As we approach Memorial Day, I got to thinking about just how deeply national holidays – and the inevitable festivals and traditions that go along with them – are embedded into our culture. I’ve noticed that American holidays tend to lean towards family and celebration, albeit in different ways depending on the holiday.
Australian holidays mostly involve family and a lot of irreverence with one exception. Other cultures that I’ve researched the holidays tend to be either decided on by governments to commemorate significant dates or coincide with old festivals – and quite often do both because it’s a damn site easier to avoid upsetting people by coopting their old festivals towards the new politically correct goal.
That’s how the old Christians won over a lot of the pagan cultures: they claimed the pagan deities as Christian saints with virtues that approximated the old deity’s realm and took things from there. Sometimes the old festival names got claimed or even corrupted as well, Easter being one of the more obvious ones.
Even the newer holidays and festivals, like Memorial Day, tug on older patterns. There are few cultures that don’t venerate those who fought for their people and those who died in battle. It doesn’t matter that the date shifts based on precisely when the last Monday in May happens to fall, or that the date doesn’t commemorate any event in particular. It’s become part of the turn of the seasons in the US, and as such, serves not just as a day to remember those who fought and died defending the US, but also as the unofficial start of Summer – at least, the part of summer that involves holidays and schools closing and the like.
On a more practical note, the date was likely chosen so that garden-grown flowers would be available to decorate graves. When the holiday was first made official, there wouldn’t have been enough greenhouse-grown flowers to decorate graves in winter, and they wouldn’t have lasted long. Of such things are our modern festivals made, just as our older ones carry the echoes of the seasons. It’s no coincidence that major holiday dates have a tendency to sit close to solstices and equinoxes as well as the major crop preparation times. Those cycles were essential to our ancestors, so of course their rituals centered around events like ploughing time, planting time, harvest time, as well as the demarcation of the year brought by the longest and shortest day, or the days when night and day balanced.
Presumably their distant hunter-gatherer ancestors had rituals centering around the migration of their main prey during the year and the times when the first fruits became available. No doubt they used the cues of the stars and the lengths of the day to guide their travels.
Even now, with our air-conditioned homes and our modern conveniences, a lot of the rhythms of our years have roots in the cycles our distant ancestors followed. Like them, we honor the sacrifices made by our fellows who died to protect our safety. Like them, we decorate their final resting place with flowers.
We’re human. Get us in a group and wait a few generations and you’ll get holidays and traditions and festivals – and they’ll never really go away. They’ll just shift and move until the human needs that founded them find the right outlet.