Secular Sabbath

This weekend marks four years since my grandfather, Jack, died.  As he had served as an Army clerk in World War II, it seemed fitting enough that he shuffled off on Memorial Day.  If nothing else, it means that we, his survivors, get to remember him twice.

For Zady (Yiddish for “Grandpa,” as he was known), the solemn day of remembrance we observe on Monday was an integral part of his life long before becoming an integral part of his death.

Every year we accompanied him to the local Memorial Day parade (before a rendezvous back to the house to grill hot dogs and toast marshmallows), and as we plopped down in his stuffy living room in front of the TV, he would bemoan, with abject disgust, the unholy proliferation of advertisements for Memorial Day sales.  “Get a great deal on a used car!”  “Fifty percent off all mattresses!”  “Three days only!”  “Hurry hurry hurry!”

For a member of the Greatest Generation, as Zady was, to exploit the day on which we remember those who died in order that the rest of us could live was not merely annoying; it was downright profane.

In recent years, of course, the practice of conducting all manner of commerce on national holidays, by businesses large and small, has grown by both leaps and bounds.  Today, there are very few product-peddlers in the United States that do not promise amazing holiday deals, no matter how somber the holiday.

Any notion of tasteful restraint on this front was ceremoniously laid to waste last November, when Walmart stores took the “Black Friday” madness to new heights (or is it lows?) by opening on Thanksgiving itself, rather than waiting until the traditional, rational hour of 12 o’clock midnight to fling their doors athwart and allow the throngs of shameless, thrifty sociopaths to barrel through.

With this state of affairs now firmly accepted in our culture as the not-so-new normal, it is all the more essential to ask and to wonder, in the spirit of Grandpa Jack:  Is nothing sacred?

As a general principle, I try to resist flights of nostalgia for our country’s supposed “good old days,” when things were simpler and everyone had a white picket fence, and America’s youth respected its elders and had not yet been corrupted by birth control and MTV.

As we know, very little that is said about the so-called wholesomeness and moral superiority of the mid-20th century is actually true.  To study the past is to be extraordinarily relieved to reside in the present.

And yet I wonder whether, by all but abandoning the ritual of taking a day off to reflect upon the nobler aspects of the American story, we have indeed managed to hollow out a chunk of our national soul.

My charge, I suppose, is that the primacy of commerce in our daily lives has ballooned so violently, and irreversibly, out of proportion that it is inflicting genuine harm upon the American civic character.

To wit:  It really used to be true that you would walk into town on a Sunday morning and everything would be closed.  There was no question to this.  Of course none of the shops were open—the owners and employees were all at church, along with everyone else.  If you weren’t at church, you were sleeping in or travelling or doing whatever your heart desired.

In any case, the point was that you were effectively forced to spend the day removed from your usual routine to relax, recharge and reflect.  To remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

For all the economic and Constitutional objections one might raise against any effort to resurrect such traditions in today’s world (outside the towns that have never quite abandoned them, that is), we might nonetheless regard an occasion such as Memorial Day as a kind of secular Sabbath, treating it with the reverence and undivided attention that it deserves.

Of course, this could all be a sentimental overreaction.  After all, we still have our parades and memorial services, and those who wish to participate still do.  (Unless they are called in to work.)  In a free country, why should we compel those who are busy or uninterested to tag along?

Because every so often, it is worth reminding ourselves that the United States is still one big community, with a shared history and shared values.  That for every vacuous, artificial holiday we have cooked up over the years, there are also those with real meat, meaning and purpose.

That some things are more important than shopping.


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