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Katherine Anne Porter

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


"Holiday" by Katherine Anne Porter originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in December 1960 but received more attention when it was included in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter in 1965. The story, however, had much earlier origins; Porter first wrote "Holiday" in the early 1920s, based on a personal experience she had had several years earlier. Unsatisfied with the story, she set it aside and did not rediscover it until 1960, when she enlisted a friend to help her organize her personal papers. As she wrote in her introduction to The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, "the story haunted me for years and I made three separate versions, with a certain spot in all three where the thing went off track. So I put it away … and I forgot it. It rose from one of my boxes of papers, after a quarter of a century, and … I saw at once that the first [version] was the right one." After a few minor changes, she sent it to the Atlantic Monthly. She won an O. Henry prize for the story in 1962.

"Holiday" tells the tale of a young woman who, seeking to escape her troubles, takes a holiday to a rural Texas farm owned by a very traditional German family. The story centers on her relationship with the family's deformed and crippled servant girl. Later she discovers the girl is actually the eldest daughter of the family, though she is virtually a slave in the household. The main character's fascination and identification with this girl allows Porter to explore themes of alienation, isolation, and the complete sacrifice of an individual for the good of the greater community (in this case, the family). Like much of Porter's work, the story is drawn from her own experiences, and many critics believe that the main character (whose name the reader never learns) is Porter herself, describing her own alienation as a woman artist in a patriarchal society.

Author Biography

Katherine Anne Porter was born Callie Russell Porter on May 15, 1890, in Indian Creek, Texas, and lived a life that rivals any fiction. In her ninety years, she endured poverty, hardship, and severe illness; married and divorced four husbands; spent time with revolutionaries, literary giants, and powerful politicians; and traveled extensively. She witnessed two world wars, the Great Depression, and at age 82, covered the launch of the first mission to the moon for Playboy magazine.

Porter's life matched her flamboyant personality; she was gregarious, flirtatious, and quick to anger. Her lively social life often stalled her work, and she had many years in which she produced nothing but reams of correspondence. She lived much of her life in different countries, including Mexico, Germany, France, and Belgium.

Her mother died when Porter was just two, after which she was raised by her strict grandmother, who died when the child was eleven. Her father sank into depression after her mother's death and showed little interest in his children. Mired in poverty, she was eager to escape by marrying. At fifteen she married John Henry Koontz, the twenty-year-old son of a wealthy Texas family. But the couple was unhappy. Still, Porter remained legally married to Koontz for nine years, making this the longest of her four marriages.

Porter's first writing job was on the Fort Worth Critic. After a couple years in the newspaper business, she moved to New York and in 1920 published her first short stories. During the 1920s she wrote many stories that remained unfinished until much later in her life, including "Holiday." She also lived in Mexico for a time. Stories she published during this time include "Virgin Violeta," "Magic," "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," and in 1929, "Flowering Judas," which was her most acclaimed work to date. In 1927, while in Massachusetts, Porter joined many other literary figures in protesting the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who had been convicted of a brutal murder in Boston in 1921.

Porter began the 1930s with an unproductive (though lively) two years in Mexico where she met her third husband, Eugene Pressly. (Her second, Eugene Stock, she had married in 1924 and divorced in 1926.) In 1932, Porter and Pressly sailed to Europe on the S.S. Werra. Porter later used many of her experiences on the ship for her one and only novel, Ship of Fools. The couple lived briefly in Germany then in Paris, before returning to the States. In Paris, Porter published several stories, including "The Grave," "That Tree" and "Hacienda." In 1935 the collection Flowering Judas and Other Stories was published. In 1937 Porter's stories "Noon Wine" and "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" were published in small literary magazines; in 1939 they were published along with "Old Mortality" in Pale Horse, Pale Rider: Three Short Novels, which drew great critical acclaim. Porter left Pressly and then married Albert Erskine, a young graduate student, in 1938, which quickly proved to be a mistake. In 1940 Porter and Erskine separated, and Porter took up residence at Yaddo, the artists' colony in New York, where she wrote "The Leaning Tower."

The 1940s were unproductive. Porter contracted with publishers for many projects but finished few. In 1945, she accepted a position as a screenwriter. Though she was highly paid, she found the censorship intolerable. In 1948 she taught one year at Stanford University then returned to New York.

In 1953, Porter taught at the University of Michigan, and the next year, she taught at the University of Liege, Belgium. In 1955, she returned to the States and completed her novel in the fall of 1961. Ship of Fools made Porter wealthy for the first time in her life. The 1963 movie further increased her fortune. In 1966, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which included "Holiday," won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

In 1970, The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings was released. Her last work was "The Never-Ending Wrong," an essay on the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. On September 18, 1980, Porter died at the age of ninety.

Plot Summary

The main character of "Holiday" begins the story by telling readers that this was a time in her life when she was "too young for some of the troubles" she was having (though she never specifies exactly what the troubles are). Wanting to escape these troubles, she decides to take a holiday to the country. She confides this desire to her friend Louise, who exclaims that she has the perfect place: a Texas farm run by a traditional German family. While the narrator is skeptical of Louise's idyllic description of the farm ("Louise had … something near to genius for making improbable persons, places, and situations sound attractive") she agrees to the idea, and a few days later she arrives at the Müller farm.

When she arrives at the station and surveys the "desolate mud-colored, shapeless scene," she feels justified in her skepticism. A boy of about twelve arrives and drives her to the farm in a ramshackle old wagon. At the farm, she meets the busy Müller family, including Mother Müller, a sturdy, imposing woman with a face "brown as seasoned bark." The oldest daughter is Annetje, the middle daughter Gretchen, and the youngest is Hatsy. The narrator is shown to her attic room by Hatsy, and after seeing her charming room—"For once, Louise had got it straight"—her attitude towards her holiday begins to improve. She enjoys the sounds of German being spoken in the home, because she does not speak German, and no one will expect her to understand or respond.

At dinner, the men of the family—Father Müller, his two sons, and the husbands of his daughters, who all live together at the farm—sit at the table, while the women stand behind them and serve them. The narrator, being a guest, is seated at the men's side of the table. It is at dinner on her first night at the farm that she first encounters Ottilie, a badly deformed and mute servant girl who cooks and serves the meal. She is ignored by the Müllers as she serves their dinner: "no one moved aside for her, or spoke to her, or even glanced after her when she vanished into the kitchen."

It does not take long for the narrator to settle into the daily rhythm of life at the Müllers. She helps out with chores, entertains the many children of the Müller daughters, and enjoys watching the landscape come to life as spring arrives. One evening she is so enchanted by this natural beauty that she does not return to the farm until late in the evening, after the Müllers have already had their dinner. Hatsy calls for Ottilie to come and serve her dinner. As the narrator is waited on by the servant girl, for the first time she notices that Ottilie has the same slanted blue eyes and high cheekbones as the Müllers.

The family works the entire day on the farm, especially the women, who are constantly scrubbing the floors, milking the cows, and tending the children. While Father Müller is the wealthiest farmer in the community, this wealth does not translate into a life of leisure for his family. On Sundays, however, they all dress up to go dance to the music of a brass band at the Turnverein, a pavilion in a nearby clearing. Here all members of the little German community meets to socialize. One Sunday, the community comes instead to the Müller house for the wedding of Hatsy and her fiancé. After the wedding, a huge feast is served by the unfortunate Ottilie, who continues to toil while the rest of the Müllers celebrate the happy event. "[N]othing could make her seem real," the narrator observes, "or in any way connected with the life around her."

One morning shortly after the wedding, the narrator encounters Ottilie on the porch, peeling potatoes. Suddenly Ottilie jumps up, dropping the knife, and beckons to her. She grasps the narrator's sleeve and pulls her into the house, into her little bedroom, and shows the narrator an old photograph of a young child, about five years old. Ottilie pats the picture and then her own face and points out the name written on the back of the photo: Ottilie. The narrator then realizes that Ottilie is actually the eldest daughter of the Müllers. Ottilie begins to sob, and the narrator, for the first time, no longer finds her strange or distant, but feels a connection to her: "for an instant some filament lighter than cobweb spun itself out between that living center in her and in me … so that her life and mine were kin, even a part of each other."

Life goes on at the Müller home; Gretchen gives birth to a baby boy one rainy evening, and the next day neighbor women stop by to see the newborn and do a little socializing. An impending storm sends them home early, and soon the Müller clan is laboring to save their farm and animals from torrential rains. In the downpour Mother Müller goes out to the barn, saves a newborn calf, and milks all the cows. She returns to the house, soaked to the skin, and barks out orders to the rest of the family as though nothing unusual has happened.

The next morning, however, it becomes clear that Mother Müller is not as indestructible as she seems. She takes to her bed with a fever, and as she becomes less and less responsive, the family begins to panic. They cannot send for the doctor because of the continued rain and flooding. By the afternoon, Mother Mueller is dead.

