The United States of America is far from the same nation that its founders imagined. We can presently look past the terrible treatment of women and African-Americans, Native-Americans (who were treated worse than anyone), and whichever fringe group that the times excused oppressing (notably the poor). None of these horrors are specifically an American thing. The whole idea of America was as a paradise of growing freedom and justice. But human nature, as it always will, gets in the way of the ideal.
We can tell a great many things about a nation and its people by looking at its priorities. I am not talking about money and power, or whichever transformative notions on success each generation devises for itself (remember when it was being a movie star or a top pro-athlete? Those dreams still exist for some, but only those willing to work hard enough, and with the talent to make something of themselves–or at least the proper connections). The young today do not so much see themselves as President or MVP. They believe they will be YouTube stars, playing pranks, performing dangerous challenges, or showing off how much time they spend playing games. It is an empty culture. Ambition has devolved into aimless perversity.
American holidays, what we believe is important, tells us a great deal about what matters to us. We are no longer a religious nation in the traditional sense (for which, mostly, am I thrilled, reviling organized faith). Our beliefs are manifest, divided between the worship of partisanship in politics and sports, the deification of certain members of our families (definitely not all), favorite sports teams, notably an odd dedication even fifty years late to the school of our youth, favorite movies and songs and other popular entertainments, alongside our waning churches, synagogues and mosques. I would like to offer a list of what I perceive to be the top five American holidays, in reverse order:
5. Fourth of July: Formerly a very significant day, similar to Christmas in its celebration of the birth of an icon, the 4th has fallen, only clinging on as a day of get-togethers and barbecue, often peppered with political disputes, and a discussion of just how much the world has declined. People get drunk, but do not usually talk about the history of the United States. In this cynical age it is far easily to tear something or somebody down, mocking failure. Then we go see and set off fireworks, which always, somewhere, leads to a child blowing off some fingers, and some drunk fool burning down a neighbor’s house. The 4th of July is no longer a celebration of the birth of America. It is a reason to show off how little we care for the very idea of what that word once meant.
4. Mother’s Day/Thanksgiving: I list these two together for the simple reason that they usually include the same crowd. There are of course differences–one is about going to some dainty brunch, and giving Mom presents of chocolate and flowers and gift cards, while the other is a bountiful feast and football celebration, where the crudest and most violent disagreements often crop up, leaving people offended and resenting different factions of their family. But both of these holidays take on a certain priority within the family, one that is percolated by eye-rolling regret on the way to meet the people you don’t really wish to see that you will have to endure for several hours. There is a lot more drinking on Thanksgiving, it being in the home, usually (I went out for Chinese more than once after moving out of my parents house, and before I met my wife. Then I went to the movies. It was a great day.) On Mother’s Day, we hard liquor and beer drinkers have the opportunity to get a little tipsy on wine, and this frequently makes the outing very pleasant, at least overcoming the silent moments of awkwardness that increase before the first person opens the door by declaring that they need to get home. Everyone is usually on their best behavior, and most people feel badly about themselves for being such lax children. Mom probably suffers the worst, usually aware of how little anyone really cares about her as they continue to grow older. And while Thanksgiving is often a large gathering, one of the few times people see distant relatives, it usually gets too hot, stuffy, and all that food–shoved onto you in plastic containers as you make your way home, makes you sick, even if the spread is wonderful. We leave in a foul mood, and if you happen to be the cook (like my mother for years and years, I have now graduated to the exotic chef, really making this the only day I try hard to make a lovely feast), you are exhausted at the end, having been cooking, with occasional breaks, since at least the night before, if not longer. Important to Americans? Yes. Satisfying and celebratory? Hardly.
