Sunday by Craig HarlineIs it a vain, demanding, aggrandizing god who demands a whole day every week be devoted to him? Or is it a modest, self-effacing god who wants just one days worship every seven, and lets poor mortals get off their knees and go to work the other six? Is it an abundant, generous planet that allows its inhabitants a day of leisure (because Saturday, lets face it, is for schlepping the kids to soccer practice and standing on line at the Home Depot), or is a stern, withholding planet that makes us get out of bed five days a week and alienate our labor on behalf of cold, faceless corporations? Is it a selfish, avaricious football league that conquers Sunday afternoons, and then moves resolutely to take ownership of Monday nights, Sunday nights, and Thursday nights, or is it a smart, enterprising league that knows that after reading Craig Harlines Sunday: A History of the First Day From Babylonia to the Super Bowl Im ready for some football?

The above seem to be the only questions about Sundays left unanswered by Harlines well-written new book. The author, a historian at Brigham Young University, offers us a shrewdly selective survey of what is, after all, a vast subjecthow Sundays have been observed in Western civilization for more than 2000 years. Unsurprisingly, theres lots of information here. We learn that Sunday got its name from the Babylonians, based on some excusably faulty astronomy and a desire to connect changes in the calendarhours, days, weeks, seasonsto the travels of the planets. We learn that the Jews were the first to sacralize one of the days, which they marked by worship and rest. Before long they were trying to figure out how to coexist with the Romans, with their famous appetites for play, and with the early Christians, who evolved from both traditions and were thus inclined to ambidextrously borrow from and reject elements, depending on whether it was in the interest of the leadership to identify with or separate from one of the groups. By the fourth century, with Christianity ascendant, things shook out in such a way that the first day of the week would be called Sun Day (Roman), and that it would be a day of rest (Jewish), but not complete rest (too Jewish). Rather, a person could rest, in order to worship.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%Not to shortchange the ecstasies of prayer, but clearly the Church Fathers werent trying to convince anybody that Christianity was the fun religion (no sex on Sundays was one of their injunctions). Not everybody bought into this program, which may explain the extravagant lengths both hard-liners and easy-goers went in later centuries to shape Sundays to their preferences. Clerics eventually felt obliged to emphasize the sacredness of Sundays by pointing out that Sunday was not only the day when Christ fed the multitudes, changed water into wine, and rose from the dead, but was also the day when God created the angels, appeared to Abraham, parted the Red Sea, handed down the Ten Commandments, ordained Aaron the first bishop, allowed Joshua to walk through the River Jordan with dry feet, and so much more. (In an odd departure, when Pittsburgh Steelers great Franco Harris performed the Immaculate Reception, it was on a Saturday.) Pushing from the other end were those who really wanted a day off from work. By the fourteenth century, innumerable churches in England and on the continent contained paintings called The Sunday Christ, in which Jesus was seen surrounded by toolsthe ax, the spade, other ordinary pieces of equipmentall of which were connected by a line to a fresh wound on the Saviors body. The message: Using these tools on Sunday only adds to Christs suffering.

Once Harline gets us through the Reformation, he changes his approach slightly, and starts explaining how Sundays changed and evolved by taking snapshotsperhaps deep core samples might be a better phraseof typical Sundays at various times and places: the rural English village Sundays of the 1300s, the proper bourgeoisie Dutch Sundays of the 1620s, the very social Sundays of fin de sicle France, the anxious Sundays in Belgium just before and during the Great War, the quiet Sundays in London between the world wars, the churchgoing, sports-loving Sundays of America in the 1950s.

These sections make up the bulk of the book, and they are what makes Sunday an enjoyable read. Harline uses diaries and other accounts to focus on individuals and small groups of people, bringing to life what their ordinary Sundays were like. The effect is a bit like reading an excerpt from a novel, full of color and detail, with well-described characters.

Brought to life particularly well is David Beck, a young Dutch widower whose early-seventeenth-century Sundays were spent in long religious services and even longer lonely walks. Beck was not a man who indulged in self-pity, but his sadness is thrown into stark relief when he writes about his Sunday dinner, and how the companionship of friends and family at the big evening meal serves to restore his vitality. A more delightful character is the French satirist Louis Morin, whom we meet through his 1898 book, Parisian Sundays. It is a set of charming, Thurberesque vignettes of the adventures of Morin and his lovely female companion, Pompon, as they enjoy the new fad of promenading through Pariss parks and the surrounding environs. Morin and Pompon visit cafs, dance halls, the racetrack, the beach, and the countrysidemuch of which we would recognize as components of a leisurely Sunday today. Louis and Pompon seem very familiar, like a movie or sitcom couplehe hapless, perturbed, curmudgeonly, she serene, indulgent, interested, and the greater lover of life. With a novelists eye Harline drops in small poignant, and sometimes tragic, touches. David Beck dies before two of his dear friends have named their sons after him. Years after their promenading Sundays, the funny flaneur Morin and his charming Pompon lose a son at the bloody Battle of the Somme.

If Harline fails to deliver in one department, its tomorrow. What does the future hold for Sundays? America is such a religious country, and Sunday is still for most Americans the day to worship. But many people successfully fit their observances into an hour or so, and then fill the rest of their Sundays with all sorts of activity, including not very restful work and not very sacred play. Custom is a powerful constraint, but one wonders if we are edging toward a time when Sunday will surrender some of its uniqueness. Since its likely that schoolchildren will in perpetuity have weekends off, the idea of weekends and especially Sundays as family time will not easily disappear; indeed, new family-oriented traditions may arise. Organized soccer games were the centerpiece of my familys Sundays when my kids were young; the wholesomeness of that activity, the social dimension, the ability of the game to serve as the centerpiece of the day helped make those Sundays very special, and in a country thats less than soccer crazy, those games seem like a fixture. Otherwise, with the proliferation of entertainments available throughout the week and no longer reserved for Sundays, with the slow disappearance of the Sunday paper, and with work more and more sticking its nose into the home, Sundays might start to resemble the other days of the week.

It doesnt necessarily have to happen. We just need to create more artificially pumped-up occasionslike Mothers Day and Fathers Day, for example. Better yet, look at Super Bowl Sunday. For years the NFL championship game was played on a wintry Sunday with minimal fanfare and hardly any guacamole. Then the networks and the entertainment industry and corporate America got behind it, and now its a national festival, and one of the few big occasions guaranteed to take place on a Sunday. Other groups should take heed: its time to start manufacturing Sunday events. NASCAR has done it. Others should pile on. The Oscars are big, and theyre already on Sunday, but they should be bigger, a Sunday festival of the cinematic arts, with free admission all afternoon at movie theaters, and supermarkets selling Oscar-shaped molds of French onion dip (or caviar, for the truly glamorous). Come on, peopleSundays are rife for exploitation. Why do we have to sit around and celebrate old European pagan pilgrim holidays that often fall haphazardly on any old day of the week? Cant we start some Sunday festivals of our own?

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Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.