I’m pretty sure Maggie would freak out if she could see our contemporary observances of holidays and holy days. Some big changes happened in the latter part of the 19th and the 20th centuries that would have blown her mind.
I belong to a sect of Christianity called The United Methodist Church. Historically my church is related to Maggie’s church, the Methodist Episcopal Church. I could give a you a detailed family tree, but unless you’re fascinated by this kind of minutiae, you’d probably fall asleep. Despite our common DNA, the ways in which United Methodists approach religious holidays today is very different from the way in which Maggie’s church and culture would done.
To understand this, we need to go way back in time. In short and without getting terribly complicated, the Roman Catholic Church of the medieval era had a rich tradition of holidays and holy days. Then came the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Like many reform movements, it tried to wipe the slate clean of behaviors and thought it considered unnecessary. These things included drastically reducing the number of feast and festival days and stripping down the way in which worship was conducted.
In addition, the plague of the Black Death in the mid-1300s and the demise of feudalism, precipitated the rise of capitalism. The capitalistic impulse had a new take on what was important. It prized enterprise and personal industry. Simply put this means it encouraged people to labor more and party less, something that eventually became known as the “Protestant work ethic.” The new value of “time is money” gained even more support by the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Jump to North America. The English-speaking European groups who settled here were primarily Protestant, although Catholics did get a place of their own by royal fiat – Maryland – as well as territories settled by the French and Spanish. Among the non-Catholic groups were the Puritans of New England (later called Congregationalists), the Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed groups of the Mid-Atlantic, the Church of England of the Southern States (who after the Revolution became the Episcopal Church), and the Society of Friends, or Quakers, of Pennsylvania. Baptists, Methodists, and other groups had a smaller impact in those early years.
Of the above Protestant groups, the Puritans were the strictest in their approach to holidays and holy days. They famously did not celebrate either Christmas or Easter. In fact, the only break from the daily routine of work for the Puritans was Sunday, the day of worship. However, other groups practiced similarly austere approaches to both worship and holy day observance or non-observance, so the Puritans weren’t an aberration.
According to historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, there is another dimension to the work-holiday tension in the colonies: the American Revolution. After winning independence, British holidays got wiped out and gradually were replaced by civic holidays that were American in origin, such as Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July. In a sense, the United States was writing its own traditions and observances in both the religious and civic worlds.
This is the world into which Maggie is born. It is a world and mindset very different from ours, although we can still hear echoes of it today.
The stage is set.
But the stage is about to be struck and rebuilt. More tomorrow.
 If you’re interested in learning more about this, I highly suggest you start with Schmidt’s groundbreaking book, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ: 1995). Contrary to its title, Schmidt does not deplore the connection between commercialism and holidays; rather he gives a detailed and thoughtful exploration of the pros and cons of it.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder