It is important to belong. You often belong to others. Sometimes you’re forced, for a moment or two, to belong only to yourself. We appreciate the self-defending, but that’s usually a private affair. Public belonging is an important part of the rituals of society. There’s nothing worse than being invited to a party, or a celebration, that ends up not including you. Jews are left out of Christmas. Christians are left out of Chanukah. Formal national and religious celebrations are both inclusionary and exclusionary — all by dreary design. The list of official holidays in the USA is getting to the point of unfortunate ridiculousness, rendering all events meaningless in the mess.
What about the “holidays” that really aren’t a celebration of us, but only a celebration for a certain strata of people? Those invented holidays often press some of us into performance by default, not by design?
For example, Valentine’s Day was never really above love or real passion. Here’s the history of that day from way back in 300 A.D.:
From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.
The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.
The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.
What do we make of Mother’s Day? That performance was invented in 1907, and then later recanted by its inventor as a crass commercialization of what was initially meant to be something personal, but public:
Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, whose mother had organized women’s groups to promote friendship and health, originated Mother’s Day. On May 12, 1907, she held a memorial service at her late mother’s church in Grafton, West Virginia. Within five years virtually every state was observing the day, and in 1914 U.S. Pres. Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday. Although Jarvis had promoted the wearing of a white carnation as a tribute to one’s mother, the custom developed of wearing a red or pink carnation to represent a living mother or a white carnation for a mother who was deceased. Over time the day was expanded to include others, such as grandmothers and aunts, who played mothering roles. What had originally been primarily a day of honour became associated with the sending of cards and the giving of gifts, however, and, in protest against its commercialization, Jarvis spent the last years of her life trying to abolish the holiday she had brought into being.
If we’re going to gang up on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s day, well what about Father’s Day? It turns out that day was just invented as a pale imitation of Mother’s Day — intended to sell the crass commercialism of fatherhood to a public who, initially, held no interest in the false celebration.
Father’s Day was founded in Spokane, Washington at the YMCA in 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd, who was born in Arkansas. Its first celebration was in the Spokane YMCA on June 19, 1910. Her father, the Civil War veteran William Jackson Smart, was a single parent who raised his six children there. After hearing a sermon about Anna Jarvis’ Mother’s Day at Central Methodist Episcopal Church in 1909, she told her pastor that fathers should have a similar holiday honoring them. Although she initially suggested June 5, her father’s birthday, the pastors of the Spokane Ministerial Alliance did not have enough time to prepare their sermons, and the celebration was deferred to the third Sunday of June.
It did not have much success initially. In the 1920s, Dodd stopped promoting the celebration because she was studying in the Art Institute of Chicago, and it faded into relative obscurity, even in Spokane. In the 1930s Dodd returned to Spokane and started promoting the celebration again, raising awareness at a national level. She had the help of those trade groups that would benefit most from the holiday, for example the manufacturers of ties, tobacco pipes, and any traditional present to fathers. Since 1938 she had the help of the Father’s Day Council, founded by the New York Associated Men’s Wear Retailers to consolidate and systematize the commercial promotion. Americans resisted the holiday during a few decades, perceiving it as just an attempt by merchants to replicate the commercial success of Mother’s Day, and newspapers frequently featured cynical and sarcastic attacks and jokes. But the trade groups did not give up: they kept promoting it and even incorporated the jokes into their adverts, and they eventually succeeded.
Here’s the trouble with those three holidays — they are exclusionary — not everyone wants to celebrate their love, their mother, or their father, but collectively, we are all forced to do so in order to be a neutral part of society. We play along to get along.
Nationalistic, and religious, celebrations are certainly better for a feeling of one and of being the same. You come together as a unit, make your commitments known, and public, and then you solemnly continue on to live your illustrious life.
However, with personal holidays — that some may not be able to celebrate because of loss, or longing or disinterest — there is a natural predilection to just pretend to belong, or to smile behind the dismay; and no forced celebration can ever become a holiday for those who share no common touchstone.
To find our way out of the performance to reveal the compassion, we need to, as a society, accept and understand that not everyone shares the reality of a celebration in quite the same way — and we need to be okay with that sad fact in our performative perspective.