There is so much going on these days. We’re just about ready to start a third year dealing with a worldwide pandemic as we face yet another new variant in the midst of a holiday period. While that’s weighing heavily on my mind, in my solitude I think about what constitutes a national holiday. Some are obvious like the 4th of July, the day marking our nation’s independence. That one makes sense. It’s a celebration commemorating the birth of our new nation, founded on the principles of democracy where we the people voice our opinions through free and fair elections determining who serves in our representative government. This one is a truly patriotic, American holiday. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are also American holidays in honor of those who have served our country to help keep it free. Presidents Day and MLK Day honor some of our national heroes which also makes sense as far as patriotic American holidays go.
In the U.S., Thanksgiving has special significance as a harvest festival, although the actual origins of that one are the subject of some debate. In its modern form when more members of my extended family were still alive, it was my favorite holiday. For me, it’s tied to memories of warmth, family fellowship, great food, and hugs that I looked forward to each year. As the generations before me slowly disappeared through the natural order of things, I started attending Thanksgiving feasts with good friends. Those gatherings were welcoming, but I also found them somewhat overwhelming because they were far more crowded and boisterous than my family gatherings had been. As an introvert, I yearned for quiet comfort.
This time of year, celebrating New Year’s makes sense as we close out the old year and ring in the new one filled with possibilities. While New Year’s Day is a federal holiday in the U.S., it is bigger than just our nation. The calendar that it anchors is used worldwide in the course of trade and global cooperation. Observing the start of a new year synchronizes people across the globe giving us something in common.
And then there’s one holiday that has always bothered me. The holiday itself is fine for those who celebrate it bringing friends and family together in fellowship and good cheer if they are so inclined, and I do like the music associated with it. But at its core Christmas is a religious holiday, and it is not one that everybody celebrates. It has always bothered me that a religious holiday was declared a federal holiday in a country where we have a foundation prohibiting the imposition of any particular religion on the people by the government. Making this religious holiday a federal holiday has always seemed out of character and unconstitutional in a sense. Granted, in modern times, it has become a commercial endeavor spurring commerce as so many people scramble to purchase gifts for one and all. It also marks a time of year when charities are noticed and honored, although the activities those charities support are needed all year, not just during the end of year bonanza. I suppose that using Christmas to anchor the end of year holiday period provides some consistency, but is it necessary to put a religious fine point on it?
There are those who claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation, but the Constitution doesn’t support that. The portion of the First Amendment prohibiting the government from imposing religion on the people doesn’t make an exception for Christianity after all. The relevant piece of the First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ….”
This defines the separation between church and state and defines the country as secular with religious practice left to the choice of each individual person, not to be interfered with by the government. Designating a federal holiday for a religious event seems like high level interference.
Perhaps a better way to mark the end of the year might be to make the winter solstice, a natural event rather than a religious one, the start of the end of year holiday period. That would give everyone an extra few days, and those who want to observe the religious celebration of Christmas would be free to use part of their holiday period to do so. Those who don’t partake would still have a nice end of year holiday period to enjoy however they chose.
Then again, a rousing rendition of Sleigh Ride with its wintry imagery and festive tone always brings a smile to my face, though admittedly I prefer the instrumental versions having played it for numerous holiday concerts over the years. Of course there is nothing prohibiting listening to holiday music at other times of the year, and I’ve been known to pull out a recording of The Nutcracker Suites over the summer.
This time of year, I think back to my old sax quartet, Peninsula Saxophonica, and our various holiday gigs. I wrote the following arrangement of one of my favorite Christmas carols for the group, and we played it every chance we got.
I’ll concede that holiday music is something special, and it can be enjoyed whether one celebrates the actual holiday that inspired it or not. For many years before the pandemic I participated in San Jose’s Saxophone Christmas – a spectacle with over 200 saxophonists of all shapes and sizes playing saxophones of all shapes sizes gathering together for an annual holiday music festival. I’ve written about this event many times over the years. Because of the pandemic, it didn’t happen last year, and although it returned this year, a little leaner but still festive, I had to miss it.
I recognize that a lone individual isn’t going to change the country’s culture with so much wrapped around the Christmas holiday. For those who celebrate Christmas with all the trimmings, enjoy! For those who don’t partake, enjoy some quiet reflection and possibly some comforting music while looking ahead to the New Year.