The Rise of the Micro-Holiday

Why do we celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day? Because we can.
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Nancy Hoffman, of Peaks Island, Maine, has amassed a collection of 1,200 umbrella covers. Not umbrellas, to be clear, but umbrella covers: the fabric tubes that encase brand-new umbrellas, the ones that have little obvious use save for populating the world's junk drawers and landfills. ("Umbrella coves are very underappreciated, as far as I'm concerned," Hoffman says, adding: "They're just a very unusual little crossover between throwaway packaging and things we really use.") In July 2012, Hoffman presented her collection—at that time a grouping of 730 umbrella sleeves, sourced from 50 different countries and displayed in a house that Hoffman has converted into a museum for the cause—to the decision-makers at Guinness World Records. The grouping, the authorities agreed, constitutes the biggest one ever convened in one place

Last year, Hoffman wrote an email to a man named Jono Alderson, who, since 2009, has run daysoftheyear.com. The site is, as its name semi-suggests, a calendar. More specifically, though, it is a kind of shadow calendar, one that tracks not official celebrations—your Thanksgivings, your Independence Days—but rather the days that celebrate things like ... umbrella covers. And also: plush animals. And also spreadsheets. And also hypnotism. And also cake. ("There's a lot of cake," Alderson says.)

Alderson's site promises, overall, to act as a database for the holidays that double as "the funny, weird, and wonderful Days of the Year." Holidays with frank names like World Card-Making Day and World Goth Day and Cheer Up the Lonely Day and International Tuba Day and Build a Scarecrow Day and Clean Off Your Desk Day and Particularly Preposterous Packaging Day and Tiara Day and Common Sense Day and Middle Child Day and Hug a Plumber Day and Hug a Lawyer Day and Hug a Vegetarian Day and Towel Day and Bloomsday and Bad Poetry Day and, lest we farrrrrget, International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Holidays that are the logical extensions of unofficial events like Black Friday and Super Bowl Sunday and Throwback Thursday and, obviously, Shark Week. Holidays that take place not at the level of the mass culture, but at the level of the micro-community. Holidays that make you wonder what it means to be a holiday in the first place. 

We could call these cheeky festivities "haha-lidays." Or "LOLidays." But let's save that conversation for International Make Up a Word Day. For now, I'll just call them "micro-holidays," and note what you probably already know, if you have been to a bar that celebrates National Bourbon Day, or passed a bakery advertising specials for National Cupcake Day, or seen the founder of Panda Express celebrating Plush Animal Lovers' Day: that these holidays often exist simply to sell us stuff. (So: "sellebrations"?) They are more, however, than just nichified versions of the Hallmark Holiday; they are also, in their way, extreme extensions of the Internet's impulse to democratize the things it encounters—even, in this case, time itself. Pretty much anyone can celebrate a micro-holiday. Pretty much anyone can start one.

Which was made clear when Nancy Hoffman emailed Jono Alderson last year: She wanted to start, she told him, Umbrella Cover Day. And she wanted Alderson to do the only thing really required to convert a plain old day into a "funny, weird, and wonderful" holiday: put it on his calendar. Alderson obliged. As a result, next July 6, instead of (or in addition to) eating fried chicken and taking your webmaster to lunch, you can take a moment to do what some small subset of humanity, Nancy Hoffman included, will be doing along with you: celebrating the humble umbrella cover.

***

Calendars were invented nearly 10,000 years ago, and they have evolved since then in every way but their basic purpose: to reconcile our personal experiences of time with the communal. The digital calendar, while it is, in form, strikingly similar to that of its forebears, is also nearly infinitely customizable. Its neat boxes expand to encompass any number of events, allowing for commemorations both minor and major, both shared and less so. My personal calendar, which features frighteningly overlapping boxes of color-coded notes to my future self, ends up reminding me not only of Labor Day, but also of Dinner With Julie Day. And Matt's Birthday. And Dentists's Appointment at Noon Day.

My calendar, I am saying, contains multitudes. Yours does, too.

And so does Jono Alderson's. Days of the Year currently has around 1,200 holidays published on its calendar, Alderson told me. This averages to roughly 3.3 micro-holidays for every day of the year; several days, given your Christmases and your Thanksgivings and your other attention-hoggers, host many more than that. "There isn't really any official guideline or legal infrastructure, I don't think," Alderson, who runs the site from the U.K. but has a largely American audience, told me. "There's no legal definition of what constitutes a 'Day.'"

While federal holidays are approved by Congress and, ultimately, by the president (who is also empowered to bypass Congress by proclaiming holidays), there's a free-market element to the micro-holiday. Chase's Calendar of Events, a printed compendium of "special events, holidays, federal and state observances, historic anniversaries, and more," explains that it "includes a special day, week or month in the annual reference based on the authority of the organization observing it, how many years it has been observed, the amount of promotion and activities that are a part of it, its uniqueness and a variety of other factors." Alderson, for his part, fact-checks the days that are up for being Day-ified on Google and Facebook, looking for evidence that some critical mass of people does indeed celebrate the holiday in question.

This evidence can sometimes be hard to find, in part because the sources of the holidays themselves can be hard to track down. (An entry on nationalday calendar.com, which does similar work to that of Days of the Year, summed this up nicely: "Our research," the site lamented, "was unable to find the creator of National Bubble Bath Day, an 'unofficial' national holiday.") 

While official holidays often celebrate their own origin stories—while for many of them, the whole point is their own origin stories—micro-holidays are partly defined by the fact that you're never entirely sure where they come from. Who, exactly, made the executive decision that today, of all days, should exist to celebrate social security? And also chocolate chips? And also assistance animalsAnd also the Coast Guard? (And also—but maybe you already knew about this—psychics?) Who decided that tomorrow should exist to celebrate underwear? And, while we're at it, what set of circumstances decided that January is National Meat Month, and also National Egg Month, and also National Soup Month, and also National Candy Month, and also National Wheat Bread Month, and also Bread Machine Baking Month, and also National Hot Tea Month, and also National Oatmeal Month, and also Prune Breakfast Month?

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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