The search for meaning: Work, holidays, leisure, and recreation in late modernity

Let us begin by looking at holidays as they existed in earlier societies, and trying to distinguish between a few main types of holidays as they exist today. In the English language, the word “holiday” is derived from the word “holy day.” In earlier European societies, traditional holidays were usually bound up with the Christian religion – or what could be considered a social-cultural-religious-political complex called Christendom. Like with many other religious traditions on the planet, the Christian holidays (in addition to their explicitly religious provenance) were organically tied to nature and the rhythm of the seasons. Christmas represented the point when the Sun (the source of life) began to return — with the days slowly growing longer after the nadir of the Winter Solstice. Easter, which fell in the spring, was obviously tied to the rebirth of nature after the winter. Like in many other religious traditions, the Christian holidays were either tied to mortification (Advent, Lent) or, of course, feasting and celebration (Christmas and Easter). Indeed, the term “feast-days” was used for major Christian holidays. There was also the regular “pause-day” of Sunday – when work was definitely frowned upon. Insofar as the Industrial Revolution tended to break down the organic, mostly agriculturally-based, rhythm of life set by the Christian calendar, Christianity has tended to wither, although it did bravely endeavor to take the fight to the cities, so to speak, as exemplified in the De Rerum Novarum encyclical of Pope Leo XIII.

There are all sorts of interesting social, psychological, and health-related reasons for fasting, and prohibitions against certain types of foods. Obviously, the period of Lent fell in the period of scarcity of late Winter and early Spring – where there was often very little food available. The ban on red meat on Fridays encouraged the healthy consumption of fish. Most interestingly, the Polish Wigilia (Christmas Eve celebration) combines elements of restraint and exuberance – the ban on red meat, but of course, the hope of having a filling feast of, among other foods, fish. Wigilia has been a very special time for Poles, and it has been noted that, even in the direst of circumstances, such as in Soviet slave labour camps, Poles tried to somehow mark the holiday.

With the arising of sharply-defined national communities in the wake of the Middle Ages, there arose a series of patriotic holidays that marked momentous occasions in the life of a given nation. In Polish national life, these have come to include such holidays as May 3 (commemorating the Constitution of 1791 – a brave attempt to reform the Polish state before the night of the long Partition period set in), and Nov. 11 (commemorating Poland’s regaining of national independence in 1918, after 123 years under Partition).

Another aspect of holidays is that of joyful recreation, which sometimes moves into a “transgressive” edge. This can be seen in the Roman Saturnalia, the medieval Lords of Misrule, and the Carnival before Lent. Premodern societies were, of course, normally characterized by very severe strictures on behaviours, and multifarious levels of hierarchy. The brief, “carnival” type of period, was probably very important psychologically in making the other times of the year somewhat more bearable. A rather interesting holiday in the Irish tradition was Halloween, which later came to America and Canada.

It cannot be denied that life in premodern periods was often far harsher than it is today. The amount of time available for so-called leisure and recreation in premodern societies – for the majority of the population, such as, for example, the poorer peasants  – was usually nugatory.

Nevertheless, as in the case of many tendencies in this confusing and contradictory period of late modernity, one could perceive a hypertrophy in the advance of the amount of time available for leisure and recreation, as well as a massive withering of what is considered the meaning of a holiday today.

One obvious point is that, with the decline of the sacred in Western societies, the august, sublime aspects of religious as well as national holidays have vastly diminished. At the same time, the advance of technology and commercialism has made a 24-7 trading mentality ever more prevalent and actually possible. The market demands that commercial activities must go on without interruption. At the same time, there has occurred a massive commercialization of such holidays as Christmas, where it is expected that young children, for example, will receive computers, cell-phones, or MP3 players, as gifts. There is also a war in America and Canada being waged by the “politically-correct” against the use of traditional terms such as “Merry Christmas” — which is supposedly “offensive” to non-Christians. The Afrocentrists in America invented in the 1960s a holiday called Kwanzaa, which is supposed to counteract the “whiteness” of Christmas. An example of a long-standing national holiday in the U.S. that has been virtually annihilated by “political correctness” is Columbus Day.

