Secularism and Religious Holidays - English

Holy Days

By Jörg Friedrich2.04.2013Culture and Society

Religious holidays have become cornerstones of the secular calendar even as their original meaning is ignored.

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Gabriel Jorby

Every year before the Easter holidays, a rather unusual discussion erupts in Germany about an old yet controversial piece of legislation: The so-called “dance prohibition” (virtually unknown outside of Germany) outlaws the playing of loud music and public entertainment on certain Christian holidays. It enshrines the sanctity of those holidays as days of grief and reflection. Yet every year, some describe the law as antiquated, and pundits call on the authorities to rescind it.

It’s entirely valid to ask whether the pleasures of public amusement and the joys of dance should be regulated by law. But the discussion also sheds light on the changing nature of holidays and on changing attitudes towards religious traditions – in Germany, but in many other countries as well.

Historically, holidays did not arise in response to demands for pleasure, joy, and relaxation. Instead, they were dedicated to the memory of higher powers and higher meaning. Quotidian tasks had to wait while time and space were set aside to celebrate those special occasions. Holidays were a cultural phenomenon, not an entertainment opportunity.

It’s of secondary importance whether those cultural traditions were grounded in religious or secular beliefs, or whether key biographical moments of the individual or of the community (the birth of a child, the declaration of national independence) were veiled in religious rhetoric. The primary importance of holidays could be found in the linkages they cemented between the community and the individual, in the sense of orientation they offered, and in the cultural context they provided to the life of the individual. Even holidays that arose on a purely religious foundation (the Christian holidays of the spring, such as Lent and Easter) developed a cultural connotation over the course of the centuries.

However, secularized society has now embraced most holidays as “leisure time” without cherishing their deeper meaning. That loss of meaning of annual religious holidays (and also of secular holidays like May Day and national holidays) is mirrored by a sense of uncertainty about the relevance of biographical holidays as well: Why do we celebrate birth, marriage, death, and certain other stages of youth and adulthood? Those holidays, too, are often infused with religious rhetoric and rituals.

Yet as an increasing percentage of people turn away from institutionalized religion and from personal statements of faith (at least in many Western countries), the ritualistic and cultural importance of these moments is lost as well. Religious rituals are portrayed as spectacles: They add a touch of ‘glamour’ to the day’s festivities, just like a little performance might enliven a birthday party. In the process, appreciation of the intrinsic value of these rituals and for their symbolic importance is easily lost. Holidays are valued because they are leisure days. Celebration is elevated to the forefront even as the reasons for celebration become more elusive.

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