According to a Nielsen survey conducted a few years ago, the 5th and 7th biggest beer-drinking holidays in America are Christmas and Easter respectively. That year, Americans consumed 59,393,752 cases of beer at Christmas and 53,458,630 cases on Easter. I find this strange because Christmas and Easter are the two seminal feasts on the Christian calendar, yet we are living in the most secular era of American history to date. Are Christians buying most of this brew? Is beer an integral component of religious celebrations? Is this simply a function of all holidays being hijacked by shameless advertisers? Perhaps most importantly, what does a holiday mean now? As is so often the case, history provides an indispensable context in which to consider these questions today.
The people of the ill-named “Dark Ages” had an understanding of the word “holiday” that illuminates it and sets it in stark contrast to supposedly enlightened American notions about holidays. The word holiday derives from the Old English term “halig daeg” meaning “holy day” or “Sabbath.” In the fourteenth century, the word had the connotation of both a religious festival and a day of recreation. The latter word is also interesting. A halig daeg was a day for re-creation, being created again. But, what is a festival? In Roman times, the festivalis was associated with particular public ceremonies performed at the temple. The word “festival” is related to the word “feast” which in 1200 AD meant a religious anniversary characterized by rejoicing. This is why the Liturgical Calendar is filled with “feast” days when we Catholics recall with joy and gratitude the many heroic lives and poignant events of our shared past.
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