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18 May, 2003

As “Holy Days” Became “Holidays”, Partying Replaces Praying

Originally Published: 18 May 2003

Somewhere through the passage of time, a small but significant change occurred in societies and communities that converted holy days into merely holidays.

The original objective of a holy day was largely religious, a day of worship, meditation and prayer. Rest was designed to soothe the mind, nourish the spirit, reaffirm faith in the values of life, spend time with families, give thanks, seek forgiveness and undertake other activities related to compassion and charity.

Today, under the modern concept of holidays, the heck with all that.

It’s time to hit the bars, the movie theatres, shopping malls and theme parks for more fun and games. Churches, mosques, temples are considered out-dated and out-moded. Attendance at these places is falling in favour of rising attendance at the glitz and glamour citadels of commercialism.

While the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they do indicate the imbalance that has set in as one set of excesses focussed on spirituality is replaced by another whose only focus is materialism.

Hence, replacing the “y” in “holy day” with an “i” in “holiday” is deeply symbolic of how the human psyche itself has changed. “I” could stand for individualism, the generation of egotistic hedonism in which the pursuit of pleasure is paramount and the interests of the self are placed above those of the community around.

A look at the line-up of what are today described as “holidays” shows that nearly all are associated with some of form of “holiness.” They derive from religious traditions and events, many of them linked to births, deaths and momentous events in the lives of the founders of various religions.

The Friday-Saturday-Sunday “weekend” tradition derives mainly from the monotheistic faiths — Friday being the Day of Assembly for Muslims, Saturday/Sunday the Sabbath or Shabbat for the Jews and Christians marking the day when God is believed to have rested after creating the heavens and the earth. The Jews believe it to be a Saturday and the Christians, with the exception of the Seventh Day Adventists, converted that to a Sunday. Indeed, the fourth of the Ten Commandments requires the observation of the Sabbath as a holy day, not a holiday in the modern sense of the term.

Today, these weekend holidays mean time for partying, and partying means drinking. Thank God it’s Friday has got nothing to do with thanking God, except perhaps for the alcohol companies whose sales surge on Friday and Saturday nights, causing a carnage on the roads that goes unreported because the media only calculates the casualties over the “long holidays” — the three/four-day weekends when the toll becomes high enough to be considered newsworthy.

And yet, if the Bangkok Post would keep a weekend-by-weekend record of alcohol-related accidents over the course of an entire year, I wager the annualised toll will be shocking beyond belief. That would be only in one country; extend the statistics worldwide and it could well prove true that alcohol kills as many, if not more, people than cigarettes, and certainly more innocent people than terrorism.

There are perhaps no greater examples of this conversion from spirituality to commercialism than two of the most popular global “holidays” — St Valentine”s  Day and Christmas.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, the contemporary association of St. Valentine’s day (on February 14) with lovers and choosing of a “Valentine” has nothing to do with St Valentine, a Roman Christian martyr of the 3rd century. The dictionary says it probably derives from customs of the Roman festival of Lupercalia in honour of the goddess Februata Juno, when boys drew by lot the names of unmarried girls.

St Valentine’s day is supposedly the day to show a friend or loved one that you care. Cupid, the Roman god of love, is represented by the image of a young boy with bow and arrow. Roses are popular because they are supposedly the flower of love. The “valentines” have become greeting cards named after the notes that St. Valentine received in jail.

Ditto with Christmas, the Christian feast commemorating the birth of Jesus. The tradition of gift-giving on Christmas eve supposedly symbolises charity and compassion for the poor and needy — a central tenet of Christianity — but has today become a buying-spree which, somewhat indirectly, could be construed as a form of charity because it stokes economies and creates jobs.

How much of that charity actually benefits the millions who go to bed hungry over the Christmas season is a moot point. Genuine charities get only a small fraction of the billions of dollars spent on buying gifts and presents.

Many Muslims end the holy fasting month of Ramadan with a feeding frenzy that undoes much of the spiritual, physical and mental good a 30-day period of abstinence is supposed to do.

Even the Hindu festival of Diwali is today associated with noise and fire-crackers rather than the original concept of Truth and Light stemming from an age-old culture designed “to teach us to vanquish ignorance that subdues humanity and to drive away darkness that engulfs the light of knowledge.” Indeed, the word “Diwali” itself is a variation of the Sanskrit word “Deepavali” – Deepa meaning light and Avali, meaning a row.

Ask the younger generation of today about the rich wisdom and symbolism behind these monumental events, and you will probably draw a blank.

The commercialisation of holy days could well gain steam in the years ahead as globalisation continues to roll over countries and economies. Holidays are the times for sales blitzes, product launches, movie releases and festivals of food and drink. Getting people to pay outrageous amounts of money for creatively packaged products has become a fine art — it is the time when the “festive mood’ sets in and people drop their normal caution with money and most other things they are normally cautious about.

This year, for example, a spate of pre-Valentine’s Day media reports told of how young Thai girls are being hoodwinked into “showing their love” for their boyfriends in ways they would not otherwise do. I wonder what St Valentine would have thought of that.

Religions have long warned against the worship of wealth. Holy days were meant to take people away from that — after several days of working to meet the short-term needs of feeding the families, human beings were urged to devote at least a little time to longer-term interests, such as life after death.

Once, holy days were all “pray” and no “play”. Today, they are increasingly becoming the other way around. As humans were not designed to survive in an unbalanced world, it would be fair to assume that sooner or later, the pendulum will begin swinging the other way.

Pending such time, I’m off to the Emporium.