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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 140-141

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Holy Day, Holiday:
The American Sunday

Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday. By Alexis McCrossen (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2000) 209 pp. $39.95

McCrossen's Holy Day, Holiday, an examination of the American Sunday's changing nature, is a worthwhile addition to the small but growing shelf of historical work that considers culture through the lens of ritual and holiday. It rejects the declension narrative of secularization in order to track Sunday's changing boundaries of work, rest, and leisure across the nineteenth century and deep into the twentieth. Through this triad, McCrossen demonstrates the importance of commerce, industry, immigration, and labor in reshaping a day largely molded by Protestant conceptions of the Sabbath. Broadly and well-researched, McCrossen's book argues that early in the nineteenth century, Sunday was a day of sacralized rest. However, debates between Sabbatarians and their liberal Christian critics, immigrant importation of a less ascetic "continental Sabbath," and labor's attempts to impose a more humane work week began a drama in which leisure came to wrestle with religion and rest for a place on Sunday.

By the century's end, leisure, increasingly acceptable, diverse, and commercial, had laid a hefty claim to the day. A respectable Sabbath, the boundaries of which might have been tested at mid-century by a Sunday picnic, within a few decades faced new challenges from amusement parks and baseball games. The alluring potential for profit made these changes all the more profound. As McCrossen documents, commerce shaped leisure and both gradually reshaped Sunday.

To her credit, McCrossen asserts that the religious meaning of the day did not disappear. New forms of leisure, even if they encroached upon the sacred routines of Sunday, failed to obliterate the almost universal notion that Sunday was spiritually a day apart from the rest. Yet, betraying a marked weakness in an otherwise elegant argument, she does not adequately address the core question of what exactly made Sunday Sunday. In this matter, she illustrates a challenge many modern scholars face. Even when they recognize religion's importance, they find it hard to muster the thickness of description that might make its significance [End Page 140] palpable. Here, McCrossen tells us much about what happened on Sunday but too little about the immutable elements that continued to give the day its particular power in the culture.

Nonetheless, Holy Days, Holiday offers fine-grained pictures of moments and settings that illustrate the intricate ways in which America adapted Sunday to its multiplying needs for leisure, rest, spiritual renewal, and financial gain. McCrossen confirms in her analysis not only the complexity of the modern Sunday but the fact that its nature was complicated from the very beginning.


Penne Restad
University of Texas, Austin



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