Thursday, December 21, 2017

’Tis the Season

We are in the middle of the holiday “season.” What do you like about the holidays, and what drives you crazy?

By Jim

Let’s talk holidays.

It should be obvious that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” But its meaning and, indeed, significance have changed over the centuries. Holidays traditionally marked sacred dates in the calendar. Some dates were designated as feast days, times of joy and celebration, while others mandated contemplation and fasting. Only the -e- separates a feast from a fast, though the words are unrelated from an etymological point of view. “Feast” comes to English from the bon vivant Old French, while “fast” has sober Germanic origins. The faithful observed religious feasts, rites, and ceremonies as part of their covenant with God. Only much later on did “holiday” acquire the meaning of “vacation” or “day off.” Personal days, mental health days, and three-day weekends are recent phenomena not observed by the ancients.

The annual cycle of holy days divides the year into regular, manageable chunks to organize worship and maximize adherence to the religious principles of the faith. Since the ancients, religious rites have followed the seasons, which make up the solar year. Pagans, polytheists, and monotheists alike all marked their calendars with festivals and observances tied and tailored to each season. Many ancient holidays are mirrored by modern counterparts, an indication that what’s old is new again.

The vernal equinox, a time for festivals of renewal and rebirth, is the holiest period in the Christian calendar. Observances of the Annunciation, Good Friday, and Easter all fall close to the vernal equinox. At the same time, Jews commemorate the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt — Passover. Easter and Passover are “moveable feasts” whose occurrences depend on calculations based on the lunar calendar, an echo of the ancient rituals inherited from our good friends the pagans. (How much do you want to bet that there’s a caterer in your phone book called “A Moveable Feast”?) The word “Easter” derives from the Old English name for the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre. Romance languages take the name from the Greek word for Passover, “Pascha.” In both cases, Easter is called by a name previously associated with an earlier, non-Christian tradition.

By the way, English takes the names of three of its four seasons from Old English: spring, summer, and winter. Autumn, however, has Latin origins via Old French. It’s somewhat unusual to have such an unbalanced paradigm, but language change sometimes takes seemingly arbitrary paths. “Fall,” the common American alternative for “autumn,” is all that’s left of the poetic “fall of the leaves.”

Close detour and back to the equinoxes:

The autumnal equinox, which takes place around September 21, is a period of many ancient and modern religious festivals. In the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox inspired harvest celebrations. Canada and the United States mark the harvest with the Thanksgiving holiday, though not on the same day. Canadians pause to give thanks on the second Monday in October, while Americans wait until the fourth Thursday of November to enjoy their turkey and football.
Though more widely celebrated in Europe than in America, Michaelmas (September 29) is a Christian holiday honoring the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. This is a great example of why you always want your name listed first in any joint enterprise. As the days grow shorter with autumn’s approach, the archangel Michael, patron saint of warriors, is seen as a protector against the dark. Note, also, the change in pronunciation of “Michael” when “mas” is tacked onto the end (Mĭk’əl-məs vs Mīk’ əl). Just as Christ (krīst) changes to Christmas (krĭs-məs). The stress change, caused by the addition of another syllable, creates a shift in the vowel sound. Think of the second -o- in photo and photography.

The secular world also has its celebrations, designed to ease the burden on working people at regular intervals. May Day honors workers throughout much of the world except the United States, where hard work is recognized on Labor Day in early September. Americans honor the dead on Memorial Day, which falls at the end of May and marks the unofficial start of summer. Europeans, on the other hand, observe All Souls’ Day on November 2 and All Saints’ or Hallows’ Day on November 1. The night before All Saints’ Day is Halloween. “Halloween” is built on “hallow” or holy/saintly and “e’en” for evening. The use of “e’en” for “evening” may appear at first to be a misnomer, since Halloween is actually the “eve” of All Hallows’ Day, not “the evening of.” But the original meaning of the “eve” we know today was indeed “evening.” “Evening,” by the way, was once a present participle, not a noun, and had the literal meaning of “becoming eve.” Along the same lines, “morning” meant “becoming morn.”

Imagine a couple watching the setting sun:

Man: How beautiful you are as the day is evening.
Woman: Yes, but will you still love me when the night is morning?

“Eve,” with the meaning of “night before,” dates from the late 13th century.

But I suspect this post was supposed to be about the end-of-year holiday season. Let’s see. There’s Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. I like those. The television commercials, however, drive me crazy. Happy holidays!


RJ Harlick said...

Fascinating. A very interesting post. Thanks, Jim.

Cathy Ace said...

Super post, Jim :-) Thanks

James W. Ziskin said...

Thanks, you two! Merry Christmas!

Ann said...

Merry Christmas Jim. Now please write me another book. Thanks in advance

James W. Ziskin said...

I’m on it, Ann!

Merry Christmas!