Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/The Origin of Holidays


AS ballads are the essence of a people's history, so holidays are the free utterance of their character. Spontaneity is always valuable evidence, and holidays are in their beginnings purely spontaneous. They furnish psychically an excellent example of reflex action. The stimuli which come to us from the outer world of things as well as from the inner world of sensation find three channels for the expenditure of their force, viz., thought, feeling, and involuntary or reflex action, Man's position in the scale of life is determined in general by the proportion in which stimulus is distributed among these three outflows. The less of conscious life a creature has, the nearer will it approach to the existence of an automaton.

Now, though we can not precisely construct the psychical life of the primitive man, yet the law of evolution enables us to picture him as exercising little reflective thought, rather dull feelings of the bodily pain and pleasure sort, and a comparatively large amount of reflex action; so that stimulus, following the line of least resistance or greatest traction, will in a majority of cases end in reflex action. Even if the incoming sentient current does flow on or over into feeling and even thought, the smallness of their capacity prevents much egress through these intellectual channels, and the restricted current must again find its exit in expressive muscular action. Let us briefly review the historical beginnings and development of this spontaneous demonstrative life.

The primitive holiday was occasional—i.e., prompted by unusual events of domestic or tribal life. Births, marriages, and deaths are almost universally celebrated by primitive man, and we must remember that his feelings connected with, death are by no means such as ours. Though the pains of separation and loneliness have come to be widely differentiated from those joyful, generous feelings connected with the beginnings of domestic life, yet with the savage it was more fear than affection which prompted the propitiation of the ghost of the dead, and a gift of presents for its use in the future world. The Pacific islanders, Asiatic peoples, African tribes, and American Indians, all, in one way or another, feast and sacrifice on occasion of the principal family events. Among the Karens a corpse lies in state three or four days, amid marching around to music of pipes, singing, lamentation, and athletic games. The Javanese have religious festivals for marriages, births, circumcision, and for the dead. The Tongans celebrate their chief's marriage by dancing, single combats, boxing, and wrestling. On the birth, of a child the feasting, sham fighting, night-dancing, etc., last for several days among the Samoans.[1] The principal friends of newly made parents among this same people bring presents on the third day after the birth of the child, according to an invariable rule, by which the husband's relatives bring pigs, canoes, and foreign property, and the wife's relatives bring fine mats and native clothes made by the females. These interchange their gifts and leave the parents as poor as before. The Malagasy's ceremonies, bull-baiting, dancing, singing, beating of drums, etc., at circumcision, last a week or even months. The Hottentots have feasts of eating, drinking, and smoking on the admittance of youth to manhood and womanhood, and on occasion of marriages and funerals. On the death of a king of the Congos[2] no work must be done, the natives stay at home, while the fields remain uncultivated for a month. A king's death among the coast negroes, Ashantees, and Abyssinians, however, is the signal for general lawlessness and plunder. The destruction of property, feasting, and sacrifices at an ordinary funeral often ruin one of these families. The celebrations of the Santals are few and simple: at admission into the family, tribe, and race; at marriage, divorce, cremation, and the reunion of the dead with their departed fathers. The funeral games of the Kirghiz are racing, wrestling, and trying to catch a coin out of a vessel of sour milk.

Coming to higher types of men, with more social and political coherence, the number and variety of festivals increase. They cease to be held for domestic events alone, but are extended to such tribal matters as, among the Abipones, councils of war, impending fights, victories, birth of a chief's son, change of name (done at funerals), arrival of distinguished visitors, or the proclamation of a new chief. Among the Malagasy a grand feast, accompanied with dancing, music, and sports, terminates the ceremony of a treaty. The Mandans[3] hold a feast of the bull-fight, on which depends the coming of their supply of buffaloes. Two feasts are given by the Hottentots at the installation of a chief of a kraal: one by the person installed, when the men eat all the meat and give the broth to the women; and the second, given by the wife, when the women get the meat and the men the broth. The New-Zealanders give great feasts and Olympian games to other nations. In their national pride to outdo each other in prodigality the collection for these feasts is begun a year before, and the extravagance often produces a famine, so that the natives are obliged to leave their settlements till their crops are ripe. Cannibalism is simply the Fiji style of an occasional feast. Before going into war the Tahitians offer human sacrifices; and at the coronation of their king there is a great religious festival in honor of the monarch, whose girdle of red feathers identifies him with the gods. Different districts among them challenge each other to public games, e.g., wrestling, boxing, foot-racing, canoe-races, spear and javelin throwing, military and naval reviews, ball, archery, cock-fighting, surf-swimming, kite-flying, etc., all of which are also often connected with religious ceremonies or a cause of national rejoicing, such as the return of a king or the arrival of some distinguished visitor.

