I had a great July 4th, but the most surprisingly pleasant part of the day was… the drive. Somehow I managed to dodge all the traffic, both to and from the beach. Not sure how that happened, but it got me thinking about the holiday coordination problem.
For the most part, recognized holidays solve a coordination problem. People typically like to spend their leisure time with other people, so it makes sense for them to take the same days off work. That’s why it sucks when certain institutions choose not to recognize the same holidays as everyone else.
But holidays also create a coordination problem. When everyone wants to travel on the same weekend, we get major congestion on the highways, making the holiday less enjoyable for everyone – or at least everyone who travels, which is why I generally prefer to stay home on the major three-day weekends. A similar problem happens with Christmas shopping: when everyone tries to shop at the same time of year, crowding makes the shopping experience far less pleasant.
The most extreme manifestation of the holiday coordination problem occurs in Europe, where pretty much the whole continent takes off the entire month of August – as my brother and I discovered to our chagrin when traveled in Europe during August of 1990. Almost every train we boarded was packed to the gills, so we spent much of our travel time camped out in the aisles instead of resting in seats. The train stations were madhouses, with every single locker filled, forcing us to schlep our gear through every city we visited. Youth hostels rarely if ever had vacancies. Worse yet, all public accommodations were understaffed – their employees were all on vacation, you see.
Oddly, the August ritual is often touted as one of the virtues of the laid-back European lifestyle. Now, I can certainly appreciate the idea of goofing off for one-twelfth of every year, though I would resist labor policies designed to engineer that outcome (some people value the extra wages more than the leisure). But must everyone do so at the same time? It would make more sense for people to vacation at different times, to reduce the crowding problem while improving the staff-to-customer ratio.
I’m tempted to suggest a similar solution for American holiday rituals. I can’t help wondering if July 4th would be more fun if, say, half the population celebrated it one or two weeks earlier. Two small Christmas seasons might be easier to handle than one big one. But these suggestions will never fly because of the other coordination problem, the one that holidays solve: people want to celebrate the big holidays on the same days as all their friends and family. What happens when a woman whose family celebrates December-Christmas marries a man whose family celebrates January-Christmas? Do they choose (thereby slighting one family), or do they end up celebrating both? I know people for whom the idea of two Christmases is the very definition of a nightmare. But even if you’re okay with a double Christmas, the existence of a growing population that celebrates both would defeat the purpose of the original proposal, which was to have only a fraction of the public celebrating at a time.