What Calendars Reveal about Culture

[S]tudying calendars is a way to understand cultures. Not only are they necessary for basic survival—if you plant either before the last frost or too late after it you’ll starve—but calendars are also ways societies mark their priorities and organize their memories. “Christendom” was very much Christian, and the calendar made that pretty clear.

First Things' Michael Linton originally posted this eye-opening comparison of the American and Christian calendars back at the beginning of Advent, but it works just as well as a New Year's piece.  His conclusion follows:

So that’s our calendar, the way we organize our time and the grid through with we weave our memories. But what’s illuminating is to see it next to the old Christian calendar. That abutment makes it pretty clear: The old calendar commemorates the saving work of God through history, our American calendar celebrates money.

Why is Easter largely invisible and Christmas so prominent? Simple. We don’t give gifts at Easter. And why does Christmas have such a faint prolongation? Because the gifts have already been bought and given, there’s nothing to prolong. Why has the Super Bowl gained a significance that almost parallels Thanksgiving? There’s a lot of cash bet on the Super Bowl, nobody bets on the turkey (well, OK, sometimes we do). Why were Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays combined and King’s birthday, Memorial Day, and Labor Day all moved off their historic dates to Mondays? For money, to encourage the resort industry. July 4th would probably be moved too if weren’t so tightly bound to that exact date. And why is Mother’s Day eclipsing Easter? Because on Mother’s Day you take mother OUT to eat; Easter dinner is at home.

It is our pursuit of money that unites us as Americans, and we’ve constructed our modern calendar to show that pretty clearly. If money weren’t so important to us, our calendar would look different, and I suspect that much of the dissonance many people of faith—Christians, Muslims, Jews, Native American traditionalists—feel with American culture comes from a sense that their faith-based notions of ordering time run against this American grid. And the question has to be asked, if—or perhaps better, when—we run out of money, what will keep us together?

Derek White

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