Do you celebrate National Onion Rings Day? What about Be Kind to Animals Week? Do you know what you’re buying your significant other for Talk Like a Pirate Day? Time is running out! ThARRRRs just 9 shopping days left!
It’s not just your imagination — there really are more unofficial holidays than ever before. And yes, most of them have been started by advertising firms who are just trying to sell you stuff. But contrary to popular belief, fake holidays didn’t start with the internet era. We have to go back much further, plumbing the depths of American consumer culture in the second half of the 19th century.
In fact, by the mid 20th century new “holidays” were being created left and right.
There’s no easy way to pinpoint what the first “fake” holiday was, mostly because all holidays are invented by humans with a diverse array of motives. But one thing is certain. Industrialists of the first half of the 19th century hated holidays.
Holidays were when workers would likely be taking time off to spend with their families instead of running industrial sewing machines or laying train tracks or whatever it was that the people of the 19th century did. Holidays were inefficient. Until, of course, brilliant retailers saw an opportunity to sell us all things in the name of celebrating those holidays — and stretching out those “holiday seasons” as long as possible.
Historian Leigh Eric Schmidt explains how holidays went from being low-key festivals where people took time off, to opportunities for capitalism to flourish:
From the industrialist’s vantage point, the economic concern had been to limit as much as possible the number and length of festal celebrations; from the new retailer’s angle [at the end of the 19th century], there would hardly be enough holidays, and merchants began to devise ways of stretching the major ones — Christmas and Easter — into long shopping seasons and minor ones into week-long sales events.
Most Americans don’t have to work on Christmas Day. But when the Christmas shopping season starts in November (or, let’s be honest, October), consumers are more than making up for that lost productivity with the dollars they fork over. In fact, we’ve built a large part of our current economy on people doing just that. A bad holiday shopping season is huge news in the business world.
Our latest obsession with one-off fake holidays takes this idea to a very loosely-managed micro level. What’s the benefit of something like National Tequila Day? Nobody gets a day off, but every Tequila maker worth their salt on the rim gets to remind people of their particular brand. And the media get in on it too. Why is my newspaper giving me 30 different recipes for passing out this weekend? That seems rather random. Oh, it’s National Tequila Day? Pass the bottle and let’s celebrate! Any excuse for a good time, I say!
Schmidt believes that Mother’s Day was the moment when fake holidays became excuses for consumerism. The original Mother’s Day was created in 1905 by a school teacher in Tennessee who wanted to celebrate her mom, who had recently died. And her efforts, though for a personal cause, were calculated and aggressive.
Jarvis began a letter-writing campaign to newspaper editors, politicians, and church leaders, hoping to get them excited about the prospect of a Mother’s Day. Even in the first year, she met with some success. On the second Sunday in May 1908 the first official Mother’s Day services were held in various cities and towns around the country, with Jarvis herself helping orchestrate services in Philadelphia and Grafton.
Slowly but surely, more organizations started to recognize and celebrate Mother’s Day. Who could say boo? Is there anything less objectionable than an acknowledgement that mothers as a general concept are good? It’s basically the least offensive thing you could say in 20th century America. By 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had made Mother’s Day a nationally observed holiday by presidential decree. Without time off, of course.
And sure enough, the merchants saw their chance. Jarvis had no desire to turn Mother’s Day into a commercial behemoth, but at first she was friendly with the florists and greeting card companies who helped push her holiday into the mainstream. Then things changed. Jarvis began actively campaigning against the “profiteering” that the commercialism of Mother’s Day had brought.
Meanwhile, the greeting card industry grew from about $10 million in sales in 1913 to roughly $60 million by 1928. By the 1920s, Mother’s Day was an established holiday, with its own cottage industry.
Of course, many attempts at creating holidays in the first half of the 20th century failed miserably. A candy trade journal recognized by 1923 that their fake holiday “Candy Day,” invented in 1916, was a joke.
“What is the reaction of the public to a day merely to increase the sales of merchandise?” Candy Factory magazine asked. “Are they enthusiastic over a holiday that has for its avowed purpose the sale of candy? The answer, we are inclined to think, is that they are not.”
Hero’s Day? McKinley Day? Baby Week? Failed, failed, failed.
Holidays rose and fell as the 20th century pushed onward. But perhaps no person was more responsible for the rise of “fake holidays” than William Chase, newspaperman turned cataloguer of holidays and special events.
Today, Chase is 93 years old and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1958, he started printing a yearly book with his brother Harry called Chase’s Annual Events, now known as Chase’s Calendar of Events. Since the 50s, the book has been a staple of newsrooms, keeping journalists up on anniversaries of events that are important — and perhaps not so important.
“I’m very proud of it,” Chase told me by phone. “It’s like another child in the family.”
Chase started the book because he just wanted to have a bit of fun. What started as a small operation with the Chase brothers selling copies out of their car turned into a national sensation. The book gave something for people to talk about, whether it was journalists looking for a story or comedians like Johnny Carson looking for a set-up to some joke.
At first, Chase was reluctant to accept any holiday that might be deemed controversial. National Condom Week was at first rejected, until he realized that promoting reproductive health was important. “We were a little prudish about it,” he recalled. Chase worried that if he included the holiday, the Post Office might come after him for sending “obscenity” through the mail.
So what’s Chase’s favorite holiday? Blame Someone Else Day. “It expresses something we all think about often,” Chase laughs. “I like the ones with humor and whimsy and so on.”
Chase even created a holiday of his own. But it wasn’t just for kicks. Much like the map-makers who would intentionally insert minor errors and imaginary places into their maps to find people stealing their work, Chase came up with a similar scheme. “In order to get some idea of who was using copyrighted material, my wife created Eliza Doolittle Day on the 20th of May,” Chase told me.