The transition from occasional to periodic festivals is through the various harvest celebrations. The Congos have a great harvest feast at the ripening of the yams, and the Ashantees celebrate the same event with processions and sacrifices of slaves. Sacrifices are made to the late village head of the Santals, at each stage of rice-planting. Three great festivals are held by the Gonds—at seed-time, at harvest, and when the mhowa flowers. A feast is also kept at the end of a monsoon to the god of rain. The Creeks have a religious feast of four to eight days on the ripening of the crops. A feast of first-fruits is held in January by the Kaffirs. At the sowing of the rice the Dyaks have three festivals: in the midst of the cutting down of the jungle, when it is set on fire, and the blessing of the seed before planting. At harvest are three more: feast of the first-fruits, of the middle of the harvest, and to secure the price of rice.

The next stage in the development of our ancestral holidays is one of great importance. In this one primitive astronomy begins, our calendar has its genesis, and domestic, civil, and political life begins to assume something of that order and regularity which inspires confidence between man and man, and gives stability to customs and institutions.

We can hardly appreciate the meaning of the appearance of the new moon to the primitive man. It was the herald of a new season of light to dispel his natural dislike and even fear of darkness. The old Hindus and the Arabs through the Syrians sacrificed at new and full moons. The Tasmanians danced at full moon. One of the earliest recorded festivals of the ancient Hebrews is that of the new moon. This event was regularly celebrated by the chief of the Nootka Columbians, by causing a slave to be killed to furnish a banquet, amid songs and dancing, to the other chiefs of lower rank. A certain phase of the moon was also the most frequent natural periodic event to suggest the memory of events celebrated at the last moon, and were this memory vivid enough the savage would be moved to renew his demonstrations. The Uaupés laments his dead from the time of death to burial, and follows this with an Irish wake. Then a lunar month after death the corpse is disinterred, roasted in a pan, the remaining black mass is powdered, mixed with drink, and drunk. The funeral wake among the Abyssinians is held some months after the funeral.

When man's memory grew stronger with his development, the natural solar divisions of time acted as stimuli on his mind to commemorate festival events. The ancient Peruvians feasted each month of the year, but had their principal feasts at the solstices and equinoxes. To the Sol grove, the abode of the family gods or deceased ancestors, the Santals repair yearly, to worship with dancing, music, chanting songs in memory of the founder, and to hold sacrificial feasts of goats and fowls. Each family danced about the tree, supposed to be the abode of its own god. The Karens[4] have an annual feast of the dead at a new moon, when the deceased are supposed to be present, and partake of the food and receive addresses. Among the Kalmucks four yearly feasts are held: (1) New-year's, lasting for several days, with feasting and good wishes. (2) Summer festival, with wrestling, horse-racing, etc. (3) "Consecration of the water," when bodily and spiritual ailments of the bathers in the water were cured. (4) "Candle festival," at beginning of winter, when lights are lit in the temple. The most important and popular feast among the Malagasy is the New-year, or "bathing," that being the principal part of the ceremony. Ten or fifteen thousand bullocks, however, are usually killed at this time, and sacrifices are made to the gods and at the tombs of the king's ancestors. The funeral ceremonies of the Todas are usually celebrated annually by feasting, dancing, and slaughtering of animals. Among the Arabs there is an invocation of the dead, and sacrifices at the tombs of the chiefs once a year. The Eskimos hold religious feasts about the winter solstice and at New-year's. A yearly celebration of a tradition of a deluge is observed by the Mandan Indians. Among the ancient Phœnicians mourning rites were repeated annually.

