So my daughter came home the other day and announced that she and her friends had developed a solution to the difficulties caused by the different holidays they celebrate — just call them all RamaChristmaHanaKwanzakah! Of course, conflating all the major religious holidays that often occur in December may not really be a solution (regardless of whether or not there is even a problem), but their idea got me thinking about the relative lack of Mormon holidays.
For nearly a decade now I’ve looked on Mormonism as a separate branch of Christianity — akin to Catholicism, Protestantism and Easter Orthodoxy. Looking at our tradition in that way explains a lot — especially how are beliefs are so radically different from mainline (and mostly Protestant) Christianity in the US.
But culturally, Mormonism is not nearly as developed as the other, older, branches of Christianity: we don’t have their cultural traditions.
A good example of this is in our holidays. Like the other branches of Christianity, we celebrate the major Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter. Given our roots in the United States, we also tend to celebrate, at least in the US, important US holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day. Outside the US, Mormons also celebrate national holidays and those important to local culture.
The problem is that we don’t really have many uniquely Mormon holidays. The only real exception is Pioneer Day, and it isn’t as well developed as it could be.
What do I mean? A holiday is more than a day off of work. Wikipedia defines a holiday as: “a day set aside by a nation or culture (in some cases, multiple nations and cultures) typically for celebration but sometimes for some other kind of special culture-wide (or national) observance or activity. A holiday can also be a special day on which school and/or offices are closed, such as Labor Day.”
It seems to me that the “observance or activity” is an extremely important part of a holiday. Christmas has Christmas trees, gifts, and a host of other traditional activities associated with it. Easter has Easter eggs and baskets, Church activities, etc. Thanksgiving has a meal and its associated traditional meaning. Independence day has picnics, fireworks and so on. Obviously the more unique these activities are to that day, the stronger the holiday.
What does Pioneer day have? I’m rarely in Utah for Pioneer day, but I get the sense that it isn’t much different from Independence day there. [Although since the sequicentennial of the entrance of the Mormon pioneers in Utah July 24, 1847, I believe there has been an increase in local re-enactments of the trek, so perhaps this should be associated with Pioneer day.]
Outside of Utah, it isn’t a day off of work, and we Mormons generally don’t tell our employers that it is a religious holiday we should get off. Our stake here in New York City often holds a Pioneer Day picnic, but that isn’t very unique to me. When those outside of Utah do celebrate it, is this what we should do? Should Pioneer Day be connected with picnics? Somehow I don’t think that what the Pioneers experienced was a picnic!
The lack of a clear and somewhat unique activity or observance associated with Pioneer Day makes it much harder for those outside of Utah or converts to understand it and accept it as a holiday, let alone understand what happened that day. Perhaps the ‘reenactment’ idea is a place to start. It will still be quite foreign to new members, but at least it is unique and communicates well what happened on Pioneer Day.
Is Pioneer Day enough? I hardly think so. While I’m not advocating the extensive system of Catholicism (where holidays seem so frequent that it seems every day has its saint and might therefore be considered a holiday), I do think we could use a few more. Religion Facts suggests that Mormons also recognize April 6th (anniversary of formal organization of the Church) and May 15th (day that the Aaronic Priesthood was restored by John the Baptist), but we haven’t managed to make them holidays, at least not yet.
I think there are a few more we might consider adopting or creating. We celebrate anniversaries regularly, although they don’t quite reach the status of holidays. I’ve seen the founding of the Relief Society recognized, as well as the founding of the Primary. Other anniversaries that might work include the first overseas missionary journey (to England in 1837, because it had a huge effect on the Church), and some of better-known events in Church history. We may even get to the point that we can celebrate or commemorate recent or controversial events, such as the manifesto on polygamy or the 1978 proclamation on the priesthood.
Other events that might be commemorated, such as the “miracle of the gulls,” don’t have known specific dates, so commemorating their anniversary is difficult. Holidays sometimes also commemorate ideas or roles, such as Mother’s Day or Grandparent’s Day. Perhaps we should celebrate Prophet’s Day or Bishop’s Day. It seems to me Mormons would do well promoting a Service Day, and making it a religious holiday, since we already make service such a large part of our efforts.
Another way that we might increase the number of Mormon holidays is by borrowing holidays from others. Friends of our family have done this with the Protestant Advent celebration, lighting candles on each of the four Sundays before Christmas, and reading on each of those days a passage from one of the four standard works concerning the coming of Christ.
I’m sure there is a wealth of possible holidays that Mormonism might celebrate. And I think it entirely possible and appropriate for groups of Church members to take on the responsibility of choosing and promoting these holidays. Private groups have increasingly introduced and promoted holidays in recent years, and Commercial groups have not only taken a large part in promoting holidays in their best interest (Christmas, Easter, Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, etc.), but have also launched more than a few. Even Thanksgiving, perhaps one of the less commercial holidays in the UStoday, was started by private interests. [Mostly through magazine articles promoting the holiday in the late 1800s.]
I should note, in closing, that one of the possible Mormon holidays does coincide with the December holiday season. December 21st is Joseph Smith’s birthday. So my daughter should probably revise her name for the holiday season to RamaChristmaHanaKwanzaSmith Day!