On Festivals and the Dating Thereof

NOTE: I’ve had this in drafts for-EVER (I started this post in August 2022!), and I think it’s now time to go ahead and finish it, because it’s that time of year again. Not the time of year indicated in the opening paragraph, obviously: if that paragraph were written today, it would go like this: “It’s early November, which means it’s time for an increasingly dreary annual tradition: people posting on social media to complain that it’s not Christmas yet, wait until Black Friday at the absolute earliest, so on and so forth.” But the rest of the post stands.

(Image credit: “Father Time”.)

It’s late August, which means it’s time for an increasingly dreary annual tradition: people posting on social media to complain about the arrival of Pumpkin Spice items in the stores and elsewhere.

First of all, there’s the usual proviso: Let People Like Things! No, your summer isn’t any shorter because the Pumpkin Spice stuff is showing up. No, you’re not being forced into cold nights or flannel shirts or raking the leaves (by the way, raking leaves is dumb and you should stop doing it) or going back to school any earlier. Just relax. The clock is not actually affected by the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice stuff.

But on the other hand…I get it, to an extent. It’s all driven by Big Retail’s cost-control and inventory-management strategies. That’s the only reason all the seasonal stuff always shows up freakishly early and seems to be gone when the actual season is in full swing. Big Retail’s problem is that it wants to sell the popular seasonal stuff to the people that love it, but retail doesn’t want to get stuck with leftover stuff if they make too much of it after the season is over. Thus you have the inherent absurdity of seasonal merchandise hitting the market well before the actual season starts, and then–and this is the part that pisses me off–disappearing from the market before the actual season has even ended.

I guarantee you this, folks: for the most part, Pumpkin Spice stuff will have completely disappeared sometime in the first half of November at the latest, except for whatever hanger-on items exist because they just didn’t fly off the shelves as planned. So when Thanksgiving Week rolls around and you’re actually thinking, “Wow, I am really in the mood for a pumpkin spice item right now,” you will be out of luck. Because the Christmas stuff, with the eggnog and the mint flavorings, will have touched down.

And that will keep on going! Because you’ll try to hit the store up to buy some last-minute Christmas candy, maybe on December 23, and you’ll be out of luck, because the stores will have sold it all down and put out the stuff for that noted holiday for which everybody on earth is known for shopping for way in advance, Valentine’s Day.

That’s just how retail thinks, and yes, it’s deeply annoying. It’s the exact same mindset that leads to the absurdity of it being really hard to find a nice winter coat in February or a new swim suit in late July.

Another dirty secret of all this is that for a lot of specifically seasonal merchandise, stores can’t even re-order. They get one giant shipment of it all at once, and then they work through it until it’s gone. If you’ve noticed that the Halloween candy is already showing up at stores? And you’re thinking, “Geez, we’re still more than two weeks from Labor Day!”? Well, that stuff arrived at the stores almost a month ago. Yup.

Businesses can claim this is all about “market forces” and it’s just what the market wants, but that’s a lot of special pleading; what’s really at work is the desire to sell what one might while also not being stuck with what one can’t. And I don’t know what the solution to that is, but that is the problem you need to solve if you want the Christmas stuff to at least not be on display until November 15 and the Pumpkin Spice stuff to sit in reserve until September. What it all boils down to, as always in our Capitalist society, is profit. And it has been determined that this is the road to maximizing profit.

As I’m thinking of this, though, I remember my earlier thoughts from about thinking of the year less in terms of being punctuated by holidays and more like being a series of festivals, not unlike the old church calendar. I’m not much of a liturgical person, but I do think the church calendar from the Middle Ages did represent a relationship with time that might have been in ways more healthy than the one we have going on now. We seem to approach holidays grudgingly, don’t we? We make sure to limit our holidays to one day, and then the day after, it’s time to put it all away and get back to work. Holidays in America are occasional interruptions in the real important thing: working and ensuring profit for somebody (almost always not ourselves). Our approach to holidays, all of them, is of a piece with our approach to time off from work in general. We take less vacation time than anybody else on Earth, and when we do take vacation, we get back to work to an overflowing inbox that makes the mere act of taking earned vacation feel like something that merits a punishment.