3. Super Sunday: Perhaps the most secular of our holidays, there is no doubt that the Superbowl is an American celebration. The most watched television program year after year (the Academy Awards used to also be a holiday in America, but has waned, especially in such a partisan political age where the ideology of performers outweighs the importance of their art), the Super Bowl gives even non-fans of the sport something to talk about. There’s the commercials. There are the half-time shows, and the inevitable controversies either within the game, or based upon something regrettable someone did or said. The Superbowl is bigger than Thanksgiving because it often sees the same crowd (or the same number of people, all your friends gathering around to get drunk and scream at the TV). There is a feast, although far less classy than on any other holiday. The foods that are made are generally appetizers–dips, puffs, pastries, meats–but usually we just buy a bunch of unhealthy shit–chips, hot wings, pizza, snacks–and this is perhaps the heaviest drinking holiday of the year. Plenty of us get plastered. Other than New Year’s Eve/Day (which does not make the top five, but stands just outside), sees the most drunk driving accidents of the year. This is a party–every bit as religious for some as Christmas, and finds people making, and winning or losing, friendship-ending bets, and always sees some especially dedicated fan of the team which is losing make a fool of themselves. This is America. This is what we stand for.
2. Christmas: Do not mistake our dedication to Christmas, any longer, as a celebration of the birth of Christ. This is not even the start of Christianity, the still superficially top religion in the United States (that would be Good Friday and Easter, two grim ceremonies of church-going that are usually lightened with candy, surprises in plastic eggs, and cute bunnies. Crucifixions are replaced with older children stomping on younger ones during Easter Egg hunts. And the one with the money–the golden egg–seems to be the one most often never found.) Christmas is a celebration of capitalism. It is the most overtly greedy holiday of the year. Television is slammed with cooing advertisements about the brand new items that everyone just has to have. We might eat similar to Thanksgiving, and there may be some wonderful cookies, but there is always an impatience, and the booze is frequently terrible (eggnog?), but there can be a closeness to the holiday, the real thanksgiving among a family, before a child has a tantrum because they either did not get the present they wanted, or they broke it within an hour. Siblings go to war with each other, complain, and parents, bleary-eyed from being awoken far too early in the morning, sit there and drink their coffee and take their pictures, before yelling at the children and sending them to their rooms with threats that next year there will be no Christmas. It is the build-up, the anticipation, the decorations, that truly make Christmas so worthwhile in this post-religious era. But it still clings onto its importance, both between your family and for yourself. Even Jewish families sometimes get a Christmas tree, and celebrate the holiday without God. Other Jewish folks resent the holiday, angered that all those beautiful lights seem to keep them on the outside, celebrating everything but themselves. Christmas is, finally, a time of great anger and debt, leaving everyone figuring out which excesses they need to give up in the coming new year.
- Your Birthday: This is the top holiday in America and, I suspect, everywhere in the world. It is all about you. It celebrates you. Everyone in your immediate orbit is required to be nice to you, to spoil you, and to allow you to avoid most of the daily responsibilities you have. Many of us celebrate our birthdays on the weekends, having no time through the work week, and those of us gifted with tickets to a show or game often have to wait months for redemption. But it is still a day of kindness, usually (one year my parents were fighting so severely on my father’s birthday that we wound up getting Burger King through the drive thru, and he slept downstairs on the couch). We get all sorts of presents, those of us who know us best often getting the things we most want in the world (within financial reason). We celebrate ourselves more than anything else. I find this troubling, ultimately. Our most important goal is to reach another birthday, because all that year of struggle and misery gets to be forgotten for the day, and it feels like a renewal. Of course, for those of us in the heart of middle-age a birthday can be torture, and a sign that you are far from the person you believe that you once were. The young and the elderly usually enjoy their birthdays (one year, however, my parents fighting again, in a rage my father lifted up an as yet unopened gift of mine, and hurled it against the brick fireplace, shattering it. This happened to be the thing I had most yearned for that year.) But in middle age you just feel older. Your back and knees particularly ache. Some of us start lying about our age, or dye our hair, or call to order anti-balding cream, or think about how much we want a divorce. Is this what my life has become? we ask ourselves. And yet even this misery and doubt gets to be all about you for a single day.
What does this list say about Americans? What does it say about people everywhere in the world? (The world cup, Europeans, is no less angry and fanatical than the Superbowl.) What are our priorities, any longer, in a world where the idea of freedom has transformed into a fearful outlook on what we should not allow in our society? I offer this list dispassionately, not even necessarily agreeing with every conclusion I have made. And I wish you a happy Super Sunday. My wife and children just returned home with all the unhealthy crap we will gorge ourselves on today (why did my son want cheese whiz? Cheese Whiz!), and I have already started drinking.