As all civics nerds will know, yesterday, Jan. 20, is an important date for the nation. Since 1937, the 20th Amendment has stipulated that Presidential inaugurations occur on that day. Then I was informed that today, Friday, marks another national observance of profound import: National Hug Day, enshrined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as the foremost occasion to commemorate that touching and ambiguous gesture. All of which got me thinking about days.
Time, and how we mark it, has been much discussed since the recent Facebook-fueled explosion of the so-called “new Zodiac.” The idea is more than a little absurd. Yes, Minnesota astronomer Parke Kunkle observed that the Earth’s precession cycle has technically assigned new dates to the existing Zodiac signs, and even roped in a 13th sign, Ophiucus. This may have been breaking news to ancient Babylonians. But Western horoscopes are based on planetary, not stellar, cycles. The Zodiac constellations constitute handy guidelines, not an accurate account of the sun’s apparent course in the sky. Kunkle’s “new Zodiac” was a sort of astronomer’s in-joke — or, for the conspiratorial-minded, an attack on the profession of astrology. But the zodiac’s hold on our collective imaginations is yet another symptom of our need to parse time into symbolic units.
The first holidays coincided with major astrological events — two solstices, two equinoxes and “quarter festivals” marking the midway points between each. Many religious holidays (even those tied to lunar calendars) cluster around one of these eight dates: Christmas and its pagan precursor, Saturnalia, approximate the winter solstice; Passover falls after the spring equinox; Diwali and Halloween fall roughly on the late autumn quarter date. The temporal symbolism is fairly obvious — festivals of light when days began to darken, festivals of rebirth as spring returned after winter, and the like.
The medieval Catholic church added a bevy of saint’s days to this collection — eventually, more than one for every day of the year. The Eastern Orthodox Church supplemented these with an exhaustive list of fasting days, which cover up to half the year. Historical events might be associated with certain days in a mnemonic fashion — “And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be remember’d,” being an anachronistic but typical example.
But Protestantism and secularism destroyed the liturgical calendar’s monopoly on time. Events began to be celebrated in their own right — nationalist anniversaries of battles like The Boyne in Ireland and Puebla in Mexico. By the second half of the 19th century, the practice of assigning secular values to certain dates had become widespread, filling the void of meaning left by the retreat of the saint’s days. Washington’s Birthday was made a federal holiday by an Act of Congress in 1880. Washington became the first non-royal, non-sacred person to have his birthday widely celebrated. Then came the conceptual celebrations: “Decoration Day,” the precursor to Memorial Day, shortly after the Civil War; Columbus Day, which saw its first commemorative parade in 1866; or Labor Day, which has its beginnings around 1872. All of these were local events that accumulated wider popularity and ideological baggage — Columbus Day has become something of a postcolonial liability, spawning a host of alternative indigenous-themed holidays and a fierce debate over its validity.
The 20th century saw a proliferation of birthday holidays and event commemorations, followed later by the advent of “awareness days” — as well as their more unfocused progeny, awareness weeks and months. What we have now is a calendar at least as detailed as the liturgical tables, replete with celebrations mundane, sublime, trivial, absurd, religious, controversial, historical and ideological — a smorgasbord of commemoration. There’s a Jan. 23 “Measure Your Feet Day,” a March 20 “Festival of Extraterrestrial Abductions,” the June 5 “Festival of Popular Delusions.”
Even as we grow increasingly divorced from seasonal rhythms and religious observances, we feel obligated to organize the Earth’s solar rotations into a cycle of other symbols. Terrified of time’s inexorable forward flow, we pull it backward into a parade of commemorations, sparing ourselves the burden of honoring our parents, committing to a cure for AIDS, or talking like a pirate every day. And woe betide those who jar our careful systems, through their own celebrations or lack thereof, their snake-bearing constellations or spaghetti monsters. There are few more fundamental battles than the struggle over the meaning of time or its units — the Aztecs sacrificed thousands to keep the sun on schedule. In light of all this carnage, one begins to appreciate the Quaker rejection of all holidays, so as to elevate every day to sacred status.
So if you don’t get a chance to hug me today, don’t worry. Tauruses are notoriously prickly this time of year.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.