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What is a Holiday?

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

It’s Friday, the last day of your long week. You look down at your watch. Five ‘o clock on-the-dot. “Finally”, you sigh internally, because you know this isn’t just any weekend in front of you. On Monday, when you usually return with your life’s supply of coffee and puffy eyes to your neat little desk, you are instead going to skip the drowsy Starbucks run for a relaxing day with family and friends. This Monday is Memorial Day, and you are going to make the most of your three-day holiday weekend. Do you spend your “down day” resting up to recharge yourself for a more efficient work week? Do you drain every ounce of your energy putting on the best party on the block? Now that you think of it, why are you celebrating this holiday in the first place? These and similar questions were answered at the Acies Discussion event, “What is a holiday? The Catholic Spirit vs. the Spirit of the World.”

Friends and members of Acies found themselves on December 15th, 2018 at fellow member Mike McCarthy’s house for the festive holiday topic discussion. Before delving into the details, the company chatted together, food and drinks in hand. Robert Kirby, the President of Acies, bade all proceed to their seats, and the discussion commenced at approximately 7:15 pm with a simple question: “What is a holiday?”

As with just about every word in the English language, the etymology gives a clue to it’s meaning - “holiday”, Robert explained, is “holy day” or, what was once understood by the Medievals to mean a sort of “festival”. So a holiday is a day reserved for being holy? What about barbeques, partying it up, or what if I just want to binge Netflix in my favorite pajamas so I can then go back to work and crunch the numbers in my top-performing workaholic self when my holiday is over ? Slow down, friend. We need to make some distinctions here.

Firstly, there are secular holidays and there are religious holidays, namely Holy Days of Obligation. At this point, Kirby pulled a quote from Josef Pieper, the Catholic German Philosopher and author of “Leisure: the Basis of Culture”: “The soul of leisure, it can be said, lies in ‘celebration’... but if celebration is the core of leisure, then leisure can only be made possible and justifiable on the same basis as the celebration of a festival. That basis is divine worship.” Now that is chalk full of cognitive meat, so here’s a bit of a breakdown. We know that when we speak of holidays, it goes without saying that we celebrate something on that specific day whether it be secular or religious. To use Pieper’s phrase, “the celebration of a festival” is “on the same basis” as leisure.

So true leisure is going to lead us in the right direction of celebrating holidays properly. Leisure, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, is “Time free from work or duties.” So basically we get to be couch potatoes to enjoy leisure? Not quite. Pieper says this: “To rest from work means that time is reserved for divine worship.” Even God rested on the seventh day. As creatures we owe everything to our Creator, especially our best, our highest gifts and faculties.

Taking a look at the nature of man, his highest faculty is his intellect, which is ordered to contemplation of the divine, that is, the contemplation of God Himself. We know that God gave us Himself in the Sacrifice of the Mass towards this end of worshipping Him. We sacrifice also in order to render Him thanksgiving. Delving into the etymology again, “sacrifice” is literally “to make sacred.” So this notion of “making sacred” must comply with the divine worship aspect of true leisure. Our down time should, therefore, partake in that which is in some way sacred.

“Is it possible to have the notion of holiday without sacrifice?” Kirby asked the attendees. In short, no. Our material activities are subordinated to an end, and so the activities of true leisure on a holiday should be directed to the end, again, of divine worship. Take any secular holiday and try to figure out what the purpose (or end) of that holiday is, Labor Day for example. The purpose of this American holiday denotes a recharging of one’s energies for the sake of working better later and not worshipping God now. If you don’t believe me, just look at the name of the holiday again. Or, better yet, do some research and find that the holiday was originally established by Russian Socialists to glorify the laborer as laborer, implying the glorification of work for its own sake . What is sacred about resting up just to be a better workhorse?

“Workhorse?” you inquire, because you know quite a handful of people - mothers, fathers, volunteers - who really do spend their energies making holidays what we all know them to be: complete with a feast, decorations, and all of the other details they have been busily attending to throughout the day. But remember, to make sacred is equivalent to sacrifice - so all of those long hours spent on heightening the beauty of the holiday, keeping in mind that all of this work is for the end of divine worship, does not in any way inhibit the “holy” in “holiday”, but rather makes that day holier.

All of this being said, should we, as Catholics, celebrate secular holidays? Ask yourself the questions; “Why am I celebrating this holiday? Am I keeping in line with what true, sacred leisure entails?” Keeping Christ in Christmas should imply putting Christ back in other holidays as well; patriotism back in Memorial Day. Gratitude for all of our Creator’s gifts back in Thanksgiving Day. Feasting. Praying. Then working so that we can go feasting and praying again.

The discussion concluded with some practical suggestions and thoughts for keeping holidays really holy days; be aware of the liturgical calendar, make fast days fast days and feast days feast days, attend the Divine Office, be attentive to patron saints’ feast days, Confirmation and Baptismal Anniversaries, seek the leisure of quality time with family, steering away from anything which would prove a distraction to the holiday.

The discussion then drew to a leisurely close and the attendees were free to mingle, pour more drinks, and continue to share insights around a bonfire under a crisp blanket of stars. You might even say the gathering was like a little holiday in itself.

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