Saturday, May 14, 2011

What Do The Simple Folk Do?

Holidays have always been the province – and the joy – of the working poor. For the indigent, every day is a day, free from labor. The wealthy create leisure at their pleasure. Those we call the middle class are typically granted a week or two each year, sometimes more, to use as they wish. The working poor alone must wait until a day is given them.

In medieval times the poor were granted rest (and recreation) on holy days; days decreed by the church, often as a way to Christianize a persistently pagan population. Still, despite the best efforts of the Church to the contrary, many such holy days retained elements of their pre-Christian aura. The peasantry thought nothing of blending the beauty of spires, stained glass, sermons, and song, with pagan influences unconsciously perpetuated, but nonetheless ingrained, and too delight-filled to forget. A mixture of sacred and secular slowly turned holy days to holidays; days in which food and drink and festivity took center stage.

I’m surprised at the ease with which my parents accommodated the pagan elements in Christian and other holidays. It seems out of character for Dad, whose conscience would not allow him to eat in a church owned building, or to buy or sell on the Lord’s Day, to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus, or help his children deliver May Baskets. It is just as jarring to recall my mother, whose Nazarene roots kept her from wearing jewelry, even her wedding ring, nonetheless creating costumes for her children to wear at school Halloween parties, or making Easter Baskets and hiding eggs all over the house for children and grandchildren to find.

But they were the working poor, so their holy days had to double as holidays. Except for Sunday, there were no other “days off”. Their five and a half or six-day work week included half, or all, of Saturday. Even secular "holy days" – New Years Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving – had to do double duty, serving their original purpose as days of reflection and gratitude, but more obviously as rare respites from labor, providing opportunities to enjoy simple pleasures.

It is easy to overlook the working poor in a society like ours. They are working all around us, in restaurants, nursing homes, day care centers, department stores, schools and hospitals, piecing together full-time work from several part-time, minimum wage jobs. They receive no benefits and certainly no paid vacations. Most of the holidays that, in the past, would have signaled a day off for them, have been taken away by our 24/7/365 world. Even if a day is granted it is almost certainly a day without pay.

The question posed in Camelot is more relevant today than ever, “What do the simple folk do, that gives them a pleasure or two?” I wonder if cable and satellite TV, Xboxes, iPads, and cell phones – the toys with which they entertain themselves – are a fair exchange for holidays our society once thought necessary, but now no longer observes as a day of rest and recreation. When does our world ever shut down for a working man’s holiday?

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