At this point, we’re all too familiar with what Christmas sounds like — we’ll never be able to imagine the sound of 25 December without involuntarily hearing chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Santa “hurry[ing] down the chimney tonight” (which, let’s be honest, sounds somewhat dirty.)Major holidays have their fair share of songs to their names, but there are some more obscure holidays you wouldn’t normally think artists would decide to set to song. For instance, today happens to be Casimir Pulaski Day, a day that those of us who don’t hail from Chicago know mostly as the day Sufjan Stevens gets particularly sad and popularizes the banjo in indie music.
Like Sufjan’s famously melancholy track, other musicians have made sonic odes to a variety of other, less pop culturally central holidays. Click through our selection of such songs, and imagine the possibilities of this becoming an even larger trend: picture Lady Gaga’s ode to National Crabmeat Day (celebrated on March 9 — a day devoted to crabs, and their meat), How to Dress Well’s ode to Well Dressing (a rural English custom in which wells are decorated in flower petals) or The Boss‘ self-satisfied tribute to Boss’s Day.
“Casimir Pulaski Day” — Sufjan Stevens
One of the best things about “Casimir Pulaski Day” is that this Illinois track has absolutely nothing to do with Casimir Pulaski Day, apart from the fact that it’s set on that particular holiday, using it as a way of grounding the song in a place fraught with rusted history. Chicago kids often have the day off on Casimir Pulaski Day, and the song depicts one adolescent at the hospital on the holiday — the day of his crush’s death from cancer. The achingly slow, eight-minute song mimics the listlessly expansive feeling the world has when you’re young, and the melancholy of a day off — made a whole lot sadder, obviously, by death, and by Stevens’ perpetually mournful voice.
“Beltane Walk” — T. Rex
Beltane, or the Gaelic May Day festival, is an agricultural holiday that traditionally includes rituals meant to protect livestock and crops, which involve adherents walking around magical-ish bonfires and holy wells. The dew on Beltane will also purportedly maintain your youth and beauty for a year. T. Rex’s 1970 song “Beltane Walk” therefore gives its subject — hitchhiking — the same kind of lovely, mystical, full-of-potential quality of the dawn of the spring: “Give us little love from your hearts/ And then we’ll walk,” concludes Bolan serenely. The coming decade would mark a blossoming for T. Rex, too, veering away from folksy nature-veneration into the glam stylings they became known for.
“Mother’s Day” — Nada Surf
Nada Surf’s “Mother’s Day” is an uncomfortable ’90s anti-rape anthem — setting well-intentioned words like “I bet you think you’re such a hottie/ But a body afraid is not a sexual body” and “What if they did that to your mother?/ I can’t forget tomorrow’s Mother’s Day” to guitar-slamming alt-rock. The result is tonally very, very bizarre. It’s very much of an era where male-dominated rock was all the rage, and thus where statements against sexual abuse were being made by men, making it almost sound like everything they’re saying seems, to them, like a genius new idea.
“Arbor Day” — 10,000 Maniacs
Arbor Day, the day of tree-planting, was first celebrated in the United States in 1872, but it wasn’t until 1985 that it was immortalized in song — really the only way of gauging whether a holiday has “made it”— by 10,000 Maniacs. This jaunty closing track from the band’s second album, however, isn’t at all about the act of planting trees, but rather about aristocratic corruption. Alas, this good-spirited holiday is still looking for a musician or band who’ll sing its story, planting the cultural tree of song, if you will.
“Mardi Gras” — Drake, Feat. Beyoncé, Andre 3000 and Kanye West
Mardi Gras almost doesn’t deserve a place here, given that the holiday is itself completely festive, and thus a somewhat expected choice for song. However, when someone achieves the feat of bringing together a group of “feat.”s that includes Beyoncé, Andre 3000 and Kanye West for a mixtape, and when that someone is Drake, that song could and should just find its way into any listicle, regardless of theme. The endlessly sexy “Mardi Gras,” like many songs on this list, only vaguely relates to the holiday known in the U.S. for its raucous, New Orleans set celebrations, with the repetition of the assertion, “We like to party.” Of course, if you’re looking for something more direct, there’s always “Mardi Gras Mambo.”
