of May till beginning of September.  Beach trips, long weekends, travel, outdoor activities, and lots of lazy days and fun marks this time period. Kids are out of school, so families adhere to a different rhythm of life.

Father’s Day – Third Sunday in June.  Day to honor Fathers.

4th of July – Celebrates America’s independence from Great Britain. Also marks mid-point of summer and vacation time for many people.

Labor Day – 1st Monday in September.  Celebrates workers and their accomplishments. 3 day weekend that marks the end of summer. Last chance for a summer getaway.

Football Weekends throughout the Fall – from High School to college to pro football, millions set aside entire weekends to watch the games. Football parties are held and people travel to games, spending thousands on tickets and expenses and hours and days focusing on the sport.  Generally consists of up to 14 straight weekends.

Columbus Day – 2nd Monday in October – Celebrates Columbus’ founding of the Americas. Another 3 day weekend for people to get away.

Halloween – October 31st.  Day to celebrate dressing up, trick-or-treat, and all things ghoulish. Lots of   candy is bought and sold. One of the biggest commercial holidays of the year.

Veteran’s Day – November 11th.  Day set aside to honor those who have fought for our country.

Thanksgiving – 4th Thursday in November.  Day of giving thanks and day for families and friends to gather together. Began as a Christian holiday reflecting Pilgrims experience in America. Beginning of 4 day weekend and traditional start to Holiday season.

Black Friday – day after Thanksgiving. Day that retailers slash prices to try to get in the “black.” Also the day that consumers go mad.  The Christmas/holiday season officially begins.

Christmas Holiday Season – 6 weeks between end of November and beginning of January – marked by parties, shopping, holiday specials, travel, feasting, and celebration. Families get together and travel long distances to be home for Christmas.

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day – December 25th.  Santa Claus is coming to town. Children everywhere are filled with excitement.  $500 billion is spent by Americans on presents and festivities. Also marks the day that Jesus was born.

America celebrates holidays around civic leaders and military service, family, games, spending/making money, travel, and vacationing. We have up to 10 three day weekends  where many travel.  The summer months are full of vacationing.  The Christmas/holiday season lasts up to 6 weeks.  There is not much inherently wrong with many of these holidays and I am not saying that they should not be celebrated in some way.

But, what I am saying is that we might want to give thought to the calendar that orders our lives.  What kind of story does our cultural calendar tell?  When we are caught up in the American cultural experience and we move to its rhythms, what does that mean for people of faith?  Might there be another song that we are to dance to?  Are we supposed to be telling a different story?  Do we have anything else to offer our culture?  I think that it is time that Christians begin to ask these questions as we live as strangers in a strange land.

Perhaps the Christian liturgical calendar isn’t that bad of an idea.  More on that next week starting with Advent . . . .

3 Responses to The High Holy Days of the American Experience

  1. And many of these days marked with the Highway Patrol attempting to cut down on the number of drunken citizens killing each other.
    It’s so interesting that Consumerism is built around the individuals’ drunken enjoyment,exploitation and throwing away of the fruit of a ‘community’s’ labor. The Prodigal Son comes to mind.
    I guess there is a hope–for the Prodigal to come home–and that there is truly a celebratory style of life that can enjoy the “fatted calf”–a good provision.
    A Christian church that cannot walk out a life of vital, reconciled, celebratory community is as much good news as the Prodigal’s brother, angry at the Father, for celebrating.

  2. PJ – I fully agree that Christians should be the most celebrative people in the world. We have much to be joyful over. I am also not saying that we should not celebrate many of the holidays of our culture. I’m just thinking about which story dominates our lives – the Christian story of redemption and the in-breaking Kingdom of God or the American story?