Expert Q&A with Robert Abzug

Professor Robert Abzug works in the departments of history and religious studies at UT.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Silveyra

While the holiday season began in the United States as being more or less religion-based, with the celebration of Christmas, today, it has become more secularized and is a time for everyone, regardless of religion, to take part in the general festivities.

The cheerfulness and exuberance of the holiday season has certainly been felt in the American economy. Christmas trees, boxed chocolate sets, lights and gifts are the talk of the season, as many people roam malls and shops to look for the perfect presents for their loved ones. However, the increased commercialization of the holiday season is not without controversy.

This year, many have expressed outrage over what is now being called “Black Thursday,” because it gives little regard to store employees’ time off — several retailers and stores have made the decision to stay open on Thanksgiving Day itself in order to maximize and surpass any profits they plan to make on Black Friday. Still, the holidays are, no doubt, an integral part of the American experience and our culture today.

Longhorn Life asked Dr. Robert Azbug, a professor of history at UT, about the significance of the holidays in the United States. Azbug also serves as the Audre and Bernard Rapport regents chair of Jewish studies and director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish studies. He earned his doctorate in 1977 at the University of California, Berkeley, and the central focus of Azbug’s academic inquiry is the relationship between religion and psychology in modern American culture.

Longhorn Life: One hundred years ago, what were the major holidays that were celebrated in America that are still celebrated today?

Robert Azbug: Christmas, Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving.

LL: Of these major holidays, which ones are religion-based? How has this holiday evolved from its respective religion?

RA: Christmas. Christmas was not a Biblically based religious holiday, and it was even banned by the Puritans and not celebrated much until the early 19th century.

LL: Which major non-religious holidays in the fall and winter seasons are popular? Has the celebration of non-religious holidays changed over time? Why or why not?

RA: Thanksgiving was originally a regional, New England holiday, and only became more nationally based and official in the 20th century. Memorial Day faded as Civil War veterans died, and new wars and generations replaced it. Veterans Day is now more important to many.

LL: How has the increase in multiculturalism affected the celebration of holidays?

RA: This is a complicated question, but I think it has made the traditional holidays more important as cohesive elements in society while introducing new awareness with the celebration. For instance, a new awareness of Cinco de Mayo or Juneteenth Day in Texas, and for a while it seemed that Kwanzaa had some traction, but I don’t think it stuck. Hanukkah among Jews has become a holiday recognized by more of the non-Jewish population and, though not practiced usually beyond Jewish homes, knowledge about its significance is more widespread.

LL: How has the notion of the holiday season changed in light of commercialization and the increase in consumerism?

RA: This is a complaint about Christmas that has virtually always been around.

For more information on the subject of the holiday season in America, Azbug recommends reading “Christmas in America: A History,” written by UT’s very own distinguished senior lecturer in the department of history, Dr. Penne Restad. The book explores the rise and development of Christmas from a sacred occasion to the widely commercialized and popularized holiday that it is today.