And all of that is baked into our general societal distrust of pleasure and leisure, which is a bigger topic than I’m going to solve right here…but I do like the idea of framing our calendar into a series of festivals. Here’s how I would break it all down:

September 15 through November 1: Autumn Harvest. This is the Pumpkin Spice period. Flannels, earth tones, pumpkin, big pots of chili, falling leaves. Also Halloween! I know that lots of people, including some dear friends of mine, would straight-up make this entire Festival Halloween, but not everyone is into the spooky/supernatural scene as strongly. It would definitely have a strong presence, though.

November 1 through The Night Before Thanksgiving: Winter Gathering. I call it this because this is usually when a lot of us start loading up on things we expect to need soon: food for Thanksgiving, or heating pellets, or whatever. It’s colder, but not actually winter yet.

Thanksgiving through January 2: Winter Lights. I dunno, I might come back and change the name of this…I thought about just calling it “Christmas” and making that into a whole Festival, because that’s how I see it, but that’s not especially inclusive, is it? A whole lot of religions have winter celebrations, and it would be nice if our societal calendar was maybe a bit less centered on the trappings of Christendom.

January 3 through February 15: Winter Meditation. This is when winter gets quieter, more reflective. But not always! This period includes Valentine’s Day and the Super Bowl, so…yeah. Generally, though, this period can be for refocusing, thinking things through, and just plain living.

February 16 through March 17: Spring training. Because there’s a sense that things are starting to shift a bit once the pitchers and catchers report!

March 18 through April 30: Reawakening. Obviously this includes the Vernal Equinox and Easter. In most places in this country this is when Spring really takes place. (Not in my neck of the woods, sadly…spring in Buffalo is generally awful, but we’ll see what our old friend Climate Change does for that….)

May 1 through June 20: BeltaneYes, I’m co-opting an ancient Celtic festival name for this period. By this point spring is well underway, baseball games actually count toward the standings, and hockey and basketball are starting to work toward their respective championships.

June 21 through July 31: High SummerYup, this is summer proper. Grilling, campfires, trips to the beach, yada yada yada. It’s also generally my personal least favorite time of year, after spring (again, this is just because of the nature of where I live), but I do acknowledge that I’m liking it more with each passing year, as my body does that thing that most peoples’ do as the years accumulate: feeling cooler every year. I wonder why this happens….

August 1 through September 14: Golden Summer. There’s a term in photography: Golden hour, which indicates roughly the hour right after sunrise and the hour right before sunset, when the sun’s angle in the sky is low and thus the light is less harsh and, well, more golden. This is the hour when the day tends to be its most beautiful, just in terms of the light that’s in the air. And yes, it’s a magical time for taking photos. Well, I think that this particular stretch of time is when summer is its most beautiful. By this point it’s still warm and bright, but the summer days feel less like a thirteen-hour bath in hot blazing sunlight. This is the time of cooling and fireflies in the woods and the campfires blazing under actually darkening skies.

And that brings us back to Autumn Harvest.

Nothing here suggests the replacement or abandonment of specific holidays, mind you! But I really do tend to see the calendar as a grouping of “times of year” than of specific dates, and I even go a bit broader than what I outline here: In my life, I tend to see “Golden Summer” and “Autumn Harvest” as not-entirely-distinct periods that begin with the Erie County Fair and last up to, and even beyond, our annual trip to Ithaca and the Finger Lakes in late September or early October. And I really do mentally file all of November and all of December and the first few days of January into one big “Christmastime” season. I just don’t see why every holiday has to be its own unique and separate atomic entity whose celebration is a complete in-and-of-itself kind of thing.

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