Holidays come about for all sorts of reasons – religious observance, the seasonal round of tasks and events (bringing cattle down from the high pastures, harvest), to commemorate events in the life of the community or nation or nation-state, or because someone pestered the government into recognizing something (Mothers’ Day). And then there are pop-culture-inspired unofficial dates that are observed by the faithful, like International Read Tolkien Day, Star Wars Day, and Talk Like a Pirate Day.
The oldest holidays and observances go back to religious observations and seem to be seasonal. When you consider that until the mid-20th Century, human survival depended primarily on the environment not doing in our crops and livestock, honoring the harvest and the deities when things go right and trying to propitiate them so things won’t go wrong makes very fundamental sense. Spiritual life-insurance, if you will, and so harvest festivals, planting festivals, and feasts and sacrifices and vigils at the great turning points of the year are common in many cultures.
Over time, this shifted a little in the Christian world, although there are some lingering nods to the needs of the past. Who has heard of the “frost saints?” They are the four who have feast days in early May, and in parts of eastern Germany, frost or good weather on their feast days is taken as a vital sign for planning for the rest of the farming year.
With the rise of nationalism, special days to commemorate the “nation,” or religious and secular figures associated with “the nation” became more popular in Europe. Think of St. George’s Day in England, especially today. Outside of Hungary, St. Stephen of Hungary is not venerated all that much. Inside Hungary he is a very important figure in the political and religious sense of what being Hungarian means, and in the story of Hungarian-ness. Commemoration of battles and government things pushed out most saints in Protestant countries. Guy Fawkes? Independence Day in the United States? Not saint’s days, but major festivals of national identity.
In more recent times, we have holidays that developed because of socialism (Labor and Labour days, May 1 in a lot of the world), because of a desire to honor motherhood, to commemorate those who died in defense of their country (Memorial Day, Remembrance Day, ANZAC Day), days to give thanks for the bounty of the year (Thanksgiving), to commemorate political leaders (Washington’s Birthday, now lumped with Lincoln and called Presidents’ Day [pathooy]), monarchs (the Queen’s Birthday), and other rather major things. And the all-important Teachers’ Appreciation Day AKA Feed-the-Faculty Day. 😉
And then we have the “they pestered Congress until a day was declared.” National Textiles day. National Orange Juice Day. National Weather Observers’ Day. National Specially Abeled Pets Day (!?!) National Acorn Day. National Felt Hat day (also known as “Alma observes daily” day) and so on, ad infinitum, world without end, amen.
Some people honor fiction (Star Wars Day). Some fictional worlds include holidays, Sarah Hoyt’s Earth’s Revolution series being a classic example where July 4 is the High Holy day for USAians. In several books I’ve read over the years, there’s a Founders Day in honor of whoever first began living on a colony world.
Me? I’m holding out for National Chocolate Chip Day.