“Estoy cansado,” my students will almost always say come Monday like clockwork. I’m tired.
I teach Spanish, and the post-weekend reply is automatic, nearly scripted. But it’s also accurate. For many in today’s world, to be a student is to be tired.
But their exhaustion doesn’t just follow the weekend. My students often return from lengthy holiday breaks with similar responses — “not long enough,” or “I wish I was still there.”
Many adults feel that way after their weekends and vacations, too.
Why is it that the times we set aside for celebrating and resting from our work are in fact very unrestful, even stressful? What is the point of taking a holiday if we never find rest or fulfilling joy in our break?
During this past Christmas holiday, The New York Times reported that 41% of 2,000 polled adults felt “an increase in worrying” and 31% said they “expected to feel more stressed than they did in 2021.” The reasons given for the lack of rest and increased stress varied from social obligations to “gift-giving woes, family tensions, travel challenges, financial concerns” and so forth.
Of the many causes listed, however, the article left out one key reason inherent in the etymology of “holiday” itself.
The word comes from the Old English word hāligdæg, meaning “holy day” or “consecrated day.” Holidays, or holy days, were once a time to rest from one’s labors by communing with the Divine at a specific time of the year. According to late cultural writer Alan Watts, the idea of a holiday was one in which a religious (specifically Christian) people would present “the ritual reliving of the Christ-story through the seasonal cycle of the ecclesiastical year.”
The holidays were days of holiness, and not just days off from work. On these holy days believers acted out the great spiritual stories of Christ’s mortal life. For example, during Advent or Christmas, believers would pause their labors to remember and symbolically “re-live” the birth of Christ. The day for the celebration was on or around the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, symbolizing the hope in Christ’s birth at the beginning of lengthening days into summer.
Then in the springtime, believers would (and still do to an extent) pause and celebrate seasonal growth and floral renewal as a mirror to the resurrection of Christ.
Many of our most common American holidays come from this tradition: Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Christmas and even Thanksgiving originated as a time to give thanks to God for our bounties. The embrace of the Divine was the relief from the mundane — for in this embrace one symbolically left the mundane world for a higher one and thus could rest.
My students — and the extant tradition of holidays — show that this sort of rest is something our contemporary world craves though no one seems to fully understand how to attain it.
It’s no wonder so many feel exhausted. Our holidays have become the very opposite of what they once were. They are now more like unholy days in which it is common to embrace the profane monotony of Netflix binging, gross laziness or drinking away the conscious mind. A colleague of mine once told me of a visit he made to Miami. I asked if he enjoyed himself and he answered, “Yes, but I don’t remember anything, literally anything” with his eyebrows shooting up into his hairline. “You know, spring break,” he said.
American holidays are now about stressing over expensive gifts, decorating and travel, all to our own increased stress and anxiety. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we look to the past and embrace our ancestral heritage, we can find real rest and conserve the rejuvenation once found in our holy days.
My wife and I experienced a glimpse of this holiday spirit while living in Spain. I was a lecturer at a university there and had All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) off. As the good commercial Americans that we are, we prepared our kids for a fun time at the mall, going out to eat before catching a movie. But when we got to the mall, everything was closed.
Quite confused, we learned that only the American fast-food chains (KFC and Burger King) were open. All other stores, including grocery stores, pharmacies and the movie theater, were closed — it was a holiday. At first, our capitalist-driven minds could not understand what the Spaniards would even do on a holiday if not spend more money than necessary. But over time those holidays in Spain became moments of peaceful rest in which we grew together as a family. As the culture shock faded, we came to love this practice.
Of course, not every Spaniard takes these days as strictly holy days, but the vestiges of what once were holy days could still be felt as the people actually paused from the hum and drum of toil and spending.
If we truly seek rest in our holidays, even our spring breaks and Labor Days and Memorial Days, we must look to embrace something greater than ourselves. Ideally, we would embrace God and not social media, entertainment, money or the many other things we hope will distract and fulfill us but never do. It is only in transcending the mundane that we can find peace beyond daily life. It is only in the making holy of holidays that we will ever get back to “real life” refreshed from the break, and grateful for what we are given.
Scott Raines is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas.