Good Friday or Earth Day?

April 22nd, 2011
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Easter moves dates from year to year, so it’s always a little revelation opening the new calendar in January and seeing exactly when it falls. As the day approaches, you might be making plans for the family or looking at a little getaway.

This year I had a glance to figure out when the long weekend was, and encountered something I thought rather odd. Underneath the words “Good Friday” were the words “Earth Day”. Hmmm. Earth Day has been around since 1970, so that’s no surprise but, I thought, who would choose a date for the enviro-fest that coincided with the most solemn day of the Christian calendar? Ironically Earth Day’s originator, U.S. Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, picked the date so that it would not usually coincide with any religious holidays. But there it is this year, somehow urging one to contemplate a crucified “Mother Earth” rather than Christ.

Not that we should be surprised at such a confluence, given the explosion of secular observances we live with. Although the secular stat days have remained relatively unchanged over the decades – Victoria Day, Canada (Dominion) Day, Labour – the informal milestones are legion.

On top of the old Mother’s and Father’s Days there’s now a day for almost every colour of our social rainbow. Some are ostensibly serious, like International Women’s Day, others a money-maker for restaurants and florists, like Secretary’s (Administrative assistant’s?) Day, or is that a week? AIDS has a day, as do (according to the UN) tuberculosis and autism. Other diseases have months: heart and stroke month is February. March is kidney month, as hard as it is to imagine most people thinking about kidneys for a whole month. Black history gets a month. So far, Gays only get a (Pride) week. Is someone working on that? Things like Oktoberfest aren’t usually scheduled for the whole month, unless there’s enough beer and bratwurst to last that long.

Other days are observed, often uncomfortably, for uncomfortable reasons. There is now September 11th, the anniversary of the Columbine Massacre (Hitler’s birthday) and in Canada the anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique shooting (December 6th).

There doesn’t seem to be a particular priority here. You won’t be shocked to know, however, that the UN has tried to put some “order” to this, recognizing no fewer than 72 days of “International Observance”. This is quite something. There’s “Mountain Day” and “International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer” (a.k.a. “International Day of not using Spray Deodorant”). “United Nations Car Free Day” has an odd counterpart, invoking what happens on the other 364 days – “World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims”. Two other days seem to cancel each other out -”International Holocaust Remembrance Day” and “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People”. One day must cause a little discomfort at the UN itself – “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Rwanda Genocide”. The key word, then as now, would be “reflection”.

One disease has made it with the UN. Breast Cancer has a whole month devoted to it (October). They have of course also designated numerous “commemorative years”. Who can forget the “International Year of Rice” (2004), or 2009, “International Year of Natural Fibres”? Not sure if the latter refers to cloth or bran cereal.

Students of history will be aware of the reputedly great number of religious festivals celebrated back in the day. The cliché now is that these were so great in number during the Middle Ages that the peasants really didn’t have to toil in the muck as much as was long thought. In parts of Europe where things like the Feast of the Ascension are still holidays, there must be a dwindling number of people who actually know what it’s even about. When I worked in Bavaria in 1980, I got that day off. As secular as the Euros have become, they seem reluctant to work an extra day, just on principle.

When I was a kid in the antediluvian Quebec, the place shut down on Good Friday. Today it’s just another shopping day. A few days with religious connotations seem to have held out, usually with a strong layering on of worldly meaning. Besides Christmas and Easter there’s of course Halloween and Valentine’s Day. The only other Saint to hang on is  Patrick, perpetuated by the spirit of the Irish and the imbibing of everybody else. There’s also a lot of enthusiasm for the excess of Mardi Gras, for the penitence of Lent – not-so-much.

If you look at the UN list though, isn’t it just a post-modern attempt to create secular feast days? Instead of the Ascension, coming about 40 days after Easter, maybe Bavarians will one day be celebrating one of the UN days, like “Ballpoint Pen Day” (June 10th) or “World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought” (June 17th)? My guess would be the latter if it could only be changed to “World Day to Combat Thirst”. That can at least be celebrated in the traditional manner – seated at large, rough-hewn wooden tables, with a repeated lifting of frosty mugs of foam.

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By John Weissenberger