We come now to consider how the more or less artificial subdivisions of time came to be used for periodical celebrations, and ultimately became fixed holidays. There appear historically arbitrary days, such as the three post-natal feast-days given by the Gond mother. On the fifth day after the birth of her child her female friends are feasted, male friends on the twelfth, and both together again on the thirteenth. Such an arrangement of dates is probably determined by the physical state of the mother and some conditioning social customs. It is by division of the lunar month, however, that the development continues among the more civilized peoples. A triple division in Tibet gave their original fast-days the 9th, 19th, and 29th; the Mongols, having fixed temples far removed, held three successive days, the 14th, 15th, and 16th; those of the Kalmucks are the 8th, 15th, and 30th. But, when the old Hindus, Arabs, and Syrians sacrificed at new and full moons, the beginning was made toward the Jewish Sabbath and our Sunday. The fourfold division of the lunar month by full and quarter moon religious or sacrificial feast-days gave the week and the magic number seven. With the Babylonians, the 7th, 12th, 21st, and 28th days of the month were called days of "sulum," or rest; certain works being forbidden on these days. This expression was transmitted from the older Accadians. Each of these days was consecrated to a different god, one of whom was the moon. Whether the Congo negroes got their frequent Sunday by a sevenfold division of the month we can not say positively, but it is certainly very significant that every fourth day is with them a general day of rest from work in the fields.

This process of subdivision is especially interesting to trace in Semitic and Jewish history, for it shows the perfectly natural rather than the supernatural origin of our "day of rest." The month is the old sacred division of time common to all the Semites. The Mohammedan and Jewish calendars are still lunar. The Semitic word "ahalla," meaning "to greet the new moon," was used of any festal joy, and became the type of religious festivity in general. "In the old Semitic scriptures the new moon and the Sabbath are almost invariably mentioned together." There were the same occasional feasts which we have found in the life of other barbarous peoples, much the same equinoctial, solstitial, and yearly festivals, so that the permanent subdivisions of the lunar cycle by a ceremonial and emotional race was a most natural progress of their enlarging life. At the middle of the tenth century B.C., there were, besides the annual feasts of unleavened bread, harvest, and ingatherings, those of the new moon and the Sabbath; and these latter still retained their primitive characteristics of joyful days of rest and assembly. In fact, owing to the popular reluctance to class religious days, and particularly the ancient Sabbath, as holidays, "we can not refrain," with Deutsch, "from entering a protest against the vulgar notion of the Jewish Sabbath as being a thing of grim austerity. It was precisely the contrary—a day of joy and delight, a feast-day, honored by fine garments, by the best of cheer, by wine, lights, spice, and other joys of pre-eminently bodily import." So here the same objection should be met which was anticipated in the case of funeral ceremonies and festivals. All primitive religious ceremonies and days, whether they be in connection with ghost, fetich, or Nature worship, are of this spontaneous emotional character which is the essence of holidays. It is doubtless true that, when in the course of the development of a religion the spontaneity lessens, and with more expressionless feeling and calm thought the religious life of a people crystallizes into mechanical forms and creeds, then austerity and asceticism have dried up the holiday heart in church-days; but when the reaction comes, and the Church in fear and horror calls us to defend her acquired prerogative, we are assured, by such an inquiry into the origin of her days, that either the creeds and commandments must be periodically modified to the needs of human nature, or that mankind will find more radical vents for its spontaneity. The founder of Christianity saw the necessity in his day for the rebuke that "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." We to-day see that man has made his own Sabbath; being his own, he must not and can not be kept from his heritage.

This suggests the question, How has the direction of holidays come to be taken from the hands of the participants? The answer is obviously found in the course of differentiation and specialization which holidays have undergone. The domestic festivals, which included only relatives and friends, were at first purely spontaneous with each individual or circle. As the ceremonies became more elaborate and prolonged, the father, eldest son, medicine-man, or chief became director, until with further elaboration into fixed and regular forms of emotional expression, there arose the beginnings of a specialized class of priesthood. When they had obtained full control, there arose the phenomenon, remarkable in that it continues to our own day, of the priesthood's trying to formulate the reasons for the ceremonies and existence of church-days, and these efforts taking on the shape of creeds and commandments—which, however necessary as expedients, touch the truth only most symbolically.

The hint has already been several times offered that holidays, starting in the psychological way of reflex action, have had their growth according to the law of all growth—evolution, by which they have progressed from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity. A caution must be interposed here, however, before the completion of the law is pointed out. It must not be supposed for an instant that the development took place in such distinct steps as might be inferred from the grouping of our historical references: that domestic festivals were completely or at all generally in custom before tribal or national demonstrations came into vogue; that only after these were current in an occasional way were harvest festivals held; and that not until the moon's cycle had been quartered did the recurring solar periods become associated with regular emotions. On the contrary, each of these logical periods largely overlapped the next, so that nearly or quite all of them have been contemporaneous in various degrees of advancement. We can only hold that, on the whole, the growth of holidays has been according to some coherent method whose outline is found to be the law of evolution.