Two days later, just after the family has left the house to bury Mother Müller, the narrator, who is in her attic room, hears a terrible howling. Thinking something has happened to the family dog, she runs downstairs and discovers Ottilie in the kitchen, moaning and howling in her grief. The narrator goes outside and hitches up the pony to the rickety wagon that brought her there to the Müller house, and begins driving Ottilie to join the funeral procession. Once riding in the wagon, however, Ottilie begins to laugh. The narrator realizes that what Ottilie really needs is "a little stolen holiday, a breath of spring air and freedom on this lovely, festive afternoon." They head off for a drive together, to return in time for Ottilie to prepare a meal for the mourners; "They need not even know she had been gone."



Louise is the narrator's friend, who recommends the Müller farm as the ideal spot for her holiday escape. Louise has a gift for describing people and places in exaggeratedly positive terms, and she describes the Müller farm as a pastoral, homespun paradise. The narrator, who is skeptical of Louise's descriptions, finds it to be considerably less appealing at first.

The Müller Family

The Müller family itself is such a cohesive unit that it functions as one character in the story. The members of the Müller family sacrifice their individual hopes and desires (assuming they have any) for the good of the family. Married couples do not go off on their own but are simply absorbed into the family; before Hatsy is even married, a new room has been added to the house for her and her husband. Every family member labors daily on the farm: "everybody worked all the time, because there was always more work waiting when they had finished what they were doing then." The only member of the family who stands out as having his own opinions and interests is Father Müller. The Müller sons and sons-in-law are mentioned only in passing, in large part because they spend their day in the fields, and the narrator spends her time either alone or with the other women.

Annetje Müller

Annetje is the eldest of the Müller daughters (next to Ottillie.) She has four children (one a newborn) and is hoping for a fifth. Annetje has a special affection for the baby animals on the farm; "The kittens, the puppies, the chicks, the lambs and calves were her special care." Of all the Müller daughters, Annetje has the gentlest nature, but even she treats Ottilie with indifference.

Father Müller

If Mother Müller is the brawn of the family, then Father Müller is the brains. While there are descriptions of Mother Müller engaged in strenuous physical activity on the farm—carrying heavy pails of milk on a yoke over her shoulders, carrying a calf on her back to safety during the storm—the readers' only indication of Father Müller's labor is in concert with the other men of the family: "The men … went out to harness the horses to the ploughs at sunrise." Father Müller is an atheist, who likes to sit in the parlor in the evening and read Das Kapital or play chess with his sons. Father Müller wields not physical but financial power: he is the wealthiest man in the German community, from whom almost all the other farmers rent land. His money allows him to overcome the community's objections to his atheism. When the townsfolk will not elect his son-in-law as sheriff because of Father Müller's beliefs, Father Müller threatens to raise their rent. Mother Müller raises some mild objections, afraid that the pastor will not christen the family's babies; Father Müller dismisses these by telling her that if he pays the pastor good money, the pastor will christen them. His faith in the power of money is tested, however, when Mother Müller is dying: "A hundert tousand tollars in the bank … and tell me, tell, what goot does it do?"

Gretchen Müller

Gretchen, who is pregnant at the outset of the story and then gives birth to a son, is the "pet of the family, with the sly, smiling manner of a spoiled child." The reader learns little else of Gretchen, who exists mainly in the story as another example of the Müller daughters' fecundity. In fact, the name Gretchen is a German pet form of Margaret; St. Margaret is the patron saint of expectant mothers.

Huldah Müller

Huldah, whose nickname is Hatsy, is the antithesis of Ottilie in every way. Nimble and full of energy, she is the quintessential Müller daughter, and everything that Ottilie can never be. Hatsy even earns praise from stern Mother Müller ("she's a good, quick girl.") With her wedding just around the corner, Hatsy is just beginning her life, whereas Ottilie's future is one of continued toil and suffering.

Mother Müller

Though the traditions and community of the Müllers are patriarchal, Mother Müller is the true center of the family, their "rock" (at one point she is described standing behind Father Müller "like a dark boulder.") This is not really a paradox, because Mother Müller's character is not at all feminine; she is as manly, if not more so, than Father Müller. Louise, in her initial description of Mother Müller, calls her a "matriarch in men's shoes." The narrator says she has "the stride of a man," and "[strides] about hugely, giving orders right and left." Noting that none of the children looks like Mother Müller, the narrator also states "it was plain that poor Mother Müller had never had a child of her own." Literally, of course, this is untrue, but the description serves to further de-feminize her. Mother Müller is more the foreman of the family than the mother, the engine that keeps the daily operation functioning smoothly. Even when she is on her deathbed, the rest of the Müllers futilely await her orders: "The family crowded into the room, unnerved in panic, lost unless the sick woman should come to herself and tell them what to do for her."

Ottilie Müller

Ottilie is the key figure in "Holiday," as she represents both an unfolding mystery and a symbol of the narrator's own alienation. Though at first she is presented as a crippled servant girl, the reader later learns that she is actually a member of the family, the eldest Müller daughter, deformed in childhood by an unnamed illness. Ottilie is largely ignored by the family, except when being given orders. Her need for connection and recognition surfaces when she shows the narrator her childhood portrait; she wants someone, anyone, to recognize that she is a member of this family. Because Ottilie cannot speak or bear children, the family sees her ability to work as her sole worth as a human being. The ability to bear children is key to the Müllers; all the Müller daughters are in some stage of giving birth. Annetje has a newborn, Gretchen is pregnant and gives birth during the story, and Hatsy has her wedding, which, in this community, means that babies are soon to come. It is inferred that the narrator herself is alone and without children; at the dinner table, as the family guest, she is seated with the men. Her inability to speak German makes her almost without voice in this household, just as Ottilie is. As a fellow outsider, the narrator finds herself drawn to Ottilie and finds herself both pitying her and empathizing with her.

The Narrator

The nameless narrator who tells the story of her visit to the Müller farm is a somewhat mysterious character. At the outset readers learn only that she is a young woman who is going through a difficult time in her life and is looking for an escape, a holiday from her troubles. Little other concrete information is revealed, but through her thoughts and actions she demonstrates kindness, compassion, and a love for nature. The story is told in a detached, observational way, and because the family speaks mostly German, there is very little dialogue and almost none involving the narrator herself. The reader gets the impression that the narrator herself feels detached and alienated from the world, and though she is running from the world, what she really wants and needs is connection. She offers to help Hatsy with chores, she plays with the children, and she reaches out to Ottilie, with whom she identifies as a fellow outsider.



The most obvious example of alienation is that of Ottilie, the crippled Müller daughter. The fact that she is made to labor intensively for the rest of the family is not in itself evidence of alienation, because all of the Müllers work hard. However, by being responsible for cooking and serving all the family's meals, Ottilie is automatically prevented from taking part in the key social events of the Müller family life: the daily meals, the wedding celebration, even her own mother's funeral. Being unable to speak isolates Ottilie from the rest of the family. This alienation is intensified by the Müllers's attitude towards her: unable to deal with their feelings about her and her condition, they simply ignore her. More attention is lavished on the cows and sheep than on poor Ottilie, who is only spoken to when a meal is being requested.

The narrator is also alienated from the family; first, because she is an outsider, second, because she does not speak German. Her childless, husbandless status makes her even more of an oddity in a house fairly bursting with babies. A woman on her own in the early 1920s, when this story was originally written, was looked upon with both curiosity and suspicion. As though to emphasize this unfeminine condition, she is seated on the men's side of the table at dinner.

Because the majority of Porter's work is drawn from personal experience, this story can also be seen as a comment on the alienation Porter experienced as a woman artist on her own in the 1920s, and throughout her life. A woman devoting her life to her work, in this era, was seen as unnatural, someone who has turned her back on the kind of life embraced by the Müller women: serving a man, having his children, and caring for them. The narrator's obvious affection for the Müllers and their way of life shows her ambivalence about this choice.


Whatever individual opinions, ambitions, and desires of separate family members, the Müllers have sacrificed for the collective family good. They have sacrificed so much of their individuality, in fact, that they all act as parts of one homogenous whole. As the narrator says, "I got a powerful impression that they were all, even the sons-in-law, one human being divided into several separate appearances." Even their appearance is not that separate; they all have the same high cheekbones and "slanted water-blue eyes." Ottilie, whose deformity has rendered her inescapably unique, still shares these features with the rest of the family. Even the boy whom Hatsy marries "resemble[s] her brothers enough to be her brother," maintaining the homogenous nature of the group.

No one has been forced to sacrifice more than Ottilie; she has been reduced to the state of a slave. Both literally and figuratively, she has no voice in the family. Worst of all, she has been forced to sacrifice human connection, by being banished from family gatherings and celebrations. She is completely ignored.

