A History of Sunday

Whether you're planning your Sunday brunch, taking a Sunday drive, or watching Sunday Morning, chances are you have your own Sunday ritual. It's the first day of the week, and for many, it's their favorite day.

"I don't think Sunday will ever be like every other day of the week. It's a special day. And it will remain a special day," says author Stephen Miller.

For Miller, the best thing about Sunday is that it is a day of rest. "That it's a day when you don't have to do things, when you can just lie around, see people if you want, or not see people."

And seeing people is a Sunday activity that Americans enjoy. According to a recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40 percent of us socialize on Sundays, but twice as many - eight out of ten - sit back and watch TV, an average of four hours. And then there's church: one in four attends religious services. And about that same number goes shopping.

But when Sunday Morning first went on the air in 1979, in many parts of the country it was impossible to shop on Sundays: Stores were required to be closed, says Stephen Miller, who's written a book on the subject: "The Peculiar Life of Sundays" (Harvard University Press).

Americans once had a very narrow choice of permissible Sunday activities: "There were so many arguments in the United States, especially in the 19th century," Miller said. "Sunday legislation was the second-most debated subject after slavery, because there were different opinions about what you could or couldn't do on Sunday."

Those opinions began with the Puritans, who settled in New England in the 1630s. They called it "Strict Sunday Observance." Sunday was a day for church-going, and "Blue Laws" made almost everything else illegal.

"There were Connecticut blue laws in the 18th century, which said that you could not kiss your baby. You could not tell a joke. There was absolutely no frivolity on Sunday. And you could not play an instrument," Miller says.

Church organs and hymns aside, music was taboo on Sundays. "There was a French soldier stationed in Boston, and during the Revolutionary War he started playing the flute. He was arrested. No flute-playing on the Sabbath!" Miller laughed.

Some blue laws still exist today, mostly to regulate alcohol sales. But Miller says Americans have come a long way from the age of "strict observance."

"Gradually, in the 20th century, all the things that we associate with Sunday now started. So, there's the Sunday drive, the Sunday dinner, Sunday sports. And the Sunday paper," Miller says. "The Sunday paper with the comics and the crosswords became a major American phenomenon."

"We continue to relax in front of the Sunday newspaper. One hundred and fifteen million people in America still read a Sunday newspaper. In fact, readership was up last year from the year before," says Janice Kaplan, the editor of Parade Magazine.

For almost 70 years, it's been a Sunday institution, now appearing in more than 450 Sunday newspapers across the country, with a parade of covers to show for it. Parade, says Kaplan, would not be Parade on any other day of the week.

"The Sunday paper is so invested with tradition. It's got all of those different sections in it. Everybody in the family has a section they want to read. And everybody pulls the one that means something to them. And then maybe they pass it around the Sunday table," Kaplan says.

One favorite section is Sunday Sports - two words that for millions of Americans have become synonymous with each other. Sports, like the newspapers that cover them, are now a firmly-established Sunday tradition.

"It was no small thing for Super Bowl to become an adjective for Sunday," says historian Craig Harline, who has written about how professional football became a weekly ritual in America, in "Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl" (Random House).

"Now you look at the Super Bowl, and it's this odd combination of religion, strip tease show, and, you know, who knows what else. But certainly it's bigger than football. It's about an American civil religion."

Which makes sense, says Harline, because football would not have been accepted on Sundays had it not first assumed a religious significance starting in the late 19th century. "Most Americans considered themselves Christians. And so they had to find a way to reconcile that. And the way they did that was, you know, this is a different day. Sunday is a special day. Most civilizations celebrate their holiest days with sports. Why wouldn't that be true in America as well?" Harline explains.

And so Sunday became a day for games and celebrations. But not for everyone.

There was nothing festive about the song "Gloomy Sunday," recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941. Stephen Miller says it reflects a larger theme in popular music: Sunday as a dark day:
"Gloomy is Sunday,
With shadows I spend it all.
My heart and I
Have decided to end it all.
Soon there'll be candles
And prayers that are said, I know,
But let them not weep,
Let them know that I'm glad to go.
Death is no dream
For in death I'm caressing you.
With the last breath of my soul
I'll be blessing you."
"In fact, it was banned by the BBC during the war because it was too depressing," Miller says.

"You're talking about bein' alone on a Saturday night, that's sad, you know?" says music journalist Fred Goodman. "Bein' alone on a Sunday morning, that's tragic."

Goodman says some songs about Sunday sadness focus on failed expectations for our day off.

"One of the great examples is Kris Kristofferson's song, 'Sunday Morning Coming Down.' It's about a guy who's down on his luck, you know, and really has nothing. And he's talking about Sunday morning. What do most people do on Sunday morning? You know, they're with their family, they're going to church, whatever. This guy's, like, you know, sleepin' off a drunk on the sidewalk. You know, he's got nothing."

Therapists have been listening to the real-life Sunday blues for years. In fact, Sunday actually has a psychiatric disorder named after it.

"There's a famous diagnosis in the early 20th century, [when] the discipline and practice of psychology emerged: Sunday neurosis," historian Harline explains. "The person who couldn't bear the coming of Sunday, because it threw them out of their routine. Sunday is timeless and it's open. There isn't that schedule that you have the rest of the week. And some people can't bear that."

Not writer Judith Shulevitz. In her upcoming book "The Sabbath World," she argues just the opposite: She wants to keep Sundays timeless. In a world of 24/7 commerce, she's pushing for a return to laws that would shut down businesses one day a week.

"If everybody has to stop working, then they have to, sort of, pay attention to their family, to themselves, to their community," she argues.

"So in this campaign, where do you even start?" Charles Osgood asks.

"I don't pretend to have the answer in terms of legislation. I just start by trying to point out the benefits and to just say 'Let's remember the Sabbath. Let's remember what it did for us in the past. And let's think about what it could do for us in the future,'" Shulevitz explains.

"It's fast becoming like other days, because of the commercialization of Sunday," says Miller. "We're losing a day of rest. We're sort of 'on' all the time now. What effect does this have on our psyche? So I think we are losing something."

Which brings us back to the Puritans of the 1630s: their measures may now seem extreme, but what if they were actually onto something?

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