The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



This is the day of “The Big Game”. This is the first year I’ve heard it called that without qualifiers, but perhaps framing the Super Bowl in that way adds to its commercial value. And perhaps this isn’t the first year, but I just hadn’t noticed it before. I’m going to make a confession that I realize will lower me in the estimation of many: I’m not much of a football fan. Oh, I know who’s playing. I’m even mildly hopeful that the Patriots will win. After all, for eight years I lived in a place where I could see the glow in the sky from their stadium in Foxboro. There has only been a short period when I have paid much attention to it at all since I graduated from high school where I attended all the home games. They had ended the football program at the college I attended, though they’re beginning it again this year, so that was pretty much the end of my concern with it. In New Orleans there was a year that I cared again and cheered wildly every time the Saints lost a game. The year before, after years of embarrassing seasons, they had made it to the play-offs, so the owners fired the coach who had brought them there in order to hire a famous name, Mike Ditka of, I believe, the Chicago Bears. When they found themselves again in the cellar after that exhibition of ingratitude, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I was also pleased, of course, when they finally made it to the Super Bowl, but Ditka was long gone by then.

I did see one game while I was in New Orleans. My colleague at First Church had been given a couple of nosebleed tickets and invited me to go along. They were so far up in the Superdome that you could see the entire playing field at one glance. It made it clear how essentially simple and even primitive the game is. I realize that there are many clever strategies and complex fine points that an aficionado will recognize, but they are wholly unnecessary for an understanding of the game. I wish I could remember who described it as a series of committee meetings punctuated by violence, because I would like to give credit where it is due. Those nosebleed seats cost $21.00, which I still think is extortionate. I understand similar ones were going for the Super Bowl for six figures. I realize that that is no more than a fleabite to the super rich, but even so I find it appalling that a single event, however entertaining to some, which will be almost universally forgotten on the following day except by those who won the office pool, can command that kind of obsession. Even to schedule another event (except, of course, to watch it in a group) is considered almost a betrayal of a cultural icon. I sometimes ask myself how in the world that marketing triumph has even happened. Because that is essentially what it is: a commercial venture without even, any longer, the redeeming value of sportsmanship, but a vital venue for the marketing of things like cars and beer. Perhaps it is because, underneath all the hype, we would like to believe that it is about courage, loyalty, perseverance and even sportsmanship.

And that brings me to Hallmark Holidays — I’m not sure where I heard that term first, or might I have invented it? A Hallmark Holiday is one that would not exist except for its relentless promotion by commercial interests. Sometimes it even invents them. To call it that is probably not entirely fair to Hallmark. Although they certainly promote any possible occasion when the exchanging of cards would be appropriate, they are a comparatively minor player in the merchandising of sentiment. But it can even be dangerous. When Grandparent’s Day was only about two years old, a disgruntled grandfather killed or wounded several members of his family because they had let it pass uncommemorated. Surviving family members said that they were very sorry but that they had been unaware of the day’s existence up to the time of the murders. I just discovered myself that there is such a thing as Minister’s Day. I saw some cards in honor of it one October. You didn’t know the risk you were running when you ignored it or didn’t even know about it, did you?

I have often asked myself why I have such a negative, almost visceral reaction to such holidays. Sometimes it seems overblown even to me. What does it really matter that merchants are creating a demand that they are then fulfilling, possibly — even probably — to an increase in pleasure for most of the people involved? My least favorite of all these artificial holidays is Mother’s Day, and even I gain pleasure from it. I know it had a more or less genuine beginning, but now that beginning is used as an excuse rather than a reason for the celebration (or at least a sermon text since that’s probably the only time anyone remembers that it was a call for mothers to unite for peace). My children, knowing my opinion well, never fail to call me as part of a continuing years-long tease. It may be a tease, but phone calls from my children are always welcome. I think there are two reasons I so greatly dislike these holidays. One is my real conviction that sentimentality is a deadly sin, and the other is that the commercialization and ritualization of feeling, however genuine, is downright oppressive.

Whenever I mention my feeling against sentimentality I really need to explain it since to most people it seems a rather cold-hearted position. I am not talking about love or even sentiment, but the perfectly genuine feeling people have about things that are not genuine, that are gilded rather than gold. One of the worst examples of that in the political arena is the more and more common passage of parental notification laws if a teenager seeks an abortion. The sentimental notion is that all parents care so deeply for the wellbeing of their children that they will immediately spring to their pregnant child’s assistance. The reality is that when a young girl seeks an abortion without her parents’ knowledge it is probably because the thing that frightens her most about her pregnancy is that her parents will beat her, turn her out or even kill her. It has been known to happen. Quite often, in fact.