“Boxing Day Blues”/”Boxing Day Blues (Revisited)”— Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett’s song is named after the day following Christmas, which in Australia shares the consumerist weight of Black Friday in the United States. It uses the holiday only as a backdrop and a builder of atmosphere: it’s never mentioned beyond the title, and the song itself is a slow, melancholic rasp about experiencing an emotional block with a lover. But Boxing Day itself seems present insomuch as the song has an exhausted feel, as though it’s been tripped bare and rubbed raw by Christmas and its aftermath. If that seems like a reach, Barnett’s “Boxing Day Blues” seem to be so unremitting that she released a second song/EP called “Boxing Day Blues (Revisited)” on which she listlessly sings of feeling like “a Christmas tree on Boxing Day, thrown away.”
˝Gloomy Sunday” — Billie Holiday (written by Rezső Seress with lyric by László Jávor)
“Gloomy Sunday” is a song that’s generally about the most depressing day of the week. In the song, the day isn’t merely depressing — as most Sundays are — because the day is weighed down by the approaching week, but because the singer’s lover has died, and the singer contemplates joining them in death. The Depression Era track was legendarily deemed the “Hungarian Suicide Song” after urban legends spread of a strain of suicides set to the track. Whether there’s any validity to those rumors or not, the song’s fame and potency cast a shadow over Sundays in the general sense — rather than being based on an obscure holiday, this track has created an obscure holiday out of every Sunday. There’s Black Friday, Ash Wednesday, and now Gloomy Sunday. For further listening, check out Björk’s version.
“Bank Holiday” — Blur
Blur’s frantic list of things that might happen on a bank holiday — England’s term for a public holiday — amounts to a short, explosive track that’s not so much a celebration of the holiday spirit so much as a critique of the societally structured catharsis of holidays (to the extent that it seems like a precursor to The Purge), and their forced attempt to compensate for 9-to-5 banality.
“Solstice” — Björk
Björk’s song “Solstice” — off Biophilia, where every song music theoretically matched a scientific phenomenon — was based on her friend and collaborator Sjon’s Christmas poem. Like the album as a whole, the Winter Solstice — an astronomical phenomenon around which so many rituals have arisen — elucidates the intertwined nature of human myth and science. “We are a part of a gigantic gorgeous mobile run by physics, solar systems, and, as the poem points out in the end, love,” said Björk. The song itself if instrumentally bare, but for the sound of a bespoke “Gravity Harp,” an instrument run via a pendulum, demonstrating the effects of planetary orbit.
“Devil’s Night” — D12
Devil’s Night is a very unofficial holiday; it refers to the night before Halloween (October 30), and is predominantly affiliated with acts arson and violence committed in Detroit on that evening during the ’80s and ’90s — stemming from more prank-like types of vandalism in earlier decades. According to the New York Times, 810 fires were started in 1984 throughout the city on October 30, and it wasn’t until the early 90s that city volunteers started deterring arsonists. Eminem’s Detroit hip-hop group D12’s first album was itself named after the day, and featured the song “Devil’s Night,” with Eminem — early ’00s ambassador of Midwestern decay — reciting the hook, “It’s Devil’s Night, it’s Devil’s Night…/ ‘Cause I came back to rule this time/ ‘Cause I came back to take what’s mine.”
“Stormy May Day” — AC/DC
Here, AC/DC turns May Day — the Spring festival (and the International Workers Day) — into a cry for help by repeating “May Day” in a song about a storm (likely more symbolic than literal) until it sounds like “mayday.”
“Sabbath” — Jenny Hval
Jenny Hval’s Sabbath lays a label of sacredness atop adolescent female sexuality; here, Hval recalls an actual dream she had in which her vagina had braces, which sounds like it could be the paragon of teenage insecurity and awkwardness, but which Hval rather sets in a rich reverie whose holy title depicts those alien feelings not as shameful, but as celebratory in their strangeness. “The song,” Hval stated upon its release, was “very much about girls. Girls playing, dreaming, singing, transforming. Girls speaking to and for everyone.”
“Walpurgisnacht” — Schandmaul
What better a band to write about Walpurgisnacht than German Medieval Folk band Schandmaul? (Fittingly, this may be the first time you’re hearing of the band or the holiday.) Though I may have no idea for sure what the song is saying about the nacht that is Walpurgis, presumably it’s something about witchcraft and the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, affiliated both with sorcery and devilry. (Witches gather here in Goethe’s Faust, and this particular peak is central to Walpurgisnacht lore.)