On Celebration and Lamentation

A writer can learn a lot from people who comment on his writings. My Thanksgiving Day piece on the “Secular Puritan Covenant” elicited one reader’s opinion that we should celebrate a “Native Americans’ Day” to celebrate the contributions they made and the experiences they suffered during the settlement of North America. I initially demurred, noting that a movement was afoot to push Columbus Day off the calendar in favor of “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” My correspondent came back to say she did not want an “either/or” solution, but thought that the role the First Peoples had played in U.S. history had been sorely neglected.

Reflecting on the merits of another historical commemoration on the calendar, it struck me: as Americans, we have a problem with holidays.

We are in some ways like the children St. Matthew described (11:17), neither dancing to a happy tune nor wailing at a dirge. My Polish-born wife was on to this idea recently when she observed the dearth of Thanksgiving songs to accompany the quintessentially American feast.

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David Brooks also brushed up against a related problem in The New York Times: Americans today lack “a unifying national story.” He admits we once had one, but “if you are under 45, you were probably taught an American history that, realistically, emphasizes division.” There’s something to be said about that: while I’d love to see a “Native Americans’ Day” that celebrated their diverse contributions to the American mosaic and recognized injustices done to them, I fear that such a holiday would quickly degenerate into just another exercise in collective historical breast-beating.

We have many national holidays, but few are truly celebrated. There’s still something to be said about fireworks and parades on the Fourth of July. Various jurisdictions seem to have staunched the headlong rush into the commercialization of Thanksgiving, which tried to get overfed folks to lumber from the supper table into the nearest big box store for a jump on “Black Friday.” But other holidays—Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Washington’s Birthday (oh, sorry, generic “Presidents’ Day”) all have largely become just occasions for sales, the last two untethered from any historical date to make three day weekends. Buying is not celebrating (except for store owners).

Indeed, while commercial interests have come to dominate many civil holidays, the Catholic Church in the United States has given in to the secular ethos with its 1993 truncation of the six traditional U.S. holy days of obligation. The next illustration of that is the Feast of Mary, Mother of God, on January 1. Because January 1, 2018 falls on a Monday, the obligation in the United States to attend Mass is abrogated: my local parish has already announced it will observe its usual “Monday federal holiday” schedule, i.e., Mass at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.

If we think of this holy day as merely a “feast of precept” for which a canonical obligation to attend Mass may be in force, no sweat. If, however, we think of how January 1 fits into the larger cultural celebration pattern, the problem looms larger: should we really begin the civil new year without a religious reference just because it falls on Monday? Are we not sending a message about priorities? After all, most Americans will not give up their New Year’s Eve celebrations because January 1 falls on a Monday. And, pastorally, if people are “bringing in the New Year” at midnight, is it realistic to offer the only two Masses in your parish at 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.? Are we not really saying that the legal obligation to attend (or not attend Mass) on January 1 is paramount to the religious message of launching a new year with God and His Blessed Mother? (I grant you that the themes of January 1 as a holy day are somewhat jumbled: what used to be the Feast of the Circumcision, in close conjunction with the Holy Name of Jesus, has reverted to its older association with the Theotokos [underappreciated in a country where Marian devotion waned after Vatican II], while Paul VI also overlaid “World Day of Peace” as an optional celebration—and all of it ignores that civil new year moved from March 25 to January 1 about 250-450 years ago. That, however, requires a separate essay).

Real celebration, of course, is a spiritual experience. I say that because a lot of our modern “celebration” is ritualistic and superficial: light a few sparklers here, hide a few candy Easter eggs there. There is something really wrong when I see Christmas trees on the curb that didn’t make it through the Octave, much less Twelfth Night. (I admit we still keep the tree up until Candlemas.) In recent years, Josef Pieper’s book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, has made a comeback among Americans wiped out by workaholism and the ever-encroaching demands of modern life. But “leisure” for Pieper, like “rest” for the Judaeo-Christian “Sabbath,” is not just about sleeping in to recoup from physical exhaustion. “Rest” means a work-life balance that leaves room for the spiritual side of life, a side of life that requires time and contemplation. Only a person who sees more to life than the quotidian and mundane can truly celebrate; that’s why those people today whose hearts have an inkling after something deeper, are really settling for thin gruel when they brand themselves as just “spiritual but not religious.”

While we may have a problem with celebrations, we also have a problem with the flip side. Thanksgiving may commemorate the good Americans enjoy (even though we diplomatically avoid saying whom we thank and, increasingly, what we are thankful for). But we have no occasion to commemorate the shadier sides of our history. The parade of exhibitionist lechers in the past two months performing their apologiae pro vitae suae in lieu of real apologies for their lust tells me one thing: we lack a day of repentance.

Maybe that’s why Brooks notes history has become more divisive than unifying. American history has turned largely into an exercise in masochism and may be why social justice warriors want to erase it with the diligence of an editor of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. But maybe this phenomenon points to something vital that’s missing, whose absence strikes a chord in human life.

After all, Jews have an annual communal Day of Atonement, on which one acknowledges guilt and seeks to repent. The Pilgrims and Puritans, who brought us days of thanksgiving, also brought us regular “Days of Humiliation and Penance” to ask forgiveness for the wrongs they had done. This practice was continued by the early Presidents. Their twentieth-century successors backpedaled them into occasional “Days of Prayer” that have now attenuated into annual political “Prayer Breakfasts.” And, lest certain commentators berate me for suggesting that Protestants did something good for/in America through their “Days of Humiliation,” let me add a forgotten parallel from Catholic liturgical life, one not so much suppressed as in dormancy following the revision of the Roman Calendar: seasonal observance of Ember Days and annual observance of Rogation Days.

The “dictatorship of relativism” may make it even more difficult for Americans communally to define what is “evil” for a national “Day of Penance” than they can admit to whom they are giving thanks every fourth Thursday of November. But are we better off with the alternative: a highly-polarized media engaged in Operation “Gotcha” coupled with the offender du jour usually mouthing some maudlin platitudes that try to “check the box” but admit to nothing?

As our Lord reminded us (Mt 11:19b): it takes “wisdom” to celebrate and to lament. At least Bruegel the Elder depicted Carnival and Lent in vigorous contention. It’s not by accident that the contemporary culture’s blow-off line is “whatever….”

Editor’s note: Pictured above (left to right) is Rev. Billy Graham with President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Frank Carlson (R-Kan.), and Judge Boyd Leedom of Washington, President of the International Christian Leadership Conference, attending the February 9, 1961 National Prayer Breakfast. (Photo credit: Henry Burroughs / AP)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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