Another example is the sentimentalization of the American Indian. We have somehow decided that they were all peace-loving environmentalists who shared a sophisticated pantheistic spirituality. That sounds lovely but it not only denies important tribal differences and identities but allows us to ignore the fact that in general those living on reservations whose culture we like to celebrate live lives of poverty, disease, ignorance and suffering. We sentimentalize at our own peril, but much more to the peril of others.

As bad as sentimentalizing is the fact that holidays are becoming oppressive requirements. People may not go so far as the neglected and therefore murderous grandfather when the ritual requirements of a holiday are not observed, but if their expectations are not fulfilled they are deeply hurt, and therefore those who love them have to do their best to fulfill the expectations. When I first started talking about Hallmark Holidays, it was usually assumed that I included Valentine’s Day. I didn’t really. It had a long history — there’s that chapter in Pickwick Papers, published back in the 1830s about buying a card for Valentine’s Day — and except for oppressive school exchanges, expectations weren’t particularly high — a box of candy would satisfy them. No one really knows how and when it started, and since they can’t even decide which St. Valentine was meant when the day was named, it doesn’t even have a founding myth. I do like the story of the St. Valentine who, imprisoned for heresy, was not allowed paper or pen or any other contact with his friends and pricked messages to them on the heart-shaped leaves he could reach through the bars of his window. More likely, although equally unsubstantiated, is the idea that it was thought to be the day in England when birds began their mating rituals. It wasn’t really that big a deal, and I always thought it was rather sweet, though certainly not a requirement in a romantic relationship. Now, though, it’s getting thoroughly Hallmarked. Long before Valentine’s Day the commercials begin for extremely expensive romantic gifts, and woe to the husband or fiancé who doesn’t come through handsomely. Something real, something from the heart, becomes a requirement, an obligation, oppression.

I am not really such a Scrooge or Grinch as I may seem, and I don’t really even object to Hallmark products or their ilk. Sometimes I even like them — especially their ilk, since they are far less overpriced. I think heart-shaped boxes of candy are delightful, and there are other holidays whose appurtenances have been improved. It used to be that at Halloween all you could find to decorate with were some cardboard cutouts, some black or orange crêpe paper streamers, and a plastic jack o’lantern. Now they have really charming things available, and if I could have figured out any possible way to justify it to myself I would have bought the whole village of little haunted houses that Walgreen’s had for sale, especially after Halloween when they were going for half price. Of course, no one has yet come up with a way to either sentimentalize or ritualize Halloween, but it could happen, I suppose.

It’s not that I object to commercialization as such. It is merely that the kind of hype that accompanies it too often turns something that should be real and deep and meaningful into something meretricious, again something gilded rather than gold. Mother’s Day may be the worst example, making the kind of complex relationships most of us have with our mothers into a simplistic lunch and bunch of flowers, after which the obligation is taken care of and we don’t have to think about it for another year. It stereotypes motherhood and makes people feel wrong or inadequate if they don’t fit into it. If your lover doesn’t give you a really nice, expensive present for Valentine’s Day, or your boss doesn’t give you a pretty gift on secretary’s day, it must mean they don’t love you or appreciate you, and they, of course, often feel driven and harried into doing it.

It’s everywhere. There was a letter to Miss Manners not long ago in which a woman asked if it would be okay to have a “real wedding” since she had already gotten married by a justice of the peace a couple of months before. Miss Manners, of course, was as right as she always is. She told the woman that she had already had her real wedding, that the exchange of vows that creates the legal bond is what is real. What she was asking for was a ceremony that could only be a renewal of vows and a reception. Somehow, the dress, the procession, the party afterwards, have become the reality rather than the creation of the relationship.

We need in the midst of all the hype, the dedication of days, the raising to absolute importance that which we know in the light of the infinite and eternal is trivial, to remember what is important, to never forget what is real when we are offered merely the trappings of reality. Real love can exist without even a Valentine’s Day card; real, loving nurturing can exist without after-school cookies; courage, honor and loyalty exist in other places than a football game (and may not even exist there). Take time in the midst of the fun and the gifts and the excitement to honor that which is worthy of honor, the true, the beautiful and the good, whether or not they are prettily wrapped.