The Fourth of July is the best U.S. holiday. Christmas is officially the best holiday and it has many charms–the flipping out over presents as a kid that matures into watching kids flip out over presents, the eating and reconvening, the way it has its own musical tradition and serves as an unspoken agreement to just say to hell with it for the last two weeks of December. The shopping and family obligations can be exhausting, though, and it’s still a Christian holiday, which means that for us non-believers there’s an asterisk on everything that unfolds. (Christmas makes us Jews.) Thanksgiving–which in the U.S. comes so close to Christmas as to practically be a dress rehearsal–lasts only one day, has better food, and is a national rather than a religious celebration. Unfortunately, the particular national story it celebrates is the first meeting of the Pilgrims and the Indians, and we all know how that ended for the Indians. Think too hard about the backstory and it’ll put you off your turkey.
Halloween scores a hit by mixing overt paganism with candy. Other holidays are similarly weird. Labor Day is a bit of leftist piety that has morphed into a belated summer solstice celebration. Armistice Day rebranded as Veterans Day once the War to End All Wars turned out to be the War that Got Refought Twenty Years Later. Washington and Lincoln had separately recognized birthdays which got merged into Presidents’ Day, and now that has been quietly retired in favor of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Really it’s just one holiday–Civic Saints Day–with a slowly rotating cast of characters. Saint Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo are also the same thing–celebrations of immigrant pride that everyone can take part in because pretty much all you do is drink. Valentine’s day gets points for being unabashedly artificial and an excuse to go out for a nice meal. New Year’s Eve is the one night a year we set aside to feel the passing of time like a gale whipping across our faces as we beat back our dread of mortality with a desperate show of gaiety, drinking, and clumsy sex. It is not a respite from regular life–it is regular life in more compressed form.
That leaves the Forth of July. A day off of work with no God talk or family obligations, and surprisingly little patriotism. A nation’s independence day is a golden opportunity for the Soviet May Day treatment–political leaders maundering on about sacrifice, slow motion soldier video, subtly compelled displays of loyalty, and missile launchers rumbling down Main street. But there’s not a lot of that. Instead everyone just skips out of work, barbecues, drinks beer, and watches colorful things explode harmlessly. It is an anarchic, self-indulgent, not terribly serious affair and thereby succeeds in being an embodiment of the best parts of the American character. When you’re like me, an atheist with no ethnic identity beyond White Guy and no deep regional loyalty, the United States of America is the only officially recognized tribe you have an affinity for, so this is it. This is your day.