Topics for Further Study

  • How would this story have been different if the narrator could speak German? If Ottilie could speak? Write a conversation between the narrator and Ottilie.
  • Research the meanings of some of the German names used in the story. Do the meanings of the names correlate to the personality or role of the characters? Explain any connections you discover.
  • Research the percentage of American women in the workforce in 1920, 1960, and today. Draw a graph charting the difference. Now research the average wages of women in these three years compared to the average wages of men, and chart your findings.
  • What kind of "troubles" do you think the narrator is trying to escape by going on her holiday? Write a "prequel" to this story that describes the problems she is leaving behind and how they came about.

Parallels can be drawn between the Müller family and communist societies. One of the basic tenets of communism is the equality of all citizens, and the equal distribution of the products of labor. This equality necessitates, of course, a quashing of personal ambition and a greater dedication to the progress of the whole than to the advancement of the individual. Father Müller is a devotee of Karl Marx's Das Kapital, but only to the point that it is practical. As Marx did, he rejects religion; however, he cannot resist the temptation to use his power and wealth to get what he wants. In this way, he is illustrative of one of the main weaknesses of communism: its failure to account for the self-serving desires that are a part of human nature.

Cycles of Life and Nature

In escaping to the Müller farm, the narrator has placed herself with a family and a community living in harmony with nature and the natural cycles of life. This has a restorative effect; the narrator says, "It was easier to breathe, and I might even weep, if I pleased. In a very few days I no longer felt like weeping."

In her one month at the Müllers, the narrator witnesses a birth, a death, a wedding, a violent storm, and the rebirth of the landscape that is barren when she arrives. In other words, in just one month she witnesses the complete cycle of life, both for the Müllers and for nature. Only Ottilie seems to be out of sync with these natural rhythms, with her unsteady gait and indeterminate age: "The blurred, dark face was neither young nor old, but crumpled into criss cross wrinkles, irrelevant either to age or suffering."

Gender Roles

Accepted as part of nature's way are the strict gender roles adhered to by the Müllers. The married women stand behind their husbands at the dinner table and serve them. All childcare, of course, is the women's responsibility, as is the milking of the cows. Hatsy's new husband is harshly rebuffed when he offers to help Hatsy with the heavy pails of milk that Mother Müller brings into the house after milking the cows in the storm. "The milk is not business for a man," she tells him.

The narrator, as a guest, is seated on the men's side of the table at dinner. Ottilie does not sit on the women's side of the table, because she is too busy serving the meal. Ottilie and the narrator are also the only two women in the family without children or husbands. In this household, they are almost genderless, and as such their role is uncertain. Ottilie's job is well defined, but the family seems unable to relate to her in any other way. She is not a mother, she is not a wife, she is not a child; like the narrator, she is a grown woman alone, a role for which the Müllers (and much of society in the early 1920s) have no references.


Point of View

"Holiday" is told in the first person point of view. This viewpoint ordinarily gives the reader intimate insights into the main character's feelings, motivation, and character, but in "Holiday" there are only a few scenes in which this is true, mainly those scenes involving Ottilie. The rest of the story is told in a detached, objective style, describing the family and their daily life. For instance, the narrator describes the entire deathbed scene in which the panicked, bewildered Müller family watches Mother Müller die, without expressing a single emotion of her own. Indications of the narrator's state of mind are given more indirectly. For example, when she first arrives, she is disappointed with the landscape, frightened by the dog ("of the detestable German shepherd breed") and begins to write an angry letter to Louise for recommending the farm so highly. After meeting the family and seeing her room, however, she scraps her angry letter and begins a new one: "I'm going to like it here." Her descriptions of the blossoming landscape parallel her own transformation: "Almost every day I went along the edge of the naked wood, passionately occupied with looking for signs of spring. The changes were so subtle and gradual I found one day that branches of willows and sprays of blackberry vine alike were covered with fine points of green; the color had changed overnight, or so it seemed."

The first person point of view also serves to keep the story centered on the lives of the Müller women, because the Müller men leave the house to work in the fields each day, and the narrator, as a woman, would certainly not be asked to go along.


"Holiday" is set in a German farming community in rural Texas, near the Louisiana border. Though the landscape may be Texan, everything else—the language, dress, traditions—is decidedly German. As the narrator says of the Müllers, "never in any wise did they confuse nationality with habitation."

Because the Müllers's livelihood and prosperity depends on it, the land figures prominently in the story. The narrator and the family view the land in very different ways, however. The narrator comments frequently on the beauty of the land, the spring flowers, the fireflies in the orchard. The family rarely comments on or stops to appreciate the beauty of nature, but sees the land strictly in economic terms.

When the narrator first arrives, she is disappointed by the "soaked brown fields" and "scanty leafless woods" and finds the Müllers's house unwelcoming: "It stood there staring and naked, an intruding stranger." Clearly she is describing not just the house, but herself, emotionally drained and vulnerable from her troubles, and a stranger to the Müller family. Later descriptions of the house are more appealing: "we ate breakfast by yellow lamplight, with the grey damp winds blowing with spring softness through the open windows." Her attic room is described as "homely and familiar." Similarly, as the days go on, she is no longer an "intruding stranger" either, as she comes to know the family and their daily routine.


There is very little dialogue in "Holiday," partly due to the fact that the family speaks mainly German. After the narrator arrives at the Müller farm, she rarely speaks directly in quotation marks; what little she says, she paraphrases for the reader: "I tried to tell her that I was not hungry"; "I told her indeed I did like it so." Ironically, the only direct quotation from the narrator after she arrives at the farm is, "Thank you," which she says to Ottilie when she serves her dinner. This lack of dialogue from the narrator reminds readers of the language barrier and the fact that the narrator has come to the Müller farm for contemplation and solitude, to sort out the troubles of the life she has left behind. As she says, "I loved that silence which means freedom from the constant pressure of other minds and other opinions and other feelings, that freedom to fold up in quiet and go back to my own center." Her chosen silence contrasts dramatically with that of Ottilie, for whom silence has been imposed as a handicap.


One form of irony is the difference between what is expected and what actually happens. In this story, the narrator takes a much needed holiday by visiting the Müller farm. She gets away from her unidentified troubles and for awhile lives as a guest, not having to work or make her own way. The title of the story becomes ironic in the final paragraphs when the guest gives the handicapped daughter and servant, Ottilie, a little holiday. The family are off at the funeral of the mother. Ottilie expresses her grief for her mother, and at first the narrator assumes she wants to attend the funeral with the other family members. But then she realizes the only thing she can do for Ottilie is give her a little holiday, a ride in the countryside. Ottilie cannot escape her handicap or her place as servant in her own family, but for this brief outing she is treated as a guest and given a reprieve. Thus the word has two applications and is handled ironically.

Historical Context

Communism and the Red Scare

Though "Holiday" was first published in 1960, the influences that shaped the story come from the time at which it was written, the early 1920s. Just a few years earlier, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had overthrown the czar in Russia. The revolution fostered increasing paranoia about communism in the United States, especially for business tycoons who feared the organization of labor. This paranoia, dubbed the Red Scare, led to the enactment of some dubious laws, including the Sedition Act of 1918, which prohibited citizens from making public remarks critical of the government and its policies. Union organizer and socialist Eugene Debs was tried and convicted under this law in 1918 (he was later released when the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921.) Katherine Anne Porter claimed on more than one occasion that she herself was a communist in the early 1920s, when this story was written. Because communism in Russia was still in its early stages, many Americans—especially workers oppressed by the business giants created by the industrial revolution—were sympathetic to its ideals of equality. Later, Porter became disillusioned with communism and abandoned it.

Devaluation of the German Mark

There is some irony in the great prosperity of the Müllers, who live in a German community virtually untouched by American culture, because at the time this story was written the value of the mark in Germany was plummeting to record lows. Before World War I, one U.S. dollar was worth about four German marks; by the end of 1923 one U.S. dollar was worth four trillion German marks. The precarious state of the German economy set the stage for Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

New Freedoms for Women

The 1920s were years of unprecedented freedoms for women in the United States. In 1920, women finally achieved the right to vote, a cause that Katherine Anne Porter had championed for many years. Women were also entering the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. However, the woman who worked away from home was still an anomaly, the exception rather than the rule.

Critical Overview

A common criticism of Katherine Anne Porter's work is simply that there is too little of it. In the New York Times Book Review in 1939, in a review of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Edith H. Walton writes, "One wishes, only, that she could manage to be more productive." In a 1965 review of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, a Time magazine critic states, "An author who in 71 years has published only 27 stories and one novel can scarcely be considered a major writer."

Though the critics were disappointed with the quantity of her work, most were very pleased with the quality. In a New Republic review of The Collected Stories, Joseph Featherstone writes, "Few writers in America or anywhere else have matched the purity of her English, her powers of deep poetic concentration, her intelligence, her responsiveness to the inner life of her characters, her sharp sense of the pressing forces of history, nationality, and social atmosphere." Walton puts it more succinctly: "There is, in short, a kind of magic about everything that Miss Porter writes." Howard Moss, in a review of The Collected Stories in the New York Times Book Review, calls Porter "a poet of the short story."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1920s: Early in 1920, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) has about 60,000 members. However, the "Red Scare" period, during which Woodrow Wilson's attorney general orders the arrest of some 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists, helps reduce the party's membership to 7,000 by 1929.

