And on the Seventh Day We Rested?

  • Once upon a time, in the "Dominion Of New Haven," it was illegal to kiss your children on Sunday. Or make a bed or cut your hair or eat mince pies or cross a river unless you were a clergyman riding your circuit. If you lived in Connecticut in 1650, there was no mistaking Sunday for just another shopping day; regardless of whether you'd go to hell for breaking the Sabbath, you could certainly go to jail. Centuries later, the sense that Sunday is special is still wired in us, a miniature sabbatical during which to peel off the rest of the week and savor ritual, religious or otherwise: Sunday worship, Sunday football, Sunday papers, Sunday brunch, the day you call your mother, the night the family gathers around the TV to watch, once upon a time, The Wonderful World of Disney and, now, The Simpsons.

    The idea that rest is a right has deep roots in our history. Blue laws were a gift as much as a duty, a command to relax and reflect. That tension, explains Sunday historian Alexis McCrossen, has always been less between sacred and secular than between work and respite; America does not readily sit still, even for a day. The Civil War and a demand for news begat the Sunday paper; industrialization inspired progressives to argue that libraries and museums should open on Sundays so working people could elevate themselves. Major league baseball held its first Sunday game in 1892 (the Cincinnati Reds beat the St. Louis Browns, 5-1). Joseph Pulitzer realized the Sunday paper was less about news than about fun, comics and book reviews, and soon the theaters were open too, as well as amusement parks and fairs.

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    Over time, Sunday has gone from a day we could do only a very few things to the only day we can do just about anything we want. The U.S. is too diverse, our lives too busy, our economy too global and our appetites too vast to lose a whole day that could be spent working or playing or power shopping. Pulled between piety and profit, even Christian bookstores are open. Children come to Sunday school dressed in their soccer uniforms; some churches have started their own leagues just to control the schedule. Politicians recite their liturgies in TV studios. Post offices may still be closed, but once you miss that first Sunday e-mail from the boss, it becomes forever harder not to log on and check in. Even the casinos are open.

    If your soul has no Sunday, it becomes an orphan, Albert Schweitzer said — which raises a question for our times: What do we lose if Sunday becomes just like any other day? Lawmakers in Virginia got to spend part of their summer break debating that question, thanks to a mistake they made last winter when they inadvertently revived a "day of rest" rule; hotels and hospitals and nuclear power plants would have had to give workers a weekend day off or be fined $500. After a special legislative session was convened to fix the error, Virginia's workers, like the rest of us, are once more potentially on call 24/7. Meanwhile, Rhode Island just became the 32nd state to let liquor stores open every Sunday; until this month, they could do so only in December, perhaps because even George Washington's eggnog recipe called for brandy, whiskey and rum. Social conservatives may want to honor the Fourth Commandment, but businesses want the income, states need the tax revenues, and busy families want the flexibility.

    With progress, of course, comes backlash from those who desperately want to preserve the old ways. Mom-and-pop liquor stores in New York fought to keep the blue laws to have more time with their families. Car dealers in Kansas City, Mo., pushed for a law to make them close on Sundays so they could have a day off without losing out to competition. Chick-Fil-A, a chain of more than 1,100 restaurants in 37 states, closes on Sundays because its founder, Truett Cathy, promised employees time to "worship, spend time with family and friends or just plain rest from the work week," says the chain's website. "Made sense then, still makes sense now." Pope John Paul II even wrote an apostolic letter in defense of Sunday: "When Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a 'weekend,'" he wrote, "people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they can no longer see 'the heavens.'"

    In an age with no free time, we buy it through hard choices. Do we skip church so we can sleep in or skip soccer so we can go to church or find a family ritual — cook together, read together, a Parcheesi challenge — that we treat as sacred? That way, at least some part of Sunday faces in a different direction, whether toward heaven or toward one another.