Lamenting the loss of the traditional American Sunday
LANCASTER, PA. — And on the Seventh Day, they quested, contested, jested, congested, ingested, digested, invested, divested, and. occasionally, rested ...
Sunday has become a frenetic day of movies, concerts, art shows, opera, theater, photography exhibits, professional baseball, football, basketball, thoroughbred racing, casino gambling, and shopping. And, of course, religious services - although many churches obligingly offer Saturday evening worship so the faithful can fulfill their weekly obligations without interfering with their Sunday plans.
I am not here to suggest a reversal of the trend; I don't think we can go back to the good old Sundays. This is a lament rather than a call to arms.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Sundays were special - and it didn't matter if you were religious or not. Whether our motives were sacred or secular, we all followed the prescription from Genesis for quiet contemplation.
Christians gave Sunday to the world in the fourth century. The world at first was reluctant to accept, but now it has run away with it. Sunday is a holiday rather than a holy day. A day of diversion rather than a day of rest. Depending on your point of view, America has either grown up or gone to the devil. The one certainty is that the old specialness in Sunday is gone. Once there were Sunday clothes, dinners, and drives. Indeed, the word "sundae" was coined to mean a kind of dessert that was especially for Sunday. Even the Constitution gives the president the day off by allotting him 10 days to sign bills - "Sundays excepted."
Although the idea that Sunday should be set aside for slow-moving church liturgies and contemplation of spiritual matters has become unthinkable to most Americans, it's an idea that didn't die easily. Colonial "blue laws" restricting Sunday business survived into the modern era, and for much of the last century Sunday was a day of rest and arrest. Nowhere were the blue laws more ensconced than in my home state, Pennsylvania.
In the first half of the 20th century, actors and actresses would sigh upon leaving the state; it usually meant they'd have to work on Sunday. Even into the '50s, having fun on Sunday for Philadelphians meant going somewhere else. Philadelphia blueness led to a hundred vaudeville jokes - "I was in Philadelphia last weekend, but it was closed." Hypocrisy ran wild. For decades, Crystal Pool at Woodside Park paid a $10 weekly fine to the city for operating on Sunday.
Hundreds of bills to repeal or modify blue laws were defeated by the Pennsylvania legislature - the last in 1976. But the traditional American Sunday was dead by 1970 when Billy Graham mourned its passing: "We have turned God's day into just another frenetic holiday, polluting it just as we are daily polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink."
By then Sunday had become a very important day in the retail trade. Many malls do as much or more business on Sunday afternoons as they do during an 11-hour weekday. The Sunday flea market became an enduring part of the landscape, and garage sales also were ideally suited to Sunday. Even the once anaconda-like Bible Belt is loose - thousands of antique dealers hawk their wares all Sunday where I live.
The Sunday revolution was wrought not so much by paganism as by sociology. The traditional American Sunday, which consisted largely of attending church and abstaining from work, was conditioned by cultural circumstances that no longer existed. The work week shrank from six to five days, and retailers had to adjust their hours when women joined the workforce.
One of the few remaining things that make Sunday special for me is that it's the best day to go for a walk in state game lands because there is no hunting on Sundays, meaning one doesn't risk being shot, at least by legal hunters. That appears about to change. There's a move afoot in the legislature to allow Sunday hunting, and predictably its supporters are citing unimaginable economic benefits (one study suggests an added $629 million will find its way into Pennsylvania annually.)
Alas. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
• William Ecenbarger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.