Every year, on the first or second Sunday of February, I gather with some mix of friends and family for one of my favorite holidays. We drink — sometimes too much. We eat copious amounts of finger foods. Sometimes we even make small bets back and forth. In a variety of ways, we make merry for the holiday. The holiday to which I refer is, of course, Super Bowl Sunday.
Despite growing up Catholic, I probably remember more Super Bowl Sundays than I do Easter Sundays. And I’m far from alone on this. More Americans see this single event than vote in Federal elections. When the game is being played, from about 6:45 p.m. to around 11 p.m. on the East coast, more Americans are doing the same thing at the same time than at virtually any other point of the year. If you’re not one of those Americans, it can feel like the streets are deserted, or as if all business in this country has ceased. So, why is the Super Bowl — a single football game between two teams to which most people, even football fans, have no allegiances whatsoever — so immensely popular? The answer is simply that the Super Bowl is easily the most American holiday of the year.
Now, when you hear “American” holiday, you probably think of the Fourth of July, or maybe Veteran’s Day, or maybe even Thanksgiving. Those are days on which Americans show their patriotism for sure, but patriotism — or nationalism or jingoism — isn’t unique to America. (Jingoism isn’t even an American term.) July 4th is a fun day to gather with friends and grill and watch Chinese fireworks, but it’s still a celebration of the violent struggle for independence. It’s important, but it’s not very original. Sadly, a lot of people confuse Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day and Labor Day, which rules out all of them. Thanksgiving is pretty American: We pray, we eat, we nap under the warming glow of a television. But plenty of other countries have their own Thanksgivings — countries far worse off than us actually. Nobody else has anything quite like the Super Bowl.
First and foremost, the Super Bowl is a celebration of sports, the grandest spectacle in our culture, the greatest distraction we have. Sports, as an industry, is the opiate of the masses in this country. There is a reason Disney-owned ESPN has become a massive multinational corporation onto itself. There is a reason stadiums are filled, even in a down economy, even as ticket prices continue to rise. They’re selling the greatest drug around, a pill available 24/7 that will take your mind off your troubles — and give you something to talk about in the office, with friends at the bar, all the people in your life with whom you actually share very little. It’s healthy, except for the devastating injuries we now know will lead to a severely impaired quality of life later in an athlete’s life. And it’s wholesome, except for the associated gambling and drinking and sexploitation.
Yes, there are supremely tone-deaf moments, like Eli Manning, a man who grew up the wealthy son of a professional quarterback and who has since signed a contract worth over $100 million, receiving the keys to a sleek new black Corvette convertible for being the game’s MVP. But all over the place, people aren’t thinking of their foreclosed-upon houses or their shitty jobs or their rotten, loveless marriages. They aren’t worrying about debt or parent-teacher conferences or anything other than the human drama unfolding before their eyes at that very second.
We also fill ourselves on Super Bowl Sunday with mostly awful food: the fried, the processed, the carbonated, the buttered, the covered, the smothered. We gather at restaurants or at parties where guests arrive with an expectation of something dippable and something drinkable. It’s pizza, wings, sliders — America’s most populist fare. Plus the game is long, and even if we were satisfied by the initial offerings, halfway through the third quarter we’re probably hungry for more. We consume more salt, more fat, more refined sugar on this day than perhaps any other day on the calendar. And this, too, makes us feel better — at least momentarily. And that’s the point of holidays, isn’t it?
What truly makes this the most American holiday though, is the celebration of consumerism, of the commercials and marketing. Watching people stare, fixed, awaiting each new ad is like seeing the gears turn in a mass-market economy. It’s almost a cliché now how, outside of the most fervent sports fans, people spend more time talking about the commercials than the game itself. We rate them, berate them, and welcome them into our collective psyche. This is corporate America’s showcase, the only day of the year we actually want to be advertised to. It’s the only occasion when we turn, without pretense, to advertisements for artistic entertainment. We ask to be pandered to: Show us talking babies, anthropomorphized animals, recognizable celebrities, cars doing what cars cannot — and by the ad’s own admission, should not — do. We want witty and absurd and previews of what will surely be the summer’s earliest blockbusters. America’s blade is never sharper.
There are other reasons to love the holiday, other reasons why it’s the most American. There’s the infusion of pop music. There’s the methodical cleansing of anything that might offend anyone, and the knowledge that the cleansing will never be completely effective. (Imagine the blustering ignited by M.I.A’s middle finger last night.) And there’s the fact that the stories are so easily bent in a positive direction: conquering hero, noble underdog, hard work paying off. Whether the stories are true or not, it doesn’t detract from the America-ness of them.
The truth is, this holiday isn’t always pretty. But what holiday is? The Super Bowl, though, that’s ours. The men on the field crushing each other, the salt and sugar coursing through our veins, the consumerism engine steaming at full throttle, that’s us.