When I moved to the Middle East in the 1960s, one of the strongest adjustments I had to make was having Sunday on Friday. For Muslims, Sunday is an ordinary work day; Friday is their holy day. I experienced no day-off-like feelings or religious impulses on Friday. I did have those feelings on Sunday, even though all around me, it was business as usual. Two years in Iraq, Iran, and Jordan, and I never got used to their calendar.
As far back as I can remember, Sunday has always had a special feeling—whether I was working right through it or sleeping off a stupid college hangover or keeping the Sabbath in a traditional Christian way.
The Sunday feeling is a mix; a large measure of restlessness, a same-size portion of calm, and smaller bits of inchoate desire and vague loneliness. When Sunday bedtime arrives, I’m both relieved and regretful. To some degree, it’s been this way my whole life. And I’m not especially unusual in this. There is a good deal of scholarship that holds ambivalence and contradictory feelings to be the most notable characteristic of Sundays. See, for example, Brian Harline’s Sundays.
I was reared in the church, and of course that has shaped my sense of Sunday and how I behave then. The Sundays of my childhood followed the Bible-Belt Protestant script. Some of it I liked a lot; some of it, not much. But all in all, from my septuagenarian vantage point today, I’m grateful without reservation for the stability of that way of living. There’s much to be said for knowing what to expect (especially if you’re a child), even if you have reservations about the content of the practice.
In my family, we’d start the day with a slower, bigger breakfast than usual. It often included biscuits, sometimes pork chops—neither of which ever appeared on a weekday. There was no “hurry up, you’re going to be late to school,” and my dad would be present.
Then we’d dress in our Sunday best, including, when flowers were in bloom, small corsages for the ladies and boutonnieres for men and boys. At church I liked the hymn singing, didn’t care much for the windy extemporaneous prayers, understood little of what the preacher was going on about, was open to the Sunday school lessons. Without fail, I was reassured by a sense of community.
The mid-day meal was a celebration, and by some mysterious process it was almost ready to serve as soon as we got home from church. I doubt it was nearly so agreeable as I recall, but among the recurring events of my childhood, none were happier than Sunday dinner. Most often, it consisted of pot roast with potatoes and carrots, a salad of iceberg lettuce sprinkled with blue cheese, and many, many glasses of sweet iced tea. It’s clear that fancy cuisine was not what made the meal special. I don’t know exactly what did. I suppose it was a combination of things.
It was fundamentally ceremonial, and though at the time I wasn’t aware it was a ceremony, I’m pretty sure I liked that about it. Probably everyone likes ceremonies, if they are happy ones, and Sunday dinner at my house always was. We were dressed up. We stayed at the table longer than usual. We used the good dishes and silver. The whole family and maybe a visiting relative or friend were present. Those things never happened on a weekday.
Oddly, we left out the most common ceremonial marker of Christian meals—we never said grace. I don’t know why, and I can’t imagine what my parents would have said if I had asked them. They met at a meeting of the Christian Endeavor Society, a young people’s evangelical organization, and they never slackened in their participation in church life. Nevertheless, the last person in my family known to offer thanks at family meals was my mother’s maternal grandfather. Notwithstanding that missing element, the meal was inextricable from the religious character of the day; it was a follow-on to the morning’s church service. The one did not exist without the other.
I didn’t like the afternoon (also scripted) as much as the earlier part of the day. My parents took a nap. I may have done so too, after I turned twelve and started getting out of bed at 3:30 to throw my paper route. But when I was younger, I was told to “find something to do” and not make noise. (At the time, that nonnegotiable requirement was not considered cruel and unusual punishment.) Sometimes I’d play H‑O‑R-S-E at the schoolyard basketball court. Sometimes I’d just ride my bike around looking for friends who were, like me, at loose ends in this weekly absence of structure. It seemed like every kid in the neighborhood was in parentally coerced doldrums.
In late afternoon, we usually took a drive. I don’t know what motivated that; my parents rarely saw anything they weren’t already intimately familiar with. Perhaps it was the calmness of it. There was little traffic to annoy them, and they chatted quietly. My brother and I absorbed—not unhappily though with some restlessness—their companionable murmuring about—well, really—about nothing much at all. The mere sound of their voices was reassuring in the same way worshiping with friends and family had been in the morning.
I’m pretty sure the Sunday drive is now extinct. There should have been a ceremony to commemorate the final one. Or at least an obituary, such as those that show up from time to time to mark the passing of the last speaker of some language.
Ann recalls the cocktail hour in much the same way. When her father came home from work, he and Ann’s mother would sit on the couch and have a drink and chat. Ann was allowed to sit with them—when very young, with her head in her mother’s lap. She could stay only if she did not try to join the conversation. Besides that, she sensed that if she did, she would take something dear from all three of them; she was breathing in the comfortable love of two life-mates chatting easily. To a large extent, it made her the loving and giving person she is now. Parents still have cocktails and talk, but now excluding children from any conversation between adults seems to be as extinct as the Sunday drive.
I can’t think what we may be substituting these days for languorous moments of inconsequential talk. Certainly not anything that occurs ritually like our Sunday drives or the cocktail hour at Ann’s house. Maybe someone will invent an app for it.
After the drive, the curious mix of calm and restlessness continued. We listened to radio shows, such as the Longines-Wittnauer Hour. (It may have been on earlier in the afternoon—I don’t remember for sure.) Later there were Fibber McGee, Jack Benny, and other programs. Listening to the radio was not a source of restlessness; the shows were as delightful to children as to adults.
