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Work, holidays, leisure, recreation, and the search for meaning in late modernity

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 1, 2008

This series of articles will be looking at some issues around work, holidays, leisure, and recreation in late modern societies – mostly focussing on the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.

One should begin, first of all, by looking at holidays as they existed in earlier societies, and trying to distinguish between a few main types of holidays as they exist today. In the English language, the word "holiday" is derived from the word "holy day." In earlier European societies, traditional holidays were usually bound up with the Christian religion – or what could be considered a social-cultural-religious-political complex called "Christendom". Like with many other religious traditions on the planet, the Christian holidays (in addition to their explicitly religious provenance) were organically tied to nature and the rhythm of the seasons. Christmas represented the point when the Sun (the source of life) began to return -- with the days slowly growing longer after the nadir of the Winter Solstice. Easter, which fell in the spring, was obviously tied to the rebirth of nature after the winter. Like in many other religious traditions, the Christian holidays were either tied to mortification (Advent, Lent) or, of course, feasting and celebration (Christmas and Easter). Indeed, the term "feast-days" was used for major Christian holidays. There was also the regular "pause-day" of Sunday – when work was definitely frowned upon. Insofar as the Industrial Revolution tended to break down the organic, mostly agriculturally-based, rhythm of life set by the Christian calendar, Christianity has tended to wither, although it did bravely endeavor to take the fight to the cities, so to speak, as exemplified in the De Rerum Novarum encyclical of Pope Leo XIII.

There are all sorts of interesting social, psychological, and health-related reasons for fasting, and prohibitions against certain types of foods. Obviously, the period of Lent fell in the period of scarcity of late Winter and early Spring – where there was often very little food available. The ban on red meat on Fridays encouraged the healthy consumption of fish. Most interestingly, the Polish Wigilia (Christmas Eve celebration) combines elements of restraint and exuberance – the ban on red meat, but of course, the hope of having a filling feast of, among other foods, fish. Wigilia has been a very special time for Poles, and it has been noted that, even in the direst of circumstances, such as in Soviet slave labor camps, Poles tried to somehow mark the holiday.

With the arising of sharply-defined national communities in the wake of the Middle Ages, there arose a series of patriotic holidays, that marked momentous occasions in the life of a given nation. In Polish national life, these have come to include such holidays as May 3rd (commemorating the Constitution of 1791 – a brave attempt to reform the Polish state before the night of the long Partition period set in), and November 11th (commemorating Poland's regaining of national independence in 1918, after 123 years under Partition).

Another aspect of holidays is that of joyful recreation, which sometimes moves into a "transgressive" edge. This can be seen in the Roman Saturnalia, the medieval Lords of Misrule, and the Carnival before Lent. Premodern societies were, of course, normally characterized by very severe strictures on behaviors, and multifarious levels of hierarchy. The brief, "carnival" type of period, was probably very important psychologically in making the other times of the year somewhat more bearable. A rather interesting holiday in the Irish tradition was Halloween, which later came to America and Canada.

It cannot be denied that life in premodern periods was often far harsher than it is today. The amount of time available for so-called leisure and recreation in premodern societies – for the majority of the population, such as, for example, the poorer peasants  – was usually nugatory.

From one perspective, it could be argued that the amount of time available for leisure and recreation has vastly increased, especially in countries like America and Canada.

Nevertheless, as in the case of many tendencies in this confusing and contradictory period of late modernity, one could perceive a "hypertrophy" in the advance of the amount of time available for leisure and recreation, as well as a massive withering of what is considered the meaning of a "holiday" today.

One obvious point is that, with the decline of the sacred in Western societies, the august, sublime aspects of religious as well as national holidays have vastly diminished. At the same time, the advance of technology and commercialism has made a "24-7" trading mentality ever more prevalent and actually possible. The "market" seems to demand that commercial activities must go on without interruption. At the same time, there has occurred a massive commercialization of such holidays as Christmas, where it is expected that young children, for example, will receive computers, cell-phones, or MP3 players, as gifts. There is also a war in America and Canada being waged by the "politically-correct" against the use of traditional terms such as "Merry Christmas"  -- which is supposedly "offensive" to non-Christians. The Afrocentrists in America invented in the 1960s a holiday called Kwanzaa, which is supposed to counteract the "whiteness" of Christmas. An example of a long-standing national holiday in the U.S. that has been virtually annihilated by "political correctness" is Columbus Day. So "holidays" – as they have been traditionally understood – are under multifarious assault.

The "hypertrophy" of leisure and recreation mainly occurs – it could be argued -- as a result of the stupefaction of large portions of the American and Canadian population by a combination of factors which it is sometimes difficult to fully identify. There is the idiotic pop-culture, the failure of schools, libraries and other cultural institutions to nurture an appropriate "counter-ethic", and the valorization of the lowest sorts of tastes and needs as equally valid as those involving reflection, contemplation, and real human sympathy.

The official unemployment rates in Canada and the United States (although some have argued that they are in fact somewhat underestimated) are usually about 7% and 5%, respectively. These are, after all, societies of great prosperity, where the presence of pockets of poverty is probably greatly exaggerated by the media. The economic situation for very many people in such places as Poland, Ukraine, or Russia, is clearly far drastically worse. It has been suggested that much of the most drastic poverty in Canada and the United States occurs as a result of severe mental afflictions (as Myron Magnet and E. Fuller Torrey, among others, have argued, about 50 percent of the homeless arise as a consequence of a poorly managed  "de-institutionalization"). Poverty is also accentuated among persons with various character problems. A very unsentimental picture of the so-called underclass is seen in many of the writings of Theodore Dalrymple.  Since the discourse of character and individual responsibility is rather attenuated in Canadian and American society today, this makes the path of self-improvement a rather difficult one to take.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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