For a lot of years now, I've been convinced that somewhere between Halloween and the week before Thanksgiving, American society largely grinds to a halt for the holiday season.
Aside from essential activities, just about every waking hour is consumed with planning for trips or activities associated with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and the coming of the new year. Even the religious observances tend to be so all-inclusive that it's the rare secular humanist who is truly put off by the general cheer associated with the fall-into-winter holiday season.
Then comes the first day of the new year and time to face the reality of back to school and back to work with no holiday cheer, office parties, after hours seasonal gatherings and multiple days off in a row.
Well, sort of.
Lately I've come to focus, this year especially and I'm not really sure why, on the number of holiday observances that take place in the early days of each new year.
Starting with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday in late January and continuing through Maryland Day, which is officially on March 25 but is a floating holiday (read: extra personal day off) for most state employees, wintertime is marked by a hodgepodge of observances. The King holiday and Presidents Day are days off work for a lot of people. The others are special in the eyes of some, but ignored or unobserved by others.
It seems to me there was a move afoot years ago, possibly tongue in cheek, to have the Jan. 8 birthday of Elvis Presley declared some sort of national observance. Seems to me any serious effort to this end petered out after the U.S. Postal Service issued an Elvis first class stamp in 1993. A first class stamp was 29 cents in those days.
The holiday that has come into being in my lifetime is the aforementioned MLK holiday, a much more serious observance than most of the other members of the wintertime holiday season. It struck me as nice that there's some sentiment for having it become a day of service.
For much of the rest of the season, frivolity rules the roost. Groundhog Day, observed Feb. 2, follows the King holiday. It has all the trappings of an excuse to do something aside from sit inside and wait for spring.
St. Valentine Day is a big day for some folks, a minor observance for others and an irritant for still others. No matter how it is observed, though, it never comes with an official day off work.
President's Day is one that kind of gives me gas. Initially, the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln were both observed on different days in February (the actual dates are Feb. 17 and 12, respectively). About the time the King holiday came into being, it seems like someone decided that's just too many holidays, so the Washington and Lincoln holidays were combined into Presidents Day. To me, this is kind of a belittling of the accomplishments of Washington and Lincoln, generally regarded as the nation's two greatest leaders to date. At least in theory, now they're lumped together with the likes of William Henry Harrison, who served for about a month; Andrew Johnson, who almost lost the peace after Lincoln won the war; and John Q. Adams, a notoriously weak president, even as he was one of the nation's great abolitionist voices.
At some moment in this span come two other observances that are as related, and polar opposite, as heads and tails on a coin: Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first of the 40 days of Lent – a season of penance leading to the quintessential Christian holiday of Easter. As lent is a season of lament and self-depravation, the eve of Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday, is regarded, to some degree, as a day to engage in some less-than-holy activities so as to have reason to be penitent during Lent. As Ash Wednesday and Fat Tuesday are counted back from Easter Sunday and Easter is a holiday based on the comings and goings of the moon, the dates vary, but generally fall in February.
Every four years comes another odd observance, the leap day. We don't get one this year, and it really doesn't matter much. I don't know of anyone who does anything to observe the date.
March brings St. Patrick Day, a holiday observed in Ireland, so I'm told, by going to Mass.
Then, of course, in these parts, Maryland Day, a date no one pays much attention to, except for government workers who get to schedule a day off as a result of it having been declared a state observance.
All in all, it's a busy holiday season unto itself. Still, the winter holiday season just doesn't seem to have the cache of the one that spans Thanksgiving to the turn of the new year. Maybe we're too partied out to really put that much into it.