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September 28, 2016

Autumn holiday power rankings

What is the best part of fall? Is it the vibrant sylvan sunsets of changing leaves that adorn our hillsides, the crisp nights illuminated by communal bonfire, the cinnamon-spiced prepackaged snack foods falsely claiming to contain the flavor of pumpkin, or the symbolic destruction of youth enacted as sport on the hallowed fluorescent gridirons of our high schools?
Is it the Thanksgiving turkey or the Halloween candy?
The most important national holiday of summer is obviously the Fourth of July; similarly, irrespective of one’s religion, it’s clear that the highest-status winter holiday in the United States is Christmas. Springtime is more of a toss-up: Easter is more important for children, on account of the egg hunts and chocolate bunnies and for the religious, too, but adults on the whole seem to greet St. Patrick’s Day and, lately, Cinco de Mayo with more enthusiasm.
Fall is rather like spring: there are a number of high-profile holidays vying for the top spot. As a longtime autumn enthusiast, I feel uniquely qualified to settle whatever debate may exist on the subject. Here are my holiday rankings, from best to worst:
1. Halloween: I personally don’t like dressing up in costume. In fact, I hate it. My only goal, every day, when I get dressed, is to put on an outfit that won’t provoke attention or remark or seem as though it’s seeking to express anything in particular. Halloween is an entire holiday based on doing the opposite of this, and I think it’s kind of a horror for self-conscious people.
Even so, it wins the number-one slot for a few reasons. Most importantly, it includes a universally beloved activity for children—trick-or-treating—that exists solely for fun and is not tied into any ideas of virtue or good behavior (cf. Santa’s naughty list, New Year’s resolutions) even though it surely serves to build community as well. Secondarily, for adults, it remains a social holiday, not an insular family holiday: people throw Halloween parties, and people expect to have fun at these parties—there is no expectation for a formal “Halloween dinner” centered on extended-family togetherness and staying in all night.
2. Thanksgiving: In many ways the polar opposite of Halloween, Thanksgiving is an indoor holiday—you may invite people over, but most of them are probably going to be relatives whom you can’t stand or at least slightly resent, and eventually you’ll retreat to the TV for football. It has no spirit of mischief or fantasy; it carries the obligation-weighted burden of familial and national tradition, some vague connection to a falsified Pilgrim past, and even an exhortation to “be thankful” for various aspects of one’s life. Like Halloween, Thanksgiving promotes overindulgence but mostly, in this case, of savory foods rather than sweets.
Still and all, it is a formidable holiday—it has its rituals, pleasurable or not, and its iconography. It doesn’t feel like a random day off from work or school, as some holidays can. Among the days of the year, it is a landmark, a point of orientation, its significance undeniable: try not celebrating Thanksgiving—it’s almost impossible.
3. Labor Day: Usually regarded as the last day of summer, it may not deserve a place on this list, but I’m counting everything from September through November. Labor Day is enjoyable—beaches, barbecues, etc.—despite whatever bittersweet quality its seasonally transitional nature implies. But it loses points for its oddly apolitical status: unlike its non-U.S. equivalent, the International Workers’ Day on May 1, it doesn’t really suggest anything of unions or labor movements. Although invented to serve the same purpose here as May Day in Europe, it now seems as though concocted specifically as an uncontroversial capitalist alternative—a day off given as small reward, not a day claimed for a purpose.
4. Veterans Day: Considering the elaborate show that we Americans typically make of honoring and respecting our troops at political debates and sporting events, it’s surprising that Veterans Day isn’t a bigger deal in the United States. Workers in the private sector mostly don’t even get the day off, and before writing this article I had forgotten that the holiday even was an autumn event. Given our national potential for patriotic expression, Veterans Day strikes me as an underutilized holiday.
5. Columbus Day: It’s already been said a million times—get rid of this, please. By which I mean, rename it, please: that this holiday still exists makes one wonder whether first-grade teachers are still telling their students that “Christopher Columbus discovered America.” Can it be? Do they at least mention the part where he oversaw the mass murder, rape, and enslavement of the people who already lived there?
6. Black Friday: The “holiday” that elevated a day on which people already had off from work anyway definitely hasn’t improved American culture, its only tradition being bleak cold nights spent standing outside of big-box stores. As an anti-bonus, it has spawned a classist cottage industry of people who can afford to pay full price for a TV denigrating those who participate in Black Friday as (at best) consumerist zombies or (at worst) bloodthirsty stampeding savages.
In end, I wonder whether the best autumn holidays may be those with which I’m too unfamiliar to comment: Yom Kippur (extending this year from sunset on October 11 through nightfall on October 12), the Jewish Day of Atonement, with its repentance for wrongs committed and pleas for forgiveness, sounds especially promising as a kind of truth-telling antidote to the false reflection of our insistently positive Thanksgiving and its inevitable self-promoting Facebook statuses.
I also like the sound of the Mexican Day of the Dead, which, overlapping with Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, involves bright, funny, happy celebrations of the lives of deceased loved ones, taking place in the cemeteries where they’re buried. This fall, I could probably use a little more of whatever energetic, wise, and wonderful perspective informs and allows this kind of revelry, a little less turkey.

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