    1960s: The Great Depression and the alliance of Russia and the United States in World War II gave the CPUSA membership a boost in the 1930s and 1940s, but this time it is the scare tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the revelation of Stalin's crimes that diminish membership. By 1960 the party has around 10,000 members, down from an estimated peak of 100,000 during the war. The prosperity of the 1960s means that few are inspired to join the party, and though radicalism has increased in the late 1960s, the Communist Party does not play a significant role, and membership remains low.
  • 1920s: During the 1920s, 21.4 percent of women over the age of sixteen are a part of the labor force. Most of these women have clerical, domestic, or factory jobs. Very few have children.

    1960s: In 1960, 37.7 percent of women over the age of sixteen are employed; by 1970 this figure will have increased to 43.3 percent. By 1965, approximately thirty-five percent of mothers with children under eighteen are employed. Women in the workforce are aided by some important legislation in the 1960s. First, in 1963, Congress passes an Equal Pay Act, which requires equal wages for men and women doing equal work. Then in 1964, the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination against women by any company with twenty-five or more employees.
  • 1920s: In 1920, farmers make up 27 percent of the labor force. There are close to 6.5 million farms in the United States.

    1960s: In 1960, farmers make up just 8.3 percent of the labor force, and though the population has increased by about seventy-five million, the number of farms in the United States has fallen to under four million.

Though negative reviews of Porter's short stories were in the minority, not everyone was charmed by her often grim view of life and human nature. In the Time magazine review of The Collected Stories mentioned earlier, the reviewer writes, "She sees her characters less as people who must live than as problems to be solved. There is too little warmth and softness in her art." Bitterness and cynicism crept into some of her later work, especially her novel, Ship of Fools. As Mary Gordon writes in a 1995 article on Porter's work in the New York Times Book Review, "To act with malignity would seem, in Porter's mind, to be as natural to humans as drawing breath."

However, in this same article, Gordon praises the short story "Holiday": "Lost in the bitterness and cynicism with which Porter wrote Ship of Fools is the joy in nature and in simple living that marks her greatest short stories. This pleasure suffused the breathtaking "Holiday" (1960), which took her more than 30 years to write." She mentions Porter's gift for detail: "Porter earns her right to speak about humanity, about life and death, because she has so firmly rooted her perceptions in the soil of the particular." Howard Moss, in the review mentioned earlier, agrees; he describes her stories as "firmly grounded in life; and the accuracy and precision of their surfaces … hold in tension the confused human tangle below."

"Holiday" did not receive a great deal of critical attention in its first release in 1960 and was overshadowed by some of Porter's more acclaimed stories when it was released in The Collected Stories in 1965. Some reviewers did make mention of it in their review of the book; Joseph Featherstone writes that in addition to her previously released work, "Miss Porter has added four uncollected stories, one of which, "Holiday," ranks with her best." Howard Moss writes in his review, "The author has added … a magnificent new long story, 'Holiday.'"

To summarize, many critics agree that Porter was unarguably a master of the short story, whose one outing as a novelist was admirable, but not of the same quality as her shorter works.


Laura Pryor

Pryor has a bachelor of arts from University of Michigan and twenty years experience in professional and creative writing with special interest in fiction. In this essay, Pryor examines the ways in which Porter likens the Müller family to animals in nature, and the implications this comparison has for their treatment of Ottilie.

When the nameless narrator of "Holiday" comes to the Müller farm, she encounters a family living such a natural, basic existence, in harmony with the land about them, that they are almost like a group of animals. Yet they are not living like animals in the negative sense of the phrase; they simply lead their lives in an instinctual, physical manner, never questioning the hard and fast rules that govern their way of life. To emphasize this natural, animal existence, Porter weaves animal similes and metaphors throughout the story, both likening people to animals and vice versa. When Hatsy and Mother Müller milk the cows, for example, their first task is "separating the hungry children from their mothers." After Hatsy pulls the calves away from the cows, the calves bawl "like rebellious babies." Later in the story when Gretchen gives birth to a son, Porter turns the comparison around: "The baby bawled and suckled like a young calf."

The Müller daughters care for their children much like animals in nature. The babies are carried constantly; there are no mentions of playpens or cradles: "Annetje, with her fat baby slung over her shoulder, could sweep a room or make a bed with one hand, all finished before the day was well begun." When caring for their children, the Müller daughters are described as being "as devoted and caretaking as a cat with her kittens."

It is not just the Müllers's actions that are subject to these comparisons, but the Müllers themselves. The whole family shares an "enormous energy and animal force." Gretchen is described as a kind of young lioness: "the tawny Gretchen … wore the contented air of a lazy, healthy young animal, seeming always about to yawn." Towards the end of the story, when Ottilie begins to howl with grief, the narrator first believes it is the family dog caught in a trap. This is the only animal comparison used in describing Ottilie; though the family has excluded her from the funeral, they cannot deny her this natural connection with the rest of the family: her grief.

Even the Müllers's dinner customs have parallels in nature. In a pride of lions, for example, the males are always allowed to eat first, even though it is the lionesses that hunt for the food. Similarly, the Müller men eat first while their wives stand behind their chairs and serve them.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (1965) includes all the stories from Porter's three collections, Flowering Judas and Other Stories, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, plus four other stories not previously published in book form.
  • Porter was well known as a prolific writer of letters to her friends and lovers. The book Letters of Katherine Anne Porter (1990) provides a selection of her correspondence dating from 1930 to 1963, including letters to Robert Penn Warren and Hart Crane.
  • Ship of Fools (1962) is Porter's only novel. Though not as critically acclaimed as her short stories, it was extremely popular when it was released. A 1963 movie was made of the book, starring Vivien Leigh.
  • Porter considered fellow southerner Eudora Welty her protégée, as well as a good friend. Porter wrote the introduction for Welty's first collection, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941).

Following the same customs and rules they have for generations, the Müllers's life would be a harmonious, unquestioning one, if it were not for Ottilie. On the straight and narrow path that the Müllers tread, life has thrown them an unexpected curve. In nature, weak or injured animals that cannot keep up with the pack or herd are often abandoned, as they constitute a burden and a threat to the livelihood of the group. Ottilie, in her capacity as a tireless servant, has found a way to "keep up." The narrator rationalizes the Müllers's "use" of Ottilie: "they with a deep right instinct had learned to live with her disaster on its own terms, and hers; they had accepted and then made use of what was for them only one more painful event in a world full of troubles." This rationalization, however, begs the question: what would have happened if no "use" could have been made of Ottilie? Then what would the Müllers's instincts have guided them to do? Would they have followed the ways of nature and abandoned her? Or would they have been forced to "evolve," to embrace the idea that a human life could have an inherent value without achievement or contribution?

Society has answered these questions in different ways throughout history. For years the mentally and physically disabled were placed in institutions that were little more than warehouses, relieving families of the burden of their physical care but providing little emotional or intellectual stimulation (a so-called civilized form of abandonment). Gradually efforts to include the disabled in the mainstream of society increased, allowing them new freedoms and enabling them to contribute in their own ways.

The narrator of "Holiday," finding the complications of her own life burdensome, is drawn to the Müllers's simple way of living, the natural rhythms, the clearly defined roles. Yet even while attempting to escape her unnamed troubles, she is confronted with new ones. Her experience with Ottilie forces her to face the fact that no matter how simply people try to live, they will still be confronted with situations that are inherently complicated and problems that have no easy solutions or no solutions at all. She realizes this at the end of the story: "Drawing the pony to a standstill, I studied her face for a while and pondered my ironical mistake. There was nothing I could do for Ottilie, selfishly as I wished to ease my heart of her." She and Ottilie can only enjoy "a little stolen holiday" from the harsh reality of their problems.

Though this story was written in the 1920s, before the rise of Hitler, there are some parallels between the Müllers's predicament and Hitler's plan for Germany and the rest of Europe. The Müllers are all homogenously Aryan, the Hitler ideal: blond, strong, and forceful. Yet in Hitler's Germany, Ottilie would have been exterminated; Hitler had no tolerance for the weak, deformed, or mentally deficient. Hitler's "survival of the fittest" value could also be described as being "in harmony with nature." The German people's desire for a simple answer to their problems, a scapegoat, allowed a despot to rise to power and kill millions of innocent people.

The narrator finds that a "simple" life that emulates the ways of nature has both its attractions and limitations. Still, in the end it is nature that provides her and Ottilie with solace as they drive down the lane of mulberries to the river, leaving their troubled lives behind, if only for a few moments.

Source: Laura Pryor, Critical Essay on "Holiday," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Mary Titus

In the following essay, Titus explores biographical sources in Porter's "Holiday" and Porter's depiction of "conflicts of gender and vocation" in the story.

