"A perpetual Holiday," George Bernard Shaw said, "is a good working definition of hell." This year the perennial ruckus over little girls' slutty Halloween costumes was still going strong even as the perennial ruckus over the War on Christmas began. It's as though we've supersized our holidays, so that they start sooner, last longer and cost more, until the calendar pages pull and tear, and we don't know which one we are meant to be celebrating.
Seasons once had a rhythm to them, tuned to the harvest or the hunt, with rituals spaced through the year to bring the rain, praise the sun, mark the time between solstice and equinox, celebrate birth and honor death. Our holidays answer our needs to feast and mourn and manage risk, our customs customized to the point that the Roman pagans had a holiday specifically designed to prevent a certain kind of mold from destroying the wheat by offering animal sacrifices to the god of mildew. We remember those we love on Valentine's Day, those we revere on Easter or Passover or Ramadan, those we fear on Halloween. Thanksgiving was a celebration of harvest, the stuffing of oneself a natural response to all the work that once went into managing one's crops and now goes into managing one's relatives. Just as meals and sleep and work and recess pace the days, so do holidays pace the year. Clump them together, and they lose their fizz and juice, the useful little monthly boosts turned into a pileup of duties and lists. When every day is a holiday--or more precisely, part of the holiday season--none really are.
It's true that our forebears could never agree when the cycle should begin. The ancient Egyptians celebrated the new year as the Nile rose at the end of August. The Incans picked the year's shortest day (June 21 in the southern hemisphere), while Chinese New Year usually falls on the day of the second new moon after the winter solstice. It was Pope Gregory in 1582 who finally settled on Jan. 1 for Europeans. But wherever it lands, it serves its purpose: the past falling away, its demons chased out by bells and whistles and drums, a new year born with no mistakes in it yet, just resolutions.
Since winter can be long and dreary, when days are short and the sunlight thin, we rely on the revelry of carnival and Mardi Gras to carry us over until spring and rebirth. Then come the patriotic plumes, of Memorial Day and Flag Day and July 4 (not to mention Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day and Samoan Independence Day) before a long spell when the holidays themselves go on holiday. August is the rare month with no shared celebration in it, when we gasp along for weeks on end without collective permission to overspend, overeat and overindulge.
Given that hardship, retailers seize the opportunity. Now it's not only school that starts the day after Labor Day; so does Halloween. Target and Wal-Mart had their spooky gear out by the following weekend. Monthly magazines do Halloween in the September issue, so Christmas can hit in October. This year the weather even conspired to confuse and collapse the calendar--outdoor pools open in Washington in January, leaves defiantly green and aloft in the Northeast through October, when they're supposed to lie curled and dead and sweet-smelling beneath the feet of the little witches and ghouls. Maybe Christian radio stations were playing Christmas carols on Halloween just to counterprogram the pagan holiday.
To 17th century Puritans, of course, Christmas was largely a pagan holiday too, so they fined workers who took a single Yuletide day off. Now the Christmas season and the baseball season nearly overlap, as retailers count on Santa for as much as half their annual sales. If that's not bad enough, the political season has spun forward as well; Iowans plan to caucus on Jan. 3, with confetti still underfoot.
Celebrating these occasions serially is hard enough; handling them simultaneously makes you dizzy. Red-letter days are our measuring sticks, the fixed points from one year to the next by which we can tell how much we've changed. They let us gauge the function or dysfunction of the clan, see how our hopes ferment, our kids grow and ripen. Little sister wears big sister's Easter dress from two years ago, and you suspect she's going to end up taller. The cub scouts in the annual Memorial Day parade are eagles now. So in the spirit of holiday acceleration, let's make some early New Year's resolutions: no costume purchases in September, no holly before Halloween. Ignore the campaign as long as possible: its season will come in due course. Let's not rush but savor the holidays one by one and preserve their power, their flavor--and our sanity.