The February 5, 2023
My criterion for a proper holiday is that it marks a change in our thinking. On
a certain day in living memory, something happened, and ever afterward the world
was changed. Given a generation or so, we still remember the event, and we
generally agree that it had an extraordinary and happy effect, so we make the
political effort to establish the date for formal recognition. February 12 and
July 4 and November 11 fit the definition nicely. Other holidays are a bit
abstract, May 31, September 1, November 24, for example, days that slide around
and commemorate something almost too big to consider, but for which we are
immensely grateful. But Juneteenth works, as a definite date of a specific
event that marked an actual societal sea change.
Good thing. Juneteenth stands out as a healthy, newly-minted holiday in an era
when we're inclined to observe September 11 and January 6, along with dates of
massacres or disasters. These are 'negative holidays', or anti-holidays, with
elaborate observances and the kind of retelling we used to reserve for days that
gave us pleasure, pride, and hope. Of course, we do mark the calendar on
December 7, but other than a moment of bowed heads, we don't dwell on the event.
We need to do the same with 9/11.
What to make of 'religious' holidays, Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana, Diwalli,
Ramadan, Chinese New Year? January 1? These are really old holidays, so far
out of living memory that only magical thinking can ascribe them to actual
events. For the most part, they correspond to the movement of seasons in the
northern hemisphere. Many of them coincide roughly with one another, give or
take some days or weeks, and they're coordinated with celestial observations.
If the sun went away and didn't come back, we would be in trouble. Every year
for thousands of chilly winters, our ancestors watched it go away. No doubt it
was important to them to know that it would come back, so the wise fellow
observant enough to say 'it's gone as far as it will go' would have been very
reassuring. After watching some cycles, he could confidently say, now the sun
will start to go away, and in this many days it will start to come back. Janus
faces first this way, then that way. January.
So with the time for planting, and harvesting. Don't want to screw those up.
The folks with the best almanac had the best yield, which makes for very sturdy
holidays. The key is coordination of what I do with events that affect me,
events I can't control.
So it is with our messy-but-generally-accepted calendar. Historically, it's
an arrogant instrument of Western imperialism, imposed by the greatest dictator
who ever lived, tweaked by a corrupt and murderous regime a millenium and a half
later, and forced on humanity by a rapacious cabal of autocrats. The Gregorian
calendar, gift of Julius Caesar, for all its flaws, has to be the most important
intellectual achievement since the alphabet. It is the ultimate example of
qwerty-ness, in that there have been many competing proposals, but none that
got any traction. It's good enough, and it's inertia is monstrous.
Even allowing the possibility of collapse of the 'international world order'
that sustains it, whatever order should come after is unlikely to muster the
political and technological will to invent a replacement for the calendar. But
there will be new holidays.
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