The Changing Character of American Public Life
During my childhood and early adult years, two religious observances were widely held in communities all across America. Easter vacation was a four-day event, beginning with Good Friday and concluding on the following Monday. Schools were closed on those two days, and business and many retail establishments were closed on that Friday afternoon.
This meant that families could count on a four-day holiday. Since going to their own church on Easter Sunday was still a major practice, most families ended up staying close to home despite the relaxation of their school and business schedules.
Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding with Easter, was also widely recognized. Many churches used these days as times of special religious activities, which frequently included services of worship at noon or evening that were widely attended by people despite the fact that they were at work on those days.
During the years of my active adulthood, however, these religiously defined rituals of public life have been replaced. Holy Week and the Easter Vacation have morphed into Spring Break. Holy Week-Easter vacation and spring break-spring fling have two things in common: In our part of the world, they happen during the riotous rebirth of the natural world; and they provide a strongly anticipated break from the pattern of ordinary life.
One reason for the change in these springtime vacations, is technical. Schools need consistency in scheduling and they try to plan breaks to come at times in the year that are beneficial to the patterns of academic activity. Because the dating of Easter is based on the lunar calendar and the vernal equinox, it fluctuates from year to year, falling anytime from March 22 to April 25. With that kind of variation, it is difficult to plan academic calendars. This was true even in the Christian seminary where I taught for much of my career, and we were sympathetic to the religious events that these holy days commemorated.
A second reason for the fading away of the religious aspects of the springtime festival is that American public life is changing significantly. The de facto Protestant Christian underpinnings of how Americans ordered time are increasingly out of synchronization with how the people of our nation understand themselves. The proportion of church-going people to the population as a whole is diminishing.
Furthermore, other religious traditions, including Judaism and Asian religions, are now well represented in our communities. These groupings of people also have their religious festivals and believe that their ritual life should be honored as much as those of the Protestant old timers. One way to respond to this demand is to reduce the recognition of Protestant holy days and seasons, which is what has happened with respect to Easter Vacation and Holy Week.
The result is Spring Break, an event that is devoid of deeper meaning, whether it be religious or related to historical remembrance of events and meanings in America’s political and cultural traditions.
Since my experience is essentially pre-spring break, I can only comment on what I hear in the public discussion about the current festival. The oft-used alternative title, spring fling, conveys a sense of the exuberant behavior, with many constraints set aside for a few days, that typifies this festival of springtime. Spring break provides the occasion for people to move away from normal patterns of activity and from many of the social norms that keep ordinary life flowing smoothly.
For many people, the festival comes at a time when they need a few days away from convention in order to led the buds of life that have been dormant through the winter burst into bloom again. I too enjoy time away, especially if it is a warm place where I can spend a lot of time on my bicycle.
Should we worry about the fact that the older religious festivals honored self-giving love, the readiness to endure hardship for the sake of other people, and the strengthening of the institutions that bind us together while spring break celebrates the setting aside of these very qualities?
I think that the answer is yes. Hedonistic self-indulgence that spurns long-standing community values may be OK in tiny amounts on infrequent occasions, but the harder values of mutuality and service that the older ceremonies commemorated and transmitted are crucial to the well being of our nation.
Of one thing we can be sure: the spring fling aspect of spring break will stay with us. The task before us is to find a way to recover the solidarity of life together that in earlier generations was remembered and renewed during Holy Week and Easter Vacation.