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OnWords: Holiday


As we move into the holiday season, it seems like a good time to consider the ways we use the word holiday and its implications.

Originally meaning “holy day,” the term has expanded over the centuries to include any day set aside for celebration, religious observance, or rest.

The religious associations of Christmas and Easter are still quite meaningful for many Americans and show vestiges of a liturgical calendar that very intentionally divided days between work and celebration, toil and feast.

Halloween, once a religious holiday commemorating the the souls of saints, martyrs, and the dead generally, has ties to pre-Christian pagan rituals, and by now shows few of its religious roots, but it does suggest a reversal of the normal order of things, focusing on subjects we typically avoid and distributing treats for free. 

Some of us decry the secularization and commercialization of religious holidays, yet when we look back at the origins of the word, we see that “holiday” has long marked the distinction between productive work and the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor, between everyday life and the change of seasons.

In the UK and its former colonies, and increasingly in Europe as well, a holiday indicates any vacation day, and so one may be said to be “on holiday” while vacationing whatever time of the year. 

But even this definition involves the basic idea of holiness: getting us in touch with something more, something beyond ourselves.