Of course, the natural flaw in this method of catching copyright crooks is that it only works for the first year of that edition. Because nobody owns holidays. Once you’ve created one, it’s hard to say that another book documenting traditions wasn’t just making sure that they were recognizing this new, minor holiday.
For all of Chase’s light-heartedness, he eventually saw the promotion of fake holidays a valid way to raise awareness about important medical issues. “There are many holidays related to healthful living and good diets and physical exercises,” he explains. “So it’s been a pleasure to watch it grow.”
In talking with Chase I realize that his ambition to document the trivial holidays wasn’t to water down the meaning of significant, traditional observations at all. Quite the opposite. He just loves a good celebration. “We realized that celebration is an important part of life. It’s one of the things that we get a lot of pleasure out of. And we give pleasure to a lot of people. Our motto was, celebrate today! Whatever it was!”
Celebrations may give us pleasure, but they are also easily co-opted by people trying to sell you something. Take International Talk Like a Pirate Day. It was started as a joke back in 1995, and has since evolved into a social media sensation. Brands rush to social media to swamp the conversation.
What better way to show that your brand is fun than to associate yourself with a completely non-controversial fake holiday? Brands want to be connected with pleasant ideas and aspirational imagery. That’s the fundamental nature of modern advertising.
What happened to International Talk Like a Pirate Day isn’t that much different from the what happened to Mother’s Day. It was hijacked by brands. Something as goofy as talking like a pirate is a great way to say something while saying nothing at all. And there’s no one to offend. Even if the social media manager over at Denny’s pretends like there is something to be offended about. The fact that Talk Like a Pirate Day is such a safe and uncontroversial opportunity to sell plates of bacon and eggs is itself the joke.
If you want to create your own holiday, it’ll cost you. Specifically, $1,499.99. And that’s just for the “Bronze Package.” Want to really splurge? Pick up the Gold Package for $4,000.
Yep, there’s a company online that runs a National Day Calendar. It’s a seemingly comprehensive guide to all things holiday, an update to Chase’s Annual Events for the digital age — at least for those who don’t want to subscribe to Chase’s online edition for its hefty fee.
No, National Day Calendar doesn’t make money from consumers, they make money from people trying to sell to those consumers by creating their own holidays. I reached out to the creator of National Day Calendar about creating National Gizmodo Day, because why the hell not. I was met with a reply that explained 1) They don’t allow brand names in the actual holiday, and 2) It’ll cost me.
“National Gizmodo Day will not be approved as we do not give National Days to Companies or Individuals,” founder of the National Holiday Calendar, Marlo Anderson wrote back. “However, you could apply for National Technology Day and have Gizmodo as the founder and have the annual coverage that would provide.”
I was intrigued, but I wasn’t excited about shelling out 1,500 bucks. I wrote back asking if I needed to pay in order for my fake holiday to get recognized by his site. Of course, nothing comes for free in the world of holiday creation.
“To be recognized as a new day for National Day Calendar, you have to pick a package,” Anderson wrote back. “We only allow 25 new days a year so do not take our invitation to you lightly. That is from over 15,000 requests. If you are not interested in moving forward, no worries. Just let me know so we can pass the opportunity to someone else.”
I didn’t email him back.
If you head to the central branch of the Los Angeles Library and ask for a copy of The Book of Holidays by Harry Spencer Stuff, as I did, they’ll bring you a tiny red book from the closed stacks. Published in 1926, the book contains plenty of holidays that the average 21st centurian would recognize, including Thanksgiving and Groundhog Day. But it also lists plenty of days that I’d never heard of before, including things like Candlemas Day and Sky-Blue Monday.
What, you might be asking yourself, is Sky-Blue Monday? The book explains:
This is one day distinctively American as well as Western in origin. It is a day dedicated to optimism and good cheer, and one of friendly felicitation. Purely commercial in origin it marks the first of Direct-by-Mail advertising campaigns, the name having been coined by the author of this, The BOOK of HOLIDAYS, thirty years ago. It was first used as a title for five weekly mailings in a laundry advertising campaign with the objective of changing the proverbial “Blue Monday” of the housewife into a “Sky- Blue Monday” of care-free rejoicing. Continuing in various forms for other lines of business it was in 1915 adopted by Sim Crabill, General Manager of The Times-Mirror Printing and Binding House, Los Angeles, as a title for weekly letters of good cheer and good will promotion. The Sky-Blue Monday Letters are issued weekly by this publishing house, fifty-two weeks in the year and have become a fixed and popular feature in good will promotion. In fact Sky-Blue Monday in Southern California, at least, has become a widely recognized day of smiles, good cheer, thoughtful consideration, kindly interest and general uplift. Sky-Blue Monday is but another term for the “Spirit of Sunny Southern California.”
Yep, the publishers of the book invented their own holiday. Just like Bill Chase did. And whereas Chase’s goal was to protect his intellectual property and sell more books, back in the good old days of the 1920s guys like Harry Spencer Stuff just wanted to sell good cheer. Oh, and plenty of advertising space.
All holidays are fake. Which is to say, that they only exist because people choose to recognize them. And every holiday has an origin story, even if you believe it to be a divinely created one. Holidays persist because people choose to celebrate or recognize the holiday in some way. And sometimes those people just happen to be social media managers on Twitter wishing you a happy National Acorn Squash Day.
Love it or hate it, the concept of creating fake holidays is really nothing new. And even though we’re not going to pay some random website to make it “official,” let it be known that April 19th will be henceforth known as National Gizmodo Day.
What’s the traditional way to celebrate National Gizmodo Day? Literally have sexual intercourse with your favorite gadget. Enjoy your celebration!
Illustration by Jim Cooke