Supper was invariably leftovers from the big mid-day dinner or maybe a bowl of cereal or a piece of cheese toast. That’s when restlessness became more noticeable; such a supper didn’t feel quite right. Then, after a listless stab at homework that I should have done earlier, the once-a-week, special day was over.
This way of having Sunday was typical for observant Protestants, but elements of it were part of everyone’s life. In that time (the 1940s and 1950s) and place (small town Texas and Oklahoma), the larger culture had much in common with Protestant practice. So-called “Blue Laws” regulated commerce in a way that was intended to keep it consistent with what were agreed upon as Christian values.
Ann and I once spent a Sunday on the Isle of Harris in Scotland. Harris is a conservative Presbyterian redoubt with a Sunday way of being that could have served as a template for the Blue Laws I knew growing up. In the morning, we set off with a nearly empty gas tank to drive around and explore the island. We quickly discovered the island to be so bound by Sabbath rules that gasoline (and just about everything else) could not be sold then. We had a cold breakfast and a lunch that the proprietress of our B&B had kindly packed for us on Saturday evening. (Her observance of the Sabbath did not permit cooking on Sunday.) And she apologized for not being permitted to do our laundry on that day.
After an anxious search for a place to have supper, while the gas gauge dropped ever closer to “empty,” we found the one establishment (the hotel) that was serving. Never mind the severity of the local Sabbath observance, getting a drink of good whisky (Scottish spelling) was not a problem. In that regard, Sunday on the Isle of Harris was nothing like Sunday in the Bible Belt, where hard liquor by the glass was not available on any day.
In large measure, though, Beaumont Sundays during my childhood were similar to those of Harris. Strictures were less encompassing and less severe, but there was a good deal of regulation of public activities. And for many people, public rules and patterns of personal behavior overlapped.
Most retail establishments were closed. Whether this was by law or by tacit agreement, I don’t know. I suspect the latter. Liquor stores, though, were legally prohibited from opening. Television with its domineering broadcasts of morning talk shows and professional sports had not yet arrived. In my recollection, there was relatively little diversion of any sort. The Baptist kids were not even allowed to go to movies on Sunday. It was a day of rest, and rest did not include much that we would recognize today as entertainment. Everything slowed down.
Over the years, I’ve discontinued the personal Sunday practices of my childhood, and there are no longer strict Blue Laws regulating public activity. But I realized recently that I’d gladly bring back some aspects of the Bible-Belt Sunday—the quiet respite, a script, church attendance, the big mid-day meal. For various reasons, it’s difficult to continue those traditional ways. Ann and I try, though, and sometimes, if we make judicious substitutions and squint a little, a Sunday in Saranac Lake looks a little like those of my childhood.
I always try not to work—no writing (easy), no household chores (even easier), and no faithless fears and worldly anxieties (not easy). Ann joins me in this, though she’s Type A through-and-through and for her, shutting down is rather like closing a nuclear power plant; you don’t just turn off the lights and shut the door.
We don’t start the day with a bigger-than-usual breakfast, just the usual fruit and Ann’s bread with jam or peanut butter and honey. But we do have an extra cup of coffee and we do respond to the elemental urge to slow down and accept the possibility of rest and renewal. We’ve not found a local church that suits us, so there’s no getting dressed up and going off for services. Instead, using the Book of Common Prayer, we make our private devotions and spend more time than usual in quiet deliberation of matters beyond the commonplace. I go to the grocery store in midmorning to get a New York Times. When the highway is closed by a winter storm and the paper doesn’t get through, we descend into the same sort of withdrawal that accompanies electronic blackout.
On a warm day in summer (which would not be all of them), we take the Times and a basket of fruit, sandwiches, and wine and as Ratty says to Mole, go “messing about” in the pontoon boat. That’s similar to the Sunday drive in the way it’s essence is slow-motion companionship. The chain of lakes is large, so we can usually find an undisturbed cove to anchor in and enjoy the sunshine and read and drink wine and have a lazy swim au naturel (as God intended) and take a snooze. We do that occasionally on a weekday, and it’s a pleasure, but it just isn’t the same. It feels much like having Sunday on Friday in Baghdad.
Winter Sundays have a less Sabbath-like tone. Conditions permitting, i.e., when the temperature is no lower than ten and the snow is acceptable, we ski at the Olympic cross-country venue. That’s far more active than a summer afternoon on the boat, of course, and on it’s face it doesn’t seem so restful as the ideal Sunday is. On the other hand, the trails are so long that five minutes away from the lodge, we are alone, and it’s completely quiet except for the sound of our breathing and the hissing of skis on snow. It’s not a worship service, but there is a sense of reverence that is sometimes a bit difficult to come by on a weekday when we are likely to be in a hurry to get back to some appointment or chore.
Evenings resonate clearly with memories of childhood Sundays. Usually, neither of us wants to cook, so we warm up something from the freezer. Masterpiece Theatre stands in for The Great Gildersleeve.
Sundays also include porch-sitting in warm weather, sitting by a fire in cold, and trying (in an inappropriately work-like way) to catch up on magazine reading and lower the stack of books on the bedside table.
The novelist Ian McEwan said in a recent interview that reading poetry involved “taking yourself out of the narrative of daily activity and drawing the neglected cloak of stillness around you.” He might just as well have been referring to a proper Sabbath, religious or secular.