The completion of the law is that with the increase and specialization of holidays there has been a concomitant loss of emotion, but that the retained emotion has undergone a like process from homogeneity to heterogeneity. This is seen in the fact that though the Africans and Polynesians show that holidays began as overflows of emotion, yet on ascending through the history of the Indians, Asiatics, Americans, and Europeans, festivals have become less demonstrative and more varied and restricted in their meaning. This fact gives us the key to the radical change which has taken place in the character of our modern holidays as compared with those of primitive man. As man became capable of quiet feeling and reflective thought, the various internal and external stimuli were less and less forced into reflex demonstrative action. He could experience joy and sorrow, bravery and hospitality, reverence and worship, with an ever-lessening muscular action. Most of all, perhaps, is the change due to the share of stimulus which went to thought. This is first seen in the difference between occasional and periodic holidays. The periodic days added to the pure spontaneity of occasional days the new intellectual element of association of ideas. Certain feelings came to be associated with certain phases of the moon or seasons of the year, the periodic recurrence of which revived with lessening intensity the emotions and reflex actions of the original event. The calendar festivals came to mean more; though they lost in demonstration, they gained in thought: free gladsomeness grew serious. Thus it came to pass that religion and the Church appropriated so many of Nature's festivals; that the Roman Saturnalia became our precious Christmas, the full-moon spring equinoctial feast grew into our beautiful Easter, and the harvest feast took the form of a Thanksgiving service.

These changes suggest the function and future of holidays in the light of their origin. As shown above, the psychical growth of man from an emotional to an intellectual creature has almost entirely changed the function of holidays. The truest survivals of the primitive emotional reflex-action function is seen in the children's April-fool's-day and our modern wedding shows. But the element of association, which was the genesis of our periodic days, is of more lasting power. The intense rush and struggle for existence of the modern world found less time for occasional festivals, and so needed more of the periodical reminders of events which our fathers or our ancestors first celebrated. But we note now an appearance of decadence which seems inevitably to await holidays. The original cause for the day being forgotten, from being a day of amusement, joy, and gayety, set apart in honor of some person or in commemoration of some event, it became a consecrated day, a religious anniversary or national festival, until it acquired the modern distinctive characteristic of a day of exemption from labor. To be sure, a feast always necessitated a change from ordinary occupations, but this was only an incidental condition to the expression of emotion. This function of a "rest-day" came into prominence, as we have noticed, with the Accadians and Babylonians, but it naturally has only become predominant in a pre-eminently industrial age. For the sake, then, of inculcating Mr. Spencer's text, "Work to live, and not live to work," if for nothing else, holidays still have a claim to our support; and we as a people are not so far removed from barbarism but that such wholesome texts and demands, even of nature, come to us more imperatively and efficiently in the guise of custom or in the name of religion. So, though our national holidays are fast losing their original meaning, and though church-days, and particularly Sunday, tend to become secularized, let us hold to them, under whatever form or sanction, for the sake of their modern function.

Are we, then, ultimately to lose holidays? Not to be too confidently prophetic, but judging by the historical tendency, we would answer, "Yes" and "No"—yes, as to the distinctive calendar demonstrative days. With the decadence of the emotional function, however, we found that the function of suggestion of deep feeling and many-sided thought remained and increased. Because our sensations mean more to us, because the thousand and one phenomena of our daily life are arranged and related in most delicate articulation, because emotional life will always live in increasing refinement, and there will ever be need of a language of signs, so the height of specialization can only end in making every day a holiday indeed. Not that every day will be free from labor, or consecrated to a saint, but that the intricate world of things, of feelings, and of thoughts in which we live, will become so full of ever-present meaning to us that their stimuli will find daily rather than occasional expression, with a single or half-dozen friends instead of a multitude, with shorter hours of labor and longer hours of health, with music rather than with fire-crackers, with ever-thoughtful kindness instead of formal ceremony, and finally with pure and noble daily inspiration for living rather than a funeral pageant.


  1. Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology," No. III, Table XII, p. 27, "Lowest Races, Negrito Races, and Malayo-Polynesian Races."
  2. Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology," No. IV, "African Races," Table XXIV, and page 18.
  3. Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology," No. VI, "American Races," page 17.
  4. Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology," No. V, "Asiatic Races," Table XXXVII, and page 23.