The days have slain the days
And the seasons have gone by,
And brought me the Summer again
– William Morris
Summer! Ah, yes. When summer comes, I can start my annual ritual of forgetting everyone’s birthday. And each year I ask myself: Why am I having to go through this? Who invented these things? And why?
According to the Gotcha! Theory of Life, it is another of those deep dark conspiracies that the female of our species has imposed upon the hapless male. This theory would say that the female first finds something about which the male is completely hopeless, then promotes it as having great importance. Men, as a general rule, are far less gifted than women in remembering significant dates, such as birthdays and anniversaries and such. Aha! We will elevate these to the level of sacraments and flog the poor devils when they (predictably) either fail to honor them properly or, even better, forget them entirely.
As a human male cursed with a nearly complete obliviousness towards the calendar and its milestones, I must confess that thought has crossed my mind now and again…usually from the perspective of somewhere deep inside the doghouse. Anniversaries as a dark conspiracy…hmmm…I like it!
To everything, turn, turn, turn,
There is a season, turn, turn, turn…
– Pete Seeger (Ecclesiastes, the Byrds, et al)
I suspect that a better explanation lies in the fact that we human beings simply seem to be obsessed with cycles. Our tilted polar axis gives our planet its own natural calendar, built up of the seasons (well, okay, minimally in California, but pretty dramatically in the rest of the world). Mankind would have had to have been pretty dense not to notice that there was a predictable time when his butt froze and food was scarce, followed by a time of warmth and plenty.
Then, too, there were the shorter cycles, from the phases of the moon and the menstrual cycle right down to the daily dawn to dusk, dusk to dawn rhythm. Clearly, there is something magical in the ideas of cycles themselves. They have to reflect something fundamental about the constitution of the world. As man began to try to understand and thereby control the world, gods appeared whose nature was reflected in the cycles of the world. The most primitive gods were those of the crops, the seasons, and the all-important fertility on which everything depended.
Over time, collective man began to establish festivals and rites that punctuated the year, each dedicated to a season and its regnant deity. There were Spring Festivals, Harvest Festivals, Mid-Winter Festivals, Summer Solstice Festivals, and on and on. Whole clans, tribes, and communities would gather to celebrate the season and urge the calendar safely along to the next one. Symbolic figures like the Corn Mother (Germany), the Harvest Maiden (Scotland), and hundreds of others grew into beloved icons of the benevolent and fertile repetition of the seasons.
Today, when farms are agribusinesses and the mysteries have been replaced by a somewhat sterile science, it is hard to recapture what those festivals must have once meant. But even today there is a sort of visceral belief in the cumulative might of communion. We still feel, deep down inside, that congregations and communities, united in common needs and hopes, have a special power to force God (or the gods) to listen and perhaps respond favorably. How much more powerful must those feelings have been when one’s future and very life depended on the rituals being performed.
Again, we can only imagine how coming together in common need and faith must have reinforced the feeling of community and oneness in a time when tribes and villages were separate and separated. We have gained abundance with our modern world, but we have surely lost that sense of interconnectedness that was the strong glue uniting clans and communities in days past.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
– Passover Seder
Another aspect of this world is that while we humans are (or at least were) defined by the yearly cycles of time, we are also lost in a sea of days succeeding nights succeeding days. If we assume something over 25,000 days and nights in the average life, each one gets to look much like another.
Or years succeeding years. Depending on how long a period we want to use to define human recorded history (I’ll use 5,000 years, but one can make an argument for 10,000), there have been something like 250 generations since we started recording our doings and uncounted generations before that. In a world where few of us really knew our own great-grandparents, that is one heck of a long time. Our own lives and all our vital cares and mighty achievements barely count as a minor ripple in the overall stream of humanity.
Which is obviously true, the merest common sense, and…completely outrageous.
The individual human being is blessed with a completely solipsistic world view. It seems to be part of our survival mechanism. No matter how philosophical or rational we are, there is a small (or not so small) voice inside us that tells us that we are important. That what we love and hate and do is important. That the small events that punctuate our lives are unique and precious. “We are the World” is a refrain that echoes within each of us in a completely different sense from the song.
So it is not enough for us to live in a collective world demarked by collective celebrations. We insist that our own lives be adorned by private commemorations.
We start with birthdays. From as far back as we can remember, the anniversary of our birth is raised up within our families and friends as an occasion worthy of celebration. (“Don’t think of it as another birthday,” a card urges, “Think of it as the day the world was graced with your presence.”) As the selfish little beasts that we too often are, this makes perfect sense to a child.
To parents, the birth of a baby is so full of impact that it takes almost an act of will (or a fairly spectacular absent-mindedness) not to automatically remember the day, no matter how far away or how old the child is.
Celebrating birthdays is pretty inevitable. Some other commemorations take a little getting used to. I remember as a child encountering the idea that one should memorialize the death of a friend or relative. I remember thinking: Birthdays? Okay. Happy event. But the anniversary of a death? Weird. Seems like you are really saying, “Hip hooray, Fred is dead!” But then, adults are pretty strange, anyway…
Of course, it makes a lot more sense to me now. What we humans do is organize our lives around the punctuation marks of major events, both good and bad. The annual recollection of the dead (Jahrzeit – “year time,” in Yiddish) becomes pretty commonsensical. The loss of a loved one can be as dramatic and impactive as any birth. And, besides, it adds a certain feeling of bookend symmetry to celebrating births.
[Parenthetically, the idea that the completion of a year also marks a new beginning is nicely built into language. We say “anniversary,” which is etymologically built on annus = year + vertere = to turn, to turn over a new year. In Chinese, it’s zhou = circumference + nian = year, to complete the circle of one year and begin the new. There are lots of similar examples, but you get the idea.]
As we age, we add more and more anniversaries. Our lives, we seem to be saying, are full…full of important events. They deserve to be commemorated. We want to be able, each year, to look back on a life that was built of memorable moments.
This can, of course, go a bit too far. I know people who celebrate, each month, the “anniversary” of their first meeting. And I have known some teenagers to celebrate one week “anniversaries” of this and that. We see calendars with entries about semi-annual “anniversaries” of this or that.
Still, I am arguing that this is just a natural human tendency…just carried a bit too far. It is overdoing a ritual of remembering dates that human beings do and seem to have done as far back as we can trace things…simply to give shape and meaning to their lives.
That at least gives a comprehensible answers to my original questions. Unless, of course, you want to discuss that Gotcha! Theory a bit more.