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Source: Mary Titus, "'A Little Stolen Holiday': Katherine Anne Porter's Narrative of the Woman Artist," in Women"s Studies, Vol. 25. No. 1, November 1995, pp. 73-93.


Featherstone, Joseph, Review of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, in New Republic, Vol. 153, September 4, 1965, pp. 23-26.

Gordon, Mary, "The Angel of Malignity: The Cold Beauty of Katherine Anne Porter," in New York Times Book Review, April 16, 1995, pp.17-19.

Moss, Howard, Review of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, in New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1965, pp.1, 26.

Porter, Katherine Anne, "Holiday," in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Harcourt Brace, 1972, pp. 407-35.

―――――――, Introduction, in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, Harcourt Brace, 1972, pp. v-vi.

Walton, Edith H., Review of Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1939, p. 5.

Review of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, in Time, Vol. 86, November 5, 1965, pp. 122, 125.

Further Reading

Brown, Julie, ed., American Women Short Story Writers: A Collection of Critical Essays, Garland Publishing, 2000.

This collection of original and classic essays examines the contributions that female authors have made to the short story.

Goldberg, David J., Discontented America: The United States in the 1920s, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Goldberg examines how the major issues of the decade—women's suffrage, Prohibition, immigration restriction, and racial intolerance—were symptomatic of the postwar generation's discomfort with diversity.

Jordan, Terry G., German Seed in Texas Soil: Immigrant Farmers in Nineteenth-Century Texas, University of Texas Press, 1994.

Jordan explores how German immigrants in the nineteenth century influenced and were influenced by the agricultural life in the areas of Texas where they settled.

McLellan, David, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings Oxford University Press, 2000.

This collection of Marx's writings includes selections from the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, the latter being Father Müller's "bible" for all his business dealings.


views updated Jun 08 2018



National Celebrations. An example of the growing sense of nationalism in the years after the Revolutionary War was in the holiday celebrations. Americans began to create and celebrate holidays that reflected the important events in their lives and history. Not all of the celebrations were national, and not all holidays were celebrated by the total population. During these years the government legislated some holidays to make them nationwide observances.

Washingtons Birthday. The first national holiday to be recognized was George Washingtons birthday. It was first celebrated near the end of the Revolutionary War in Richmond, Virginia, on 11 February 1782. The following year it was celebrated in Talbot Courthouse, Maryland; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and New York City. Since the nation was still undergoing a transition to the Gregorian Calendar, the date of Washingtons Birthday11 Februarywas changed to 22 February. By the time of Washingtons first term as president 22 February was the accepted day; the number of celebrations had also increased. It became a tradition to celebrate Washingtons Birthday by drinking thirteen toastsone for each of the original colonies. In 1790 Congress adjourned its New York session in order to extend him congratulations. This was followed in subsequent years, and in 1792, on Washingtons sixtieth birthday, there was a banquet for him in Philadelphia. However, in the following years political party affiliations began to affect the celebrations. After Washingtons death in 1799 Congress passed a resolution calling for the nation to observe 22 February 1800 with appropriate exercises. In the years to follow the celebration of the holiday became firmly established.

Independence Day. The Fourth of July became another American holiday in the postwar years. In 1783 it replaced 5 March, the day of the Boston Massacre (1770), as the day chosen to recognize American independence. It was usually celebrated with parades and speeches with the purpose of keeping the memory of the War of Independence alive. The idea of independence was also central to Bastille Day (14 July), which some Democrat-Republican societies observed during the 1790s.

Thanksgiving Day. In 1789 Thanksgiving Day was celebrated as a national holiday for the first time when, at the request of Congress, George Washington proclaimed 26 November a day of thanksgiving for the Constitution. Anti-Federalists opposed the resolution on the grounds that it violated states rights, but the opposition did not have much influence. In New England, Thanksgiving observances were celebrations of abundant harvests and were occasions for huge feasts. This was also a time of renewing kinship ties, and family members who had moved away traveled to be with family.

Columbus Day. Americans also felt the need to commemorate the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The holiday was celebrated for the first time on 12 October 1792 under the auspices of the Society of St. Tammany Columbian Order of New York. On the same day the first memorial to Columbus was placed at Baltimore, Maryland.

African American Holidays. African Americans did not take an active part in national celebrations. They celebrated distinct holidays that were influenced by observances of the wider society but which had an African flavor. The holidays were distinctly African American in both the structure and style of the activities as noted by European American observers. It was their African-ness that connected and shaped the celebrations.

John Canoe Festival. In North Carolina, African Americans celebrated the John Canoe Festival held during Christmas. The celebrants paraded through town led by John Canoe, the king of the festival. As they danced through the streets singing and playing music, they would stop at the homes of prominent citizens where they would present a short play before continuing.

Election Day. In New England, African Americans celebrated Negro Election Day. This was a combination of the New England Election Day celebration and a practice by enslaved African Americans of honoring members of the community who had come from royal families in Africa. This five-day celebration included campaigning, election of a mayor and governor, an inaugural parade, and speeches.

Pinkster Festival. In New York both free and enslaved African Americans celebrated the Pinkster Festival. It was adopted from the Dutch celebration of the Pentecost and transformed into a celebration of African traditions with a parade led by elected royalty to a site where performances, music, and dancing took place. Pinkster was celebrated all along the Hudson River Valley and in Brooklyn, Long Island. New Jersey African Americans organized Pinkster festivals, but the most colorful and well-known was the one celebrated in Albany, New York. Albanys celebration included a carnival village where food was sold.

Christmas. The Americans celebrated Christmas in a variety of ways. In New England the celebration had been banned by the Puritans in the seventeenth century as they regarded Christmas as a pagan holiday. Even at the end of the American Revolution it was unusual to find Christmas observed in rural New England. In the rest of the United States, Christmas celebrations involved either visiting with family members or drunken revelry. A New York journalist in 1786 contrasted the two kinds of celebrations, as some spent the day decently feasting with friends and relatives, while others spent it reveling in profusion, and paying sincere devotion to merry Bacchus. In some cases the holiday revelers, such as the Boston Anticks, would invade homes, particularly those of wealthier citizens, singing bawdy songs such as a version of Yankee Doodle:

Christmas is a coming Boys,
Well go to Mother Chases,
And there well get a sugar dram [rum]
Sweetened with Molasses.
Heigh Ho for our Cape Cod,
Heigh Ho for our Nantasket,
Do not let the Boston wags
Feel your Oyster Basket.

The revelers demanded food and drink. Taverns often served free drinks on Christmas, a custom carried over from England. In New England, Christmas was not observed as a religious holiday. The Congregational Church had services on Sunday but not on Christmas. Only in 1789, with the advent of the Universalist Church, was Christmas celebrated by a New England Protestant denomination. Catholics had celebrated the holiday, but Christmas was less important on the liturgical calendar than Easter, which marked the beginning of the year. In fact, until the 1750s the British observed the New Year on 25 March. New England Unitarians in 1800 began a push to observe Christmas, provoking fierce opposition from more traditional Congregational-ists. The holiday reflected class divisions in American society. In many of the southern states the week between Christmas and New Years Day was given to the slaves for their one yearly vacation. This release from work was seen by the slaveholders as necessary to keep the slaves from rebelling, and during the week they supplied the slaves liberally with drink and gave them their annual supply of clothing. The freedom of the week actually reinforced the bondage of the slaves during the rest of the year. The planters were the distributors of gifts, the slaves the recipients. In the rest of the country there was a distinct difference in the way the lower and upper classes celebrated Christmas. The first decades of the century saw explosive growth in the city of New York, which had a population of thirty-three thousand in 1790 and over two hundred thousand by 1825. An influx of Irish and African Americans that had begun in the middle of the eighteenth century amid an expansion of New York commerce was making the city into the commercial capital of the nation. At Christmas the Irish and African Americans tended to have wild and disruptive celebrations. In the 1810s wealthier New Yorkers sought a way to bring these rowdy elements under control. One way of doing so was by incorporating their notions of the Christmas holiday into a more orderly and genteel tradition. In the 1820s New Yorker John Pintard, who had helped create Washingtons Birthday and the Fourth of July holidays, appropriated Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of Dutch New Amsterdam. Pintard in 1810 commissioned a broadside poster showing the Saint coming to either reward good children or punish bad children. It was quite a jump from this image of Saint Nicholas to the modern conception of Santa Claus, though he would be given a distinct character by Clement Clarke Moores 1822 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas. Neither trees nor presents, two distinctive features of modern Christmas celebrations, were part of the tradition in early America. Christmas trees were a feature mainly in the German city of Strasbourg and were not widely used elsewhere in Europe. Apparently the Strasbourg idea was spread by German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote about the citys Christmas celebration in The Sufferings of Young Werther (1774). By the end of the century other German cities had begun to adopt Christmas trees, though the elite in Berlin did not do so until 1810. In 1798 English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Germany, where he saw Christmas trees. His 1809 account of his journey began to spread the Christmas tree custom in Britain. German immigrants may have brought Christmas trees to America. The first recorded American Christmas tree was in 1820. Gift giving, as part of a general Christmas tradition, would not become a common custom until much later in the century.


Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 17901840 (New York: Harper, 1988);

Jacqui Malone, Steppin on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996);

Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Knopf, 1997).


views updated Jun 08 2018


HOLIDAYS. Holidays are "holy days," when people interrupt the profane, mundane round of production and celebrate with the preparation and eating of special foods and meals. The two basic forms of holidays are a festival (from Latin festum for 'feast'), when people break their normal weekly, monthly, or annual routine to celebrate together, and a vacation (in the sense of leaving their homes and workplaces empty), when an often longer disruption may be accompanied by dislocation, as people change residences or travel.


Traditionally, festivals have enjoyed an explicitly religious interpretation, so that the Sabbath of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is a God-ordained day of rest. Many holidays have been associated with seasonal change, and the New Year is celebrated in many calendars, notably the Chinese, with brilliant feasts. Other festivals have been national, ordered by governments to honor founding events and heroes, such as Bastille Day (14 July) in France. Further holidays might commemorate children, an emperor's birthday, the achievements of war veterans or the working class. Australians take legislated days off for horse races.

Festival foods often feature in cookery books, such as the multivolume Foods and the World series of Time-Life (19681971). Conversely, festival foods are often described in surveys of holidays around the world, such as Holidays and Festivals (1999). Traditionally, women have worked together for several days on elaborate preparations, such as finely decorated confectionery and pastries, which have been keenly anticipated each year and have long remained poignant reminders of local, ethnic, and religious affiliations.

Eating and drinking might become especially abundant at harvest festivals and the breaking of a fast, as when Carnival concludes the Christian Lent and at the end of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year. Particular foods might be featured, such as the lamb and unleavened bread of the Jewish Passover. The Hindu festival of lights, Divali, celebrates the longest night of the year (which falls in October or November in the Western calendar) with gifts of sweets, which vary immensely across the subcontinent. The Scottish haggis, which is a boiled sheep's stomach stuffed with mutton offal and oats, is a triumph of symbolic grandeur if not culinary, typical of midwinter and so featuring at hogmanay (New Year's Eve) and again on Burns Night (25 January), which commemorates the birthday of poet Robert Burns, who praised the haggis as the "great chieftain o' the puddin'-race."

Thanksgiving (the last Thursday in November) is a national American feast on which families dine on turkey and traditional accompaniments. The warmer weather of Independence Day (4 July) encourages parades and more casual, outdoor eating, especially barbecued chicken and perhaps an apple pie or red, white, and blue cake. Particular foods tend not to be associated with newer holidays, and yet the community mindedness of Martin Luther King's Day (the third Monday in January) might be reflected in sharing minority cuisines and decorating paper bags for food deliveries to the needy.


Monarchs frequently took their court on an extended voyage through the countryside from palace to palace. Other leisured classes have long avoided either extreme of temperature by "summering" or "wintering" at an alternate house or resort. With the expansion of rail and road networks and the democratization of the annual break, more people took vacations. They could grow up knowing life on the farm from childhood holidays spent with cousins, could visit distant relatives when several national holidays coincide (such as ChristmasNew Year's and the Japanese "Golden Week"), and could experience the products of hotel, restaurant, and other kitchens, sometimes in foreign countries, where everything might be closed for an unexpected holiday of pageantry and feasting.

The Effect of Globalization on Holidays

Whether in premodern China, ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or modern industrial societies, the proportion of holidays has remained remarkably constantapproximately one day in three. However, with globalization, and more continuous production and consumption, fewer collective breaks are observed. The seasonal emphasis is giving way to consumer weekends, a few national days, plus individual annual leave. Religious feasts are losing out to sport and entertainment, gift-giving breaks such as Christmas are commercially exploited, and vacations are serviced by organized leisure and tourism industries.

The innocent "holiday mood," which has been relished not just by the holidaymakers but novelists and screenwriters, is in danger of being lost. Holidays provide scenic locations, laid-back atmospheres, and breaks in everyday routines for the unexpected to happen. A gem of the French cinema, Jean Renoir's Une partie de campagne (often translated as A Day in the Country, 1936/46), centers around a Parisian family picnic at a country inn, during which two men invite the mother and betrothed daughter to go boating. In Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray or Summer, 1986), director Eric Rohmer shifts his listless heroine to various French holiday destinations, and she memorably justifies her vegetarianism over an outdoor lunch. Hollywood has often taken teenagers on summer holidays for lessons in growing up, their chosen meal typically milkshakes and hamburgers.

The association between holidays and foods may be lessening, yet it persists in many ways, and understanding the genesis of holidays assists in continuing to reinvent them.

Explaining Holidays

The Russian author Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World (1968) analyzed the carnivalesque, the inversions when aristocrats and servants change places, when scatological humor temporarily undermines the dominant ideology, and when eating reappears as a "grotesque" reality. More conventionally, such boisterous breaks as Mardi Gras are often said to "release" pent-up energy that might otherwise be destructive.

Other social scientists have viewed holy days as "sacred" moments that give shape to otherwise "profane" time. Developing this approach from Émile Durkheim, anthropologist Edmund Leach asks in "Two Essays concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time" (1961) why people dress up in "false noses" or, more precisely, adopt three types of behavior: increased formality (such as an English Sunday), masquerade (New Year's Eve revelry), and role reversal (Mardi Gras). He then argues that such activities generate and reinforce sacred time (so that "transgressive" and "sacred" accounts are not so different). Such holidays contribute to social cohesion, not only reinforcing a common interpretation of the world, but also facilitating a rhythmic pattern of activities and so the "ordering of time."

Food is then usually regarded as "symbolic" of sacred time. Yet the inverse often makes better sense because holidays are grounded in cycles of food production. The interruption in "profane" routine by joy, revelry, or contemplation generates the holy. A harvest festival is an obvious case, when an intense burst of consumption follows a busy period of gathering and preserving, and when people are no doubt so profoundly thankful that they bring these crops before the gods.

Likewise, lamb might "represent" Easter, but while offering first fruits might come to "symbolize" spring, before that, the rejoicing at their arrival generates the concept of spring. The word "Easter" comes from the old English easter or eastre, a festival of spring, and its lambs, eggs, and rabbits are more than mere "symbols" of spring; they are spring. The Jewish festival of Passover derives from the Hebrew's nomadic origins, when the new growth would have supported extended gatherings, celebrated by sacrificing some of the newly increased flock. Since Jesus had been put to death around the time of Passover, Christians adopted the symbolism of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb.

The trappings of Christmas belong to the phalanx of "pagan" midwinter festivals; the merrymaking and exchange of presents join the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia and other cheering anticipations of cornucopia. With no certain tradition as to the date of Jesus' birth, Emperor Constantine chose the winter solstice, possibly to "compete" with the other festival, as often stated, but more likely to place Jesus' birthday appropriately at the beginning of the year.

Not only the seasonal festivals but also the weekly are based on the food supply. In different cultures, weeks have comprised three, four, five, six, seven, ten, or other number of days. With few exceptions, these have been organized around the market cycle. A strict periodicity must be maintained for both the circuit of sellers and the attendance of buyers. The Christian world took the seven-day week from the Jews, who had adopted it from the Babylonians.

Marking out the market week and seasonal year, festivals dramatize the cycles of food production and consumption upon which our survival depends. The feasts become time-keeping devices, proto-calendars. For, in another inversion of a common assumption, holy days were not the products of formal calendars, but their antecedents. Festivals originally had ecological dates, because they related closely to winter scarcity, bud-burst, arrival of flocks of birds or schools of fish, the weakening of the monsoon, and other natural cues. With precise astronomical observations, central authorities then created rational calendars and so, eventually, more "exact" festivals.

Upholding Holidays

Commercialism has boosted Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, and others. Among ancient holidays that have gained new life, Valentine's Day encourages couples to dine out, and Japanese women to give chocolates. The food and drink industries have introduced a range of festivals, not the least the return of weekend farmers' markets, and annual food and wine fairs replete with tastings and grand banquets.

The mobility of global populations might have made many holidays anachronistic in that traditional meals are out of season; for example, Christmas turkey and plum pudding are absurd in the middle of the hottest days, as happens in the Southern Hemisphere. Yet people adapt, and many Australians enjoy the heavy fare during their winter, on 25 June or 25 July (for some reason, seven months out seems to be preferred). People invent their own rituals to surround a global television event, such as the annual telecast of the Academy Awards.

