Monday, November 19, 2007

Do holiday origins matter?

Fascinating article in Sunday's Globe about the origins of Thanksgiving.

...this modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving - a "public day" that they observed regularly - was almost the precise opposite of today's celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself - and one's community - with an eye toward spiritual improvement.

A thanksgiving day, as actually celebrated by 17th-century Americans, was a communal day of fasting, meditation, and supplication to God. Both thanksgiving and fast days - jointly referred to as "public days" - served as replacements for Roman Catholic holidays (from "holydays") such as Christmas, Easter, and saints' days, which the Puritans rejected along with stained glass and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This was part of their goal of simplifying and purifying the rituals of the Christian Church, which explains the term "Puritan." When they emigrated they brought the public-day tradition from Calvinist Europe.

Who knew that Thanksgiving was originally a day of repentance? Who knew that eating turkey and watching football wasn't the original intent of the holiday? Who knew that the holiday originally was a Puritan religious holiday??? Only don't tell my son's school, because then they won't allow the kids to celebrate it anymore.

You may be wondering what I'm talking about.

Well...my son goes to a Jewish day school, which means that he is learning about the Jewish religion, culture, and language (Hebrew) on a daily basis. He spends half the day learning subjects like reading (in English), writing (in English), and arithmetic, and then half the day on Hebrew, bible, and Jewish holidays. And he has art and gym and all that other stuff, as well. It's really a great school.

Except for one teeny, tiny thing. They don't allow the kids to celebrate Halloween or Valentine's Day.

Each year, during the week prior to Halloween and the week prior to Valentine's Day, the school sends out a notice that says something like this: because Halloween/Valentine's Day has its origins in the Christian and/or Pagan religion, we do not celebrate this holiday with the children. If you choose to celebrate Halloween/Valentine's Day on your own with your children, that is your choice: but Halloween/Valentine's Day is not a Jewish holiday, and therefore we will not be celebrating it at school.

It's really not such a great loss. I have some good memories of celebrating Halloween and Valentine's Day at school, and a few bad memories as well. But each year, the note they send home irks me. Not a Jewish holiday, I buy that. Christian or Pagan origins: well, that may be true, but no one in the U.S. bothers thinking about the origins of these 2 holidays. They are completely Americanized and commercialized. And never mind that many Jewish holidays have roots in agrarian harvest festivals and possibly even festivals of other (gasp!) cultures.

So all of this begs the question: what is more important: the origins of a holiday, or how it is currently celebrated? So now we know the true origins of Thanksgiving: the Puritans were trying to simplify the rituals of the Christian Church through fasting and redemption. Sounds more like Yom Kippur than Thanksgiving! But don't tell my son's school... G-d only know what they'll do next...

1 comment:

nyjlm said...

I'm lol b/c we have the opposite situation here. My kids go to a public school, and they are the only Jewish kids. When my son was in K, the PTA newsletter had a clipart of the holy family. I almost fainted. I can't say that the situation has changed much even though he's in 3rd grade now, and I'm constantly trying to get the message of separation of church and state out to the teachers and principal. sigh. Our temple is 35 minutes away, which isn't too bad really. Jewish day school is not an option in this part of FL.
Sorry for the huge comment- this is a tough situation for me and I'm constantly trying to figure out how to handle it.