Rabbi Gellman on Father's Day

The arrival of Father's Day this Sunday has caused me to reflect on both the ties my dad wears as well as the general nature of our public holidays.

All living cultures prove their vitality by both preserving old and generating new public holidays. The opposite of public holidays are sectarian holidays like Ramadan and Rosh Hashana and Easter, which are only celebrated by adherents to a specific faith. Christmas has a high public profile, but it remains a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, whom Christians believe to have been the Christ. Therefore Christmas is not an American public holiday--though it is the centerpiece of a joyous American holiday season. Public holidays celebrate national values (Thanksgiving) or national events (Independence Day) or national sacrifice (Memorial Day) or national heroes (Martin Luther King Jr. Day). They put taste and color, substance and spirituality into what it means to be an American.

At their best, public holidays emerge organically from the history and habits of Americans. Memorial Day was once Decoration Day, which was the day Confederate widows decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers. It eventually became the time when we honor all our war dead. Mother's Day was brought from England where women serving as maids were given a day off to go home and see their own children. It grew naturally in this egalitarian country to be a holiday celebrating all mothers. Independence Day obviously evolved from the day our freedom was declared to the day when we all gather to drink beer and eat hot dogs in honor of our freedom.

Some public holidays began as religious holidays and over time morphed into purely secular ones. Halloween began as All Hallows Eve before All Saints' Day and became our national mardi gras (which also has lost most of its pre-Lenten Christian context). St. Valentine's Day began as an honoring of some saint named Valentine and became the holiday celebrating love and insuring that the candy and flower merchants of America don't go broke. Here again we have the problem of the Christmas wars, between those who hold to its essentially private Christian meaning on one the side and those who must believe, as I do not, that Santa somehow trumps Jesus. The fact that private sectarian holidays like Christmas are also legal holidays does not make them merely public.

The fight over Martin Luther King Day highlights an interesting problem of public holidays. How do we add to them without adding nice-but-mostly-goofy-and-trivial holidays like Professional Assistant's Day and Earth Day and Arbor Day (which should be part of Earth Day) and Flag Day (which should be part of Independence Day) and Groundhog Day (which should just be a movie starring Bill Murray). In the case of Reverend King, the question was politicized, and even though it is our only holiday celebrating a single American (because Washington's and Lincoln's birthday were combined into President's Day to help increase sales at the malls) this holiday honoring the Dr. King was a fine example of how our culture can still encompass and create new holidays to honor past heroes. The fact that there is not yet an organic publicly agreed upon way of honoring MLK Day will either be settled in time, or else the public will sadly ignore this attempt to keep our national celebratory agenda open and diverse.

Also problematic, but basically wonderful, are the public holidays that do not just celebrate how we are all the same but celebrate how we are also still members of different tribes all living together as proud Americans. Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day celebrate through Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans the great ethnic richness and diversity that is the unique gift and mission of America. These holidays remind us that the fact that our identity as Americans may be hyphenated does not mean it is any less powerful, coherent or secure.

The very best public holiday is Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln intended it to be a day of thankfulness and atonement to God for receiving so many national blessings and so often failing to give simple thanks for being born in a land where we have been given more than we deserve. Today, Thanksgiving reflects the perfect balance of religious belief and public virtue. One need not be religious to be thankful, and one need not consider our freedom a gift of God to be thankful for it and for the bounty of this rich land of ours. The celebration of Thanksgiving and even its menu is clear, fixed and beloved (except by turkeys). Although I bemoan the increasing commercialization of the great parades, I marched as a clown for many years in the Macy's parade, and any holiday which is celebrated by pulling a yellow bird balloon that is bigger than a building down an avenue filled with amazed children instead of harried commuters is a magical national moment. It is my strong personal belief that Thanksgiving is the national holiday most responsible for integrating new Americans into the culture and community of their new land. Thanksgiving is completely perfect. In contrast to Thanksgiving, we can understand why Groundhog Day comes up a little short.

Happy Father's Day, Dad! I love you publicly and privately. Sorry I did not send you anything for United Nation's Day.