The individualization of holidays encourages new approaches. The registration of precise dates of birth has helped make this an important anniversary; many people ask for their birthday off from work, and even attach an appropriately seasonal food or meal. Married couples, probably having conducted much of their courtship over dinner, having founded their new household at a wedding breakfast, and then having gone on a honeymoon, celebrate wedding anniversaries at a romantic dinner at a restaurant or weekend retreat. Perhaps they celebrate other milestones, such as the departure of children from the "nest." People take other rites of passage seriously, such as reaching adulthood at the age of eighteen or twenty-one.

Influential American and British cookery writers discovered the joys of traditional European cuisines on sojourns after World War II. Many others now make an annual gastronomic tour, steered by the "stars" in restaurant guidebooks. Food and wine-producing areas have become tourist attractions. Enthusiasts take cooking lessons in Tuscan villas.

More modestly, a holiday is a chance to catch up with household chores, for a city worker to spend time in the kitchen, or for everyone to go on a picnic. People shift to a beach or mountain house to get away from the clamor of newspapers, television, and junk mail, and go fishing or hunting. Stressed workers still need time to read, to chat over coffee, to walk along the beach, to linger over meals, to philosophize into the night. Even more fundamentally, human beings need to keep in touch with the seasons. Given the range of the world's climates, clinging to the best local products is a force for difference.

See also Buddhism; Christianity; Christmas; Day of the Dead; Easter; Epiphany; Fasting and Abstinence; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Hindu Festivals; Hinduism; Islam; Judaism; Passover; Shrove Tuesday; Thanksgiving; Wedding Cake; Weddings.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Hélène Iswolsky. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984.

Editors of Time-Life Books. Foods of the World. 27 volumes. New York: Time-Life Books, 19681971.

Holidays and Festivals. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1999.

Leach, Edmund. "Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time: (1) Cronus and Chronos (2) Time and False Noses." In Rethinking Anthropology, pp. 124136. London: Athlone Press, University of London Press, 1961.

Tun, Li-ch'ên. Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking. Translated by Derk Bodde. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1965.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Michael Symons


views updated May 23 2018



Importance. Americans began celebrating various new national and regional holidays in the late nineteenth century. National civic holidays assumed the importance they did because the United States lacked a state religion and was growing more ethnically diverse. In addition, the wounds inflicted by the Civil War were still healing, and national holidays helped blur sectional differences even as regional holidays preserved them. Celebrations of these holidays were marked by parades, picnics, fireworks, carnivals, and speeches. Workers had the day off depending on the business they worked for and whether or not the holiday was recognized by the state or federal government.

Arbor Day. A traditional tree-planting festival originating in Nebraska, Arbor Day was the work of conservationist Julius Sterling Morton, who encouraged fellow Nebraskans to take note of the beauty of trees as well as their practical uses. Morton, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture and later secretary of agriculture under President Grover Cleveland, introduced a resolution in 1872 that 10 April be especially set apart and consecrated for tree planting in the state. More than a million trees were planted that year. Two years later, Nebraska issued a proclamation to celebrate Arbor Day within the state as a holiday; later, the legislature passed a resolution calling Nebraska The Tree Planters State (today it is better known as the Cornhusker or Beef State). In 1884 the state made it an annual event; the next year the state legislature passed an act designating 22 April, Mortons birthday, as the date on which Arbor Day would be celebrated as a legal holiday. Agricultural associations in other states soon petitioned their respective legislatures. At Ohios first Arbor Day in 1882, Cincinnati schoolchildren started a new tradition by planting the trees themselves. By 1900 most states and territories in the United States, as well as several foreign countries, observed Arbor Day, usually on the last Friday in April.

Memorial Day. Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first observed on 25 April 1866 by the women of Columbus, Mississippi, to decorate the graves of both Confederate and Union soldiers. In 1868 Gen. John A. Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order establishing 30 May for strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion. Decorating graves quickly caught on in both the North and the South but on different days. For several years all commemorations remained unofficial, while ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery provided a national focus to these events. Ceremonies were soon extended to honor the dead of all wars, and the day became known as Memorial Day. First official recognition of Memorial Day as a holiday came in 1873 when New York State designated it a legal holiday. Within the next six years four other states made similar decrees. In 1887 the U.S. Congress made it an official holiday for federal employees.

Flag Day. The official U.S. flag was adopted on 14 June 1777 by a joint resolution of the Continental Congress that the flag of the thirteen states be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white with thirteen stars, white in a blue field. Tradition generally credits Betsy Ross with making the original Stars and Stripes at her Philadelphia home. The first Flag Day observance took place on 14 June 1861 when the people of Hartford, Connecticut, wanted to show their support for the Union during the opening days of the Civil War. These exercises were not repeated until 14 June 1877 when the celebration of Flag Day took place on the centennial of the flags adoption. On that day Congress ordered the flag flown over all government buildings. It was not declared a legal holiday but was observed by presidential proclamation. On 14 June 1893 Flag Day was observed in Philadelphia by a mayoral order that ordered the flag displayed over every public building in the city. Four years later, the governor of New York commanded that the flag be flown over all public structures on 14 June.

Labor Day. By the end of the nineteenth century the United States had become an industrial nation with tens of thousands of laborers. The idea for a day to honor labor was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire, a New York City carpenter and general secretary of the new Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and Matthew Maguire, a machinist from Paterson, New Jersey. The Central Labor Union endorsed their idea, and the first Labor Day celebration and parade, sponsored by the Knights of Labor, was held on 5 September 1882 in New York City, a date chosen by McGuire to fill the time gap between 4 July and Thanksgiving. Two years later the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later the American Federation of Labor) endorsed the idea of an annual Labor Day, scheduled for the first Monday in September. On that day parades of workers were held in most northeastern cities; the idea was quickly endorsed by the Knights of Labor. In 1887 Oregon became the first of several states that established the first Monday in September as Labor Day. On 28 June 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed legislation making the first Monday in September a legal holiday for federal employees and in the District of Columbia. All of the remaining states and Puerto Rico eventually legalized the day. With legal recognition of Labor Day, workers in the late 1890s and in the early 1900s used the holiday not only to honor their accomplishments but to proclaim their grievances. Labor Day celebrations were frequently marked not only by parades but by speeches and rallies in many industrial cities.

Other Observances. On New Years Day 1886, the Valley Hunt Club, Pasadena, California, held the first Tournament of Roses parade followed by athletic events. The birthdays of several distinguished Americans were also observed during this period. Abraham Lincoln, born on 12 February 1809 in central Kentucky, was a much admired president of the United States, but there was no official designation of his birthday until almost thirty years after his death. The Illinois legislature made it a legal holiday which was first observed on 12 February 1892. The legislatures of four other states (New Jersey,

New York, Washington, and Minnesota) followed suit in 1896 with the rest of the country instituting their own observances, many held on the first Monday in February. In the South holidays arose to honor two Confederate leaders. The birthday of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was officially observed for the first time on 3 June 1892 in Florida. Eight other southern states adopted similar legislation before the turn of the century. The birthday of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was also honored in the South. Georgia made his birthday (19 January) a legal holiday in 1889; Virginia followed the next year.


David Glassberg, American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990);

Jane M. Hatch, The American Book of Days, third edition (New York-Wilson, 1978);

Sue E. Thompson and Barbara W. Carlson, Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1994).


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Despite a few early military victories by the Confederacy, the harsh reality of wartime subsistence began to surface in the south shortly after the war began. With their local economies stunted due to the faltering of imports and exports, and with inflation and unemployment rising, the civilian population inflicted further hardships on themselves by their sacrificial giving of food and clothing stores to their troops. Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, Christmas correspondence offered an insight into everyday condition of life during the war.

Sensing the impending hardship that a Union naval blockade and occupation of the port of New Orleans would incur, J. F. H Claiborne wrote in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi on December 25, 1861, "Our people live by the transportation of cord wood, charcoal, [and several more items are mentioned] to New Orleans, bringing…in return, corn and flour and other articles of prime necessity that our soil refuses to produce…There are not breadstuffs in the seashore counties to subsist the population one month" (The Weekly Mississippian, December, 25, 1861).

Many young men were off from home, perhaps for the first time. Their recollections of past holidays were evidenced in the letters they sent home. Isaac Howard, Private, C.S.A., wrote to his father on December 25, 1862, "There isn't much preparation for Christmas in camp, the boys are in excellent spirits however, not much doing in the egg-nog line… I wish I could send some apples, nice rosy cheeked fellows to Nellie and Susie, bless their little hearts." Seven months later, Howard was killed in Pennsylvania at the battle of Gettysburg (Howard Papers).

For all of the tragedies and hardships the war brought to those on both sides of the conflict, there were lighter moments too. The editor of the Vicksburg Sun relives his 1861 Christmas time eggnog experience with some of his friends and their quest to concoct the perfect nog. This story was published in the Fayetteville (NC) Observer, in January 1862:

Egg-nog is a very difficult thing to compound to suit one's palate. We tried the experiment yesterday and after drinking one glass… there was too much egg. We diluted the mixture with old Otard (cognac)… after two glasses… we discovered it was not sufficiently sweet… we diluted the mixture… but this time it involved opening a second bottle of brandy, which proved to be rather fiery after sipping three or four glasses, so we qualified the mixture with rum. We then smoked a cigar and imbibed three or four (more) glasses…we waited for our friends to come, but as they didn't, we drank to their health… on looking up we saw two doors, and as we knew our room had but one, we thought we would we would wait til our friends… should return and show us the way out.

