In America, holidays are generally thought of as designated times out of the year for people to feel good, or at least, to come together in solidarity. Which is why it’s ironic that holidays in this country are also often divisive events that leave people feeling like crap.
Take Columbus Day. A national holiday meant to recognize the man who “discovered” America, Columbus Day has since become a sore spot for many Native Americans. That’s why the Seattle City Council recently decided to declare October 12 ““Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” to recognize those who were a part of this country long before Christopher Columbus set foot on it.
However, this move hasn’t come without controversy either. Many of Seattle’s Italian Americans have been upset that Columbus, one of the most famous Italians of all time, is essentially having his day taken away from him (this has actually been an ongoing debate in the Italian-American community, even going back to The Sopranos).
The truth is that from Columbus Day and beyond, many American holidays have become sore spots for a growing number of Americans. Sure, we all know that Christmas has become ridiculously commercialized, and that the whole winter season has become a terrifying spectacle of consumerism, beginning with Black Friday. But it’s more than that, too. If we are to truly embrace the modern definition of being American, we need to find ways to celebrate all the various people that come along with it, which also means taking a hard look at the implications of several of our most beloved holidays.
Another celebration that has mixed connotations for Native Americans is Thanksgiving. Though no one is arguing that setting out a day to acknowledge all we have to be thankful for is a bad thing, Thanksgiving is difficult for many Native Americans, in that it celebrates the beginning of the colonization of this continent. Moreover, the idea that the Pilgrims and the Native Americans sat down to enjoy a peaceful harvest together has since been largely refuted. In actuality, the concept of “giving thanks” does relate to a long line of Native American tradition. But suggesting that has much to do with a day where we enjoy football and copious amounts of turkey every year isn’t entirely accurate.
Thanksgiving is like taking just one fraction of history and pulling it out to celebrate and commemorate it. The problem is that it’s not even a representative sample of the fuller stories. It takes one nice story and elides all the history that is inconvenient to the consensus narrative of settler-Indian cooperation… It’s a similar problem with Columbus Day and the narrative of discovery. It focuses upon Columbus’s vision and preparation and his daring quest into the unknown, but stops when he sights land, “discovering” the “New World.” Why doesn’t anyone know that on his second voyage to the Caribbean Islands he brought 17 heavily armed ships with 1,500 soldiers and initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade?
History doesn’t end with exploration; it carries on through imperial conquest, colonial domination, and economic exploitation today… Once the intra-colonial struggles have been resolved, the victorious colonial power settles down into administrative control over the indigenous population, which carries with it the banal ceremonies of renaming places and revising history that results in such celebrations as Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.
In 2013, the one Thanksgiving story the Internet was obsessed with was Elan Gale’s made up “note war.” But BuzzFeed’s Zaina Arafat told a different tale. Though not Native American herself, Arafat talked about the difficulty she has with Thanksgiving herself, because of her own cultural background, and about the difficulty she had with it that year in particular, given the spike in turmoil in the Middle East.
I’d always felt ambivalent toward the holiday, not wanting, as a Palestinian, to indulge in a celebration of the dispossession of one population for the gain of another. Though we didn’t learn it this way in school, the first “Thanksgiving” was declared in 1637 by Massachusetts Colony Gov. John Winthrop, and it celebrated the return of armed colonial volunteers who’d journeyed from what is now Mystic, Conn., and killed 700 Native Americans of the Pequot—men, women, and children. Each year, a group called the United American Indians of New England meet at Plymouth Rock on Cole’s Hill and stand at the feet of a statue of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag; they call the holiday a day of mourning… One morning last week, I read, two bombs went off at the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon, killing 23 people. In Egypt, police fired tear gas into Tahrir Square to dispel anti-army demonstrators. Jordan remains strained by influxes of Syrian refugees whom its economy can’t accommodate…Thanksgiving is tentatively back on. Monday we’ll begin negotiating who’s bringing what and who’s making the playlist.
2) Presidents’ Day
A very different holiday that you might not initially think could have any problematic connotations is Presidents’ Day. Presidents’ Day is an outgrowth of the holiday traditionally called Washington’s Birthday. Does celebrating George Washington’s place as a seminal founding father make sense? Yes, except for the dark underbelly therein: Washington, like many of our founding fathers, owned slaves. Which is why to this day, crediting them with the conceit of “liberty and justice for all” is a somewhat uneasy proposition.
Anyone who acquires the narrative of 12 Years A Slave and finds it within his shrunken heart to continue any argument for the sanctity and perfection of our Founding Fathers, for the moral wisdom of their compromised document of national ideal that begins the American experience, or for their anachronistic or historically understandable tolerance of slavery—they are arguing from a desolate, amoral corner.
There is some considerable wisdom in the American Constitution, and more found within many of the 27 sanctioned efforts to amend and improve the weaknesses and moral lapses that were allowed to co-exist with the adoption of the original template… But for anyone to stand in sight of this film and pretend to the infallibility or perfect intellectual or moral grandeur of a Washington, a Jefferson, or a Madison is to invite ignominy from anyone else sensate… In the echo of this film, the continuing call for a strict construction of our national codes and a devotion to the precise, original ideas of the long-dead men who crafted those codes in another human age, rings hollow and sick and shameful.
Simon’s words are dark, but not without merit given the dark history underlying many of America’s idols.
3) Veteran’s Day
Twitter users were outraged last year when Randi Zuckerberg was accused of using Veteran’s Day to promote her upcoming book.
However, this kind of blind patriotism also eclipses important concerns about American militarism. Arnold Oliver, a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Ohio’s Heidelberg University, has observed as much. Oliver writes:
We’re directed to believe that the day’s purpose is to honor the heroes who have sacrificed to defend our peace and freedom. Criticism, or even discussion, of the merits of the embedded assumption of veteran heroism is dismissed as being beyond the pale. Well, I have to tell you that when I was in Vietnam, I was no hero and I didn’t witness any heroism during the year I spent there, first as a U.S. Army private and then as a sergeant.
Moreover, one day out of the year doesn’t make up for the fact that we continue to treat our veterans pretty shabbily in this country. If we really wanted to do something for our veterans, a better gesture might be reducing their wait time at the VA.
4) Valentine’s Day
It sounds silly to imply that what’s commonly referred to as a “Hallmark Holiday” could be worth arguing about for any American. Yet that’s precisely what the problem with Valentine’s Day is: We can’t stop arguing about it.
On one side, you have the lamentation of America’s obsession with romance. Around the holiday last year, The New Republic’s Ryan Kearney said, “This week you will see sad sacks on Twitter lamenting their lack of love…I’m not foolish enough to believe that I’m happier now than I would be with someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. But let’s please stop, as a culture, pretending like there is nothing in the world quite like falling in love, and that we should aspire to finding it above all else.”
On the other side, you have those who are tired of seeing Valentine’s Day picked apart. This line of thinking dictates you shouldn’t have to worship the holiday, and that being single isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that it is exhausting to hear the relentless complaining about Valentine’s Day that goes on every year, as if liking it is some kind of affront to common decency.
But Valentine’s Day’s issues are even more complicated than that, especially outside of America. The problem with Valentine’s Day isn’t just the arguing, according to some, it’s one of economics. That’s why Adeline Lambert of Mic.com published a piece in 2012 on how the holiday exploits the children and adults working to supply America’s flower and chocolate demands in South America and West Africa.
5) Earth Day
As Valentine’s Day demonstrates, the trouble with American holidays is often that what should be a unifying experience ends up being used to politicize, bastardize, and profitize. For instance, in the case of Earth Day, Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller at Psychology Today note that the holiday “gives countless self-promoters the opportunity to push political ideology or commercial gain unrelated to the Day.” Miller continues, “The most noxious examples include Californians for Population Stabilization’s Earth Day propaganda to outlaw foreign citizens moving to join our proudly immigrant nation, and electronic-waste recyclers who sponsor Earth Day celebrations even as they engage in the illegal export of pollutants.”
Earth Day skirts how common these practices actually are. Just look up #greenwashing on Twitter and you’ll see how constant and ongoing the green fakery in American capitalism is. Major corporations with environmentally unfriendly practices use holidays like Earth Day to make a big deal out of their green campaigns, when their actual business practices tell a different story. And what’s unfortunate about Earth Day, in this case, is how these corporations use the holiday as a tool to prop themselves up as virtuous do-gooders, when the truth is that they’re anything but.
This narrative of divided agendas can even apply to Halloween. Every year, debates about taking the holiday away from children, sexy outfits and slut-shaming, and racially and socially insensitive costumes are reignited come late October. At the Daily Dot, Nicholas White called Halloween “the best and worst thing to happen to the Internet.” White observes, “Halloween might be the Internet’s favorite holiday, and I think it’s because this spirit of play, of making jokes with your friends, lives on the Internet every day.”
However, he also writes that, “Many (young) people all over the United States recently decided that it would be really funny to dress up as Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman,” pointing out the dark side of the Internet’s fascination with Halloween.
The Internet also has a tradition of supporting this kind of humor…but just because something is offensive doesn’t make it automatically funny. Some jokes bring us together and some jokes divide us. And maybe that racist joke killed with your real-life friends who share your views, but taking that same joke online puts you outside the bubble of people who look and think just like you.
Holidays are tough days in America, especially in the age of the Internet; even as you can take refuge from awful family members at Christmas with your friends on Twitter, your Halloween costume can be picked apart on Pinterest while heated exchanges about Valentine’s Day fill up your Facebook. The Internet enables some soul searching into how we observe the holidays, which might not necessarily be a bad thing.
Photo via Dark Dwarf/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)