The Importance of Holidays

Yesterday was the Fourth of July, my favorite holiday. There is something so egalitarian about this holiday, one that embraces everybody, has no religious basis, is informal, and simply about the joy of getting together and celebrating. I was quite crushed when I learned that there would be no fireworks displays, given the risk of crowds during the pandemic and the rise in cases where I live. Fortunately, much to my surreptitious delight, a number of individuals took it upon themselves to launch spectacular professional-caliber firework displays, and dozens of people were able to watch from the comfort of their cars. My training as an anthropologist always leads me to reflect on the particular rituals and institutions we have as human beings. What is a holiday?

A holiday is a day unlike the others, not an ordinary day. It has a special significance, a weighted meaning. It can commemorate, signify, or mark no particular event at all, other than to remind us that we need to take the day off. Some holidays are religious in nature–think Christmas or Eid al-Fitr. Some are political, such as Cinco de Mayo or even days like July 4th (which is officially Independence Day, marking our independence from the British). There are bank holidays in Britain, summer holidays in France that extend multiple weeks, or name days days in Orthodox countries where a person’s saint after whom they were named is celebrated. A holiday might commemorate a historical event, and might be local, regional, or national.

There are special foods we associate with particular holidays. Once a year, you might make a particular dumpling, a bread, or sweet. These foods may have a significance, representing something or someone, like the sugar skulls or bones on the pan de muerto on the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.

Particular activities are associated with holidays, such as carrying a deity in a procession around the town or into the sea, throwing tomatoes, wearing costumes and begging for candy. We look forward to these things for weeks or months.

Also, think about particular decorations used for holidays. Living in the West, it is inevitable that Christmas comes to mind; not only do people decorate their houses, but also communities put up decorations as well. On the birth of Lord Krishna on Janmashtami, women in South India make little footprints from rice flour which show the baby’s arrival in the house. There is something exciting to people about particular objects and embellishments that we use and ways in which we adorn our dwellings for a holiday.

There might also be special songs, special prayers, special things to say on a holiday, special clothing, and special ways of behaving. In a sense, one might argue that the Jewish Sabbath, celebrated from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, is a sort of weekly holiday commemorate the week and take a day of rest and spiritual reflection, prayers are sung, bread is broken, and work is not to be done.

Some people refuse to celebrate holidays. They dislike them, find them pointless, think they are just like any old day. But I argue that we need special days that are not like other days, to mark the passage of time and transitions in our lives. What would life be but monotony if we did not have holidays? We need days that remind us of our humanity, of our deep-rooted need to celebrate why we are alive.