The hypertrophy of leisure and recreation mainly occurs – it could be argued — as a result of the stupefaction of large portions of the American and Canadian population by a combination of factors which it is sometimes difficult to fully identify. There is the idiotic pop-culture, the failure of schools, libraries and other cultural institutions to nurture an appropriate “counter-ethic,” and the valourization of the lowest sorts of tastes and needs as equally valid as those involving reflection, contemplation, and real human sympathy.

Paradoxically, we are seeing – in different parts of current-day society — such trends as “the end of work;” “the rise of leisure and recreation;” and “the end of leisure” — at virtually the same time.

Although Western Europeans are considered to be devoted to their recreation and leisure, relative to North Americans, the current-day Western European embrace of recreation and leisure does not appear to be leading to an intellectual and cultural renaissance. Most Western Europeans seem just as sunk in vidiocy and vulgar pop-culture as the stereotypical Americans. About the best that can usually be achieved is that sophisticated Western Europeans become epicures rather than gourmands in their self-indulgent decadence.

It’s clear that a given culture can be evaluated not only by the nature of its work, but also by the nature of its holidays, leisure, and recreation. Even at the most stratospheric heights of wealth, one finds unbelievable shallowness. The life of various popular celebrities seems to find its very definition in its “lowness” and “baseness”.

It does appear today that the reflective, humanities-oriented traditionalist has become a “superfluous man.”  While they often do not have an aptitude for the technical, scientific, or medical – which can usually assure a good income today — they also do not fit well into the “organizational culture” in government, in business, in the current-day humanities and social sciences, in increasingly technicized professions, in reductively defined law, and in the media.

One of the main underpinnings of the issue of work vs. holiday today is the clearly unbalanced nature of late modernity. Today, some people are still working hard out of sheer necessity, others are working hard because work simply fills up the meaninglessness of their lives, while others are working hardly. It could be pointed out that the ever more raucous and transgressive celebration of holidays such as Halloween unbalances the psyche. A social commentator has described current-day America as a “carnival culture.” In premodern societies, a comparatively short period of carnival offered a necessary psychological relief to the harsh strictures and multifarious hierarchies of those societies. Yet today, what possible social and psychological purpose is served by non-stop partying and self-indulgence? One also notices that life among university students (recently almost stereotypically portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) has become especially raucous and base. We are very far from the times of the medieval clerks, in the current-day academy, and the Lords of Misrule cannot reign every day of the year.

The issue of finding the so-called balance between work and play is largely conditioned by the fact that most people exist in a vacuum of meaninglessness in late modernity. For many people, work takes up time, and recreation takes up time, but there is a hollow core at the centre of their existence. For some people, the curiously uneven dictates of the market mean that they cannot take up something that they would feel would be more creative labor, while for others, no matter how successful they are at their career, or in fact, how immensely wealthy they become, they would not rise above a culturally vapid and shallow level. There is a certain distinct harshness in not being able to have one’s creative labor comparatively rewarded on the so-called open market. “Yes, but how much does it pay?” is a harsh, goading question – and it is pretty well an absolute taboo in Anglo-American societies to ask a person how much money they make. The upholding of the taboo is probably out of the recognition that that is usually considered the most important social indicator.

One possible response to the crass calculus of orienting oneself to “the practical” or “the technical” or “the politically expedient” is the possibility that a kind of cunning of reason operates in society, where even the most supposedly “impractical” interests – if they are truly sincerely and diligently pursued – will eventually be somehow rewarded – perhaps even in financial terms. We cannot all be doctors, lawyers, technical workers, or MBA graduates.

Nevertheless, regardless of the practical dictates of finding a job — most persons are well-served by going on the path of a search for meaning through reflection and self-cultivation. It may be remembered that in premodern societies “the holiday” often constituted a reminder of the sacred. With society collectively having mostly lost that sense of “holiday” today, most of us are reduced to being individual seekers after something that will give meaning to our lives – whether in our work, holidays, leisure, or recreation. It should be remembered that for most younger persons alive today, to become someone cherishing the real sacred is indeed a defiance of current conventionality and expected behaviour — an act of supreme freedom, truly independent thought, and high authenticity.

Mark Weigerski is a Toronto-based writer.

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