Some prominent Southern families fared better during the conflict in its third year. Mary Boykin Chesnut, wife of Confederate General James Chestnut and a diarist of the Confederacy, wrote of the Christmas of 1863 in Columbia, South Carolina, of a rather festive dinner despite the shortages that abounded for most families: "Yesterday dined at the Preston's with one of my handsomest Paris dresses… we had for dinner oyster soup, soup a la reine… boiled mutton, ham, boned turkey, wild ducks, partridges, plum pudding… and Madeira wine" (The Roanoke Times, December 3, 2007).

The holidays offered little respite for anyone in uniform, North or South; not even the Generals were immune. A newspaper article published on December 16, 1864 in Columbia, South Carolina, wrote of an apparent false alarm that the Confederate forces were in retreat: "The holiday season is fast approaching and it is not improbable the (Union) General Grant, who was hurried away from New York by the absurd rumor of the evacuation of Petersburg [Virginia] may revisit his family to spend Christmas with them" (The Daily South Carolinian, December 16, 1864).

By 1864, with many thousands having been killed and many thousands more wounded, hardly a family was left untouched by the ravages of the war. Christmas would never be the same for this generation or for many generations to come. An editorial in the Daily Picayune, [New Orleans], published on December 18, 1864, evinces the somber mood of the times: "Jolly old elf! He comes but once a year. On this his annual visit, he will pass over many broken shrines and desolate fields—over many new graves… under which rest unknown soldiers who have fought their last battle…"

As far away as California, reports of the war back East made their way into the local newspapers. Not all of the accounts related directly to the battles of the day. A story of cultural competition reported in the Richmond (VA) Whig in December 1864 was also reported in a San Francisco paper:

The Richmond Whig notices the proposition of the Yankees… to furnish a dinner to their soldiers in the field, and proposes to our farmers to imitate their example, one of the few… that can be imitated with propriety. The Whig says to the farmers: Send every turkey, chicken or pig they can possibly spare… Don't wait for your neighbor to commence the good work, but right away… conscribe certain fat gobblers of your flock and give them a furlough until the 20th of December. (Daily Evening Bulletin, December 24, 1864)

For the ordinary soldier, thoughts of home and hearth were always present. Christmas was not only time for the festivities of family, food, and friends, but also a time of religious reflection. To his niece Martha, Jasper Cocker-ham wrote from near the Petersburg-Richmond, Virginia, front line on December 26, 1864, "The soldiers all look sad and lonely. We have nothing spiritual or refreshing in camp. Have not seen one case of intoxification during our Christmas Holiday" (Surry County Genealogical Associa-ttion Journal, July 3,1985).

Federal occupation of the port of New Orleans in 1862 and the capture of the port of Vicksburg in 1863 effectively denied the Confederacy's use of inland waterways. The final crushing tactics of Union General William T. Sherman's march from Chattanooga, Tennessee, through Atlanta, Georgia and onward to the sea effectively cut the South in two. General Sherman sent a telegram to President Lincoln on December 22, 1864: "I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton" (U.S. War Department, p. 783).

The war had cost hundreds of thousands lives through combat and disease. The number of families affected is incalculable and the letters to and from home by both soldiers and civilians reflected the extreme hardships of wartime life. On occasion, humor recorded as well. The conflict ended in April but it would not be until Christmas of 1865 that the country would once again celebrate the holidays with some sense of normalcy.


Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, December 24, 1864.

The Daily Picayune, New Orleans, December 18, 1864.

The Daily South Carolinian, Columbia, December 16, 1864.

Fayetteville Observer, Fayetteville, North Carolina, January 6, 1862.

Howard Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Letter from Jasper Cockerham to his Niece Martha Cockerham, during the Civil War." Surry County Genealogical Association Journal. vol. 5, no. July 3, 1985

The Roanoke Times, Virginia, December 3, 2007.

U. S. War Department. The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. (Washington, DC, 1880–1901), series 1. vol. 44. serial No. 92, p. 783.

The Weekly Mississippian, Jackson, December 25, 1861.


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holidays in their modern secular sense of days free from the demands of paid labour, but not necessarily channelled or confined by the demands of religious observance, are in many ways a product of industrial society, and the concomitant precise demarcation between work time and leisure time. Many older calendar customs survived into urban and industrial society, especially where craft industries persisted for a long time alongside the factories in the 19th cent. and migration flows were predominantly short-distance, as in the textile-manufacturing districts of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. Thus the Lancashire Wakes and the Yorkshire Tides and Feasts, along with similar customary holidays in the Black Country and the Potteries, survived through into the second half of the 20th cent., although increasingly removed from their origins as celebrations of the saint's day or anniversary of the foundation of the local parish church. National religious festivals, especially Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide, also survived erosion from the apostles of economic rationality, order, and propriety between the late 18th and mid-19th cents. Christmas was remade in more secular and commercial form, with an array of imported and invented traditions such as the Christmas tree, greeting cards, robins, and Father Christmas, while many northern towns introduced the Whit walks at which religious congregations paraded the streets in competitive finery. The more political festival of Bonfire Night (5 November), part of the politico-religious calendar since the 17th cent., also continued as a widely observed red-letter day, although aspects of its celebration were toned down by local authorities anxious to uphold public order in the mid-Victorian years. Meanwhile, the secular and unofficial holiday of ‘St Monday’, abstention from work on the day following the weekend, was particularly popular among the better-paid craft workers and miners, and although it was systematically attacked by employers and moral reformers, playing havoc as it did with work schedules and family budgets, it proved difficult to extirpate, especially among workers in heavy, hot industries who were paid well by the shift, and it survived strongly in coal-mining in the late 20th cent.

Holidays in the sense of extended periods away from home in pursuit of health and pleasure in enjoyably different surroundings were emerging as a regular practice among the better-off by the later 17th cent. Bath led the way among the spa towns, and the emergence of seaside resorts from the 1730s encouraged an opening-out of the market, as London shopkeepers flocked to Margate cheaply by sailing vessel and also found their way to Brighton. Fashions for cultural and scenic tourism emerged in the late 18th cent. and began to percolate down the social scale. But the holiday away from home as a popular and commercial phenomenon (as opposed to such activities as returning to one's home village to help with the harvest) was mainly a product of the railway age. At working-class level such holidays were almost always unpaid, and they emerged first as a genuinely popular phenomenon in northern England, where the customary Wakes holidays (especially in the Lancashire cotton towns) were adapted for extended seaside visits from the 1850s and especially the 1870s, and families saved through the year in special clubs to be able to afford them. The Bank Holiday Acts of 1871 and 1875, which came to guarantee four free Mondays in the year including the first Monday in August, were of no importance here, although they did help to open out summer holiday opportunities in parts of the country where the older holidays had not survived. Paid holidays for manual workers before the First World War were offered by only a few paternalistic or enlightened employers, and although they spread gradually through the inter-war years a compulsory Holidays with Pay Act was not passed until 1938, and did not become effective until after the Second World War, when English seaside resorts had a particularly prosperous couple of decades, before generally failing to meet the challenge of new opportunities and new destinations.

John K. Walton


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hol·i·day / ˈhäliˌdā/ • n. a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done: December 25 is an official public holiday. ∎  [as adj.] characteristic of a holiday; festive: a holiday atmosphere. ∎ chiefly Brit. (often holidays) a vacation: I spent my summer holidays on a farm Fred was on holiday in Spain.• v. [intr.] chiefly Brit. spend a holiday in a specified place: he is holidaying in Italy.


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Holiday ★★★½ Free to Live; Unconventional Linda 1938

The classically genteel screwball comedy about a rich girl who steals her sister's fiance. A yardstick in years to come for sophisticated, urbane Hollywood romanticism. Based on the play by Philip Barry who later wrote “The Philadelphia Story.” 93m/B VHS, DVD . Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton, Ruth Donnelly, Lew Ayres, Binnie Barnes; D: George Cukor; W: Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman.


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A day of recreation; a consecrated day; a day set apart for the suspension of business.

A legal holiday is a day set aside by statute for recreation, the cessation of work, or religious observance. It is a day that is legally designated as exempt from the conduct of all judicial proceedings, service of process, and the demand and protest of commercial paper. A prohibition against conducting public business transactions on holidays does not, however, have an effect upon private business. Private transactions will not, therefore, be invalidated solely because they are conducted on a holiday.


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holiday religious festival; day of cessation from work. OE. hāliġdæġ, late hālidæiġ; also as two words inflected, HOLY DAY.