The Rise of the Micro-Holiday

By Megan Garber

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.

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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?

Those are rhetorical wonderings, for the most part (though I really would like to know about the prune breakfast thing). We already know, for the most part, who is making these decisions about the timing and targeting of our amoebic attention: marketers. For every Nancy Hoffman—for every one-person interest group—there is also a traditional interest group, one that has commercial reasons for colonizing the calendar. As Chases's explains of its own catalog of micro-holidays: "The majority come from national organizations that use their observances for public outreach and to plan specific events." 

Which is a polite way of saying the obvious: that micro-holidays are often PR stunts. Or, at least, they're often vehicles for PR stunts. So National History Day is sponsored in part by … The History Channel. National Pancake Day is celebrated by IHOP. The wonderfully specific National Bittersweet Chocolate with Almonds Day, by the National Confections Association. (The NCA celebrates 35 other candy-related holidays, too, including National Chocolate-Covered Cashews Day, National Chocolate-Covered Cherry Day, and—in an apparent attempt to ensure that all bases, as well as all snacks, be covered—National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day.) As the site National Day Calendar notes in its invitation to submit a National Day: "The buildup annually to a National Day is great. News stories, increase in product sales, top of mind awareness and much more can be generated annually."

The historian Daniel Boorstin, in response to the rise of the television in the 1960s, coined the term "media event" to describe a happening that, like a star who is famous for being famous, takes place only to be filmed and recorded and written about. The micro-holiday is an Internet-enabled version of the media event: It exists, often, simply for the sake of existing in the media. It exists so that editors can fill their sites with evergreen articles like "6 recipes to celebrate National Bourbon Day" and "5 Healthy Ways to Celebrate International Chocolate Day." And so that writers can peg their stories to International Boombox Day. So that commerce and culture can meet in the calendar. 

Micro-holidays aren't always purely commercial, of course. Thanks to Earth Day, started in 1970 to expand public interest in environmentalism, people have a reason, every April 22, to talk about the future of the planet. There are more than 100 health observance weeks and months: January is Thyroid Awareness Month. February is National Children's Dental Health Month. March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month (and also National Endometriosis Awareness Month, and also Sleep Awareness Month, and also Workplace Eye Wellness Month.) These indirectly commercial commemorations sell causes rather than stuff; they treat attention itself as a kind of economic good. They are the functional equivalents of a hashtag. 

And awareness days, like hashtags, can take on a life of their own. Ada Lovelace Day—named for Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the person generally credited as the world's first "computer" programmer—celebrates women's contributions to technology. "The original ALD," Suw Charman-Anderson, the day's founder, told me, "was a day of blogging about women in tech, and it attracted 2,000 people to the original pledge and a similar number to a Facebook page." The holiday has since expanded, though, as more people have heard about it and found their own ways to celebrate it. "Over the last five years," Charman-Anderson says, "the day has evolved to encompass STEM, and to include events—especially Wikipedia editathons which help permanently expand record of women in STEM." 

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The rebels of revolutionary France, recognizing that time, like most everything else, is political, developed a series of calendars meant to shed the shackles of monarchy in favor of more egalitarian scheduling schemes. One of these was the Rural Calendar, created by Fabre d'Eglantine, which rejected Gregorian treatments of time in favor of divisions that celebrated agricultural life. The rural calendar divided the year into ten months, and it assigned a name not only to each of these months, but also to each day. All 365 of them. The point was to reclaim the Catholic tradition of Saints' Days for the secular world via commemorations not of holy people, but of unholy things: agricultural tools and farm animals, largely, as well as trees, roots, flowers, fruits, grain, and minerals. "Water chestnut" was a day. So was "Pheasant." So was "Shovel." 

The Rural Calendar, being one of those things that makes a point while being, in the end, fairly pointless, was discontinued, by Napoleon, in 1805. But its idea lives on, in its way, in National Grilled Cheese Day. And in International Talk Like a Pirate Day. (And in, until recently, Turkmenistan, where Turkmenbashi, the Central Asian nation's self-appointed president-for-life, renamed the month of April for his mother.) Micro-holidays, which teeter somewhere in the center of the continuum between universality and irrelevancy, are political. They do what all holidays will, in the end: convene our attention around a cause. But they are different from official holidays in one crucial way: They are opt-in. 

In that, they are in some ways the temporized equivalent of all those "What Kind of Person Are You?" Internet quizzes, or of those "You Know You Grew Up in the '90s" demolisticles: They're about finding communities of like minds within the social chaos of the Internet. Every year, people will discover delightfully nerdy new ways to celebrate National Grammar Day—and they will do that in part because they are self-identified grammar nerds. Who are sharing a thing with other self-identified grammar nerds. The exchanging of grammar-mistake pet peeves and the starting of heated fights about the Oxford comma—some traditional ways of celebrating the day—say something about who they are as people. It says something, also, about what they want to share as people. It suggests the thing that has been true all along, but that the Internet is reminding us of anew: that being and sharing are often the same thing. 

Which was why, on July 6, Nancy Hoffman got a group of people together to celebrate the object she has dedicated a hefty portion of her life to caring about. The group had a "a little hurrah," she says, at the Umbrella Cover Museum. They sang songs (including the museum's theme song: "Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella"). They considered doing a parade; they decided, ultimately, against it. (Too close to the Fourth of July, with all its fanfare.) 

But a parade—possibly featuring objects made with umbrella covers—isn't out of the question. It might be a fitting way to praise an object that is otherwise defined by its humility. "I think," Hoffman muses of her new holiday, "I will make more of a celebration of it next year." 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/the-rise-of-the-micro-holiday/375487/