The game theory of holidays

Dec 25, JDN 2457748

When this post goes live, it will be Christmas; so I felt I should make the topic somehow involve the subject of Christmas, or holidays in general.

I decided I would pull back for as much perspective as possible, and ask this question: Why do we have holidays in the first place?

All human cultures have holidays, but not the same ones. Cultures with a lot of mutual contact will tend to synchronize their holidays temporally, but still often preserve wildly different rituals on those same holidays. Yes, we celebrate “Christmas” in both the US and in Austria; but I think they are baffled by the Elf on the Shelf and I know that I find the Krampus bizarre and terrifying.

Most cultures from temperate climates have some sort of celebration around the winter solstice, probably because this is an ecologically important time for us. Our food production is about to get much, much lower, so we’d better make sure we have sufficient quantities stored. (In an era of globalization and processed food that lasts for months, this is less important, of course.) But they aren’t the same celebration, and they generally aren’t exactly on the solstice.

What is a holiday, anyway? We all get off work, we visit our families, and we go through a series of ritualized actions with some sort of symbolic cultural meaning. Why do we do this?

First, why not work all year round? Wouldn’t that be more efficient? Well, no, because human beings are subject to exhaustion. We need to rest at least sometimes.

Well, why not simply have each person rest whenever they need to? Well, how do we know they need to? Do we just take their word for it? People might exaggerate their need for rest in order to shirk their duties and free-ride on the work of others.

It would help if we could have pre-scheduled rest times, to remove individual discretion.

Should we have these at the same time for everyone, or at different times for each person?

Well, from the perspective of efficiency, different times for each person would probably make the most sense. We could trade off work in shifts that way, and ensure production keeps moving. So why don’t we do that?
Well, now we get to the game theory part. Do you want to be the only one who gets today off? Or do you want other people to get today off as well?

You probably want other people to be off work today as well, at least your family and friends so that you can spend time with them. In fact, this is probably more important to you than having any particular day off.

We can write this as a normal-form game. Suppose we have four days to choose from, 1 through 4, and two people, who can each decide which day to take off, or they can not take a day off at all. They each get a payoff of 1 if they take the same day off, 0 if they take different days off, and -1 if they don’t take a day off at all. This is our resulting payoff matrix:

1 2 3 4 None
1 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/0 0/-1
2 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/0 0/-1
3 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/0 0/-1
4 0/0 0/0 0/0 1/1 0/-1
None -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/0 -1/-1

 

It’s pretty obvious that each person will take some day off. But which day? How do they decide that?
This is what we call a coordination game; there are many possible equilibria to choose from, and the payoffs are highest if people can somehow coordinate their behavior.

If they can actually coordinate directly, it’s simple; one person should just suggest a day, and since the other one is indifferent, they have no reason not to agree to that day. From that point forward, they have coordinated on a equilibrium (a Nash equilibrium, in point of fact).

But suppose they can’t talk to each other, or suppose there aren’t two people to coordinate but dozens, or hundreds—or even thousands, once you include all the interlocking social networks. How could they find a way to coordinate on the same day?

They need something more intuitive, some “obvious” choice that they can call upon that they hope everyone else will as well. Even if they can’t communicate, as long as they can observe whether their coordination has succeeded or failed they can try to set these “obvious” choices by successive trial and error.

The result is what we call a Schelling point; players converge on this equilibrium not because there’s actually anything better about it, but because it seems obvious and they expect everyone else to think it will also seem obvious.

This is what I think is happening with holidays. Yes, we make up stories to justify them, or sometimes even have genuine reasons for them (Independence Day actually makes sense being on July 4, for instance), but the ultimate reason why we have a holiday on one day rather than other is that we had to have it some time, and this was a way of breaking the deadlock and finally setting a date.

In fact, weekends are probably a more optimal solution to this coordination problem than holidays, because human beings need rest on a fairly regular basis, not just every few months. Holiday seasons now serve more as an opportunity to have long vacations that allow travel, rather than as a rest between work days. But even those we had to originally justify as a matter of religion: Jews would not work on Saturday, Christians would not work on Sunday, so together we will not work on Saturday or Sunday. The logic here is hardly impeccable (why not make it religion-specific, for example?), but it was enough to give us a Schelling point.

This makes me wonder about what it would take to create a new holiday. How could we actually get people to celebrate Darwin Day or Sagan Day on a large scale, for example? Darwin and Sagan are both a lot more worth celebrating than most of the people who get holidays—Columbus especially leaps to mind. But even among those of us who really love Darwin and Sagan, these are sort of half-hearted celebrations that never attain the same status as Easter, much less Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I’d also like to secularize—or at least ecumenicalize—the winter solstice celebration. Christianity shouldn’t have a monopoly on what is really something like a human universal, or at least a “humans who live in temperate climates” universal. It really isn’t Christmas anyway; most of what we do is celebrating Yule, compounded by a modern expression in mass consumption that is thoroughly borne of modern capitalism. We have no reason to think Jesus was actually born in December, much less on the 25th. But that’s around the time when lots of other celebrations were going on anyway, and it’s much easier to convince people that they should change the name of their holiday than that they should stop celebrating it and start celebrating something else—I think precisely because that still preserves the Schelling point.

Creating holidays has obviously been done before—indeed it is literally the only way holidays ever come into existence. But part of their structure seems to be that the more transparent the reasons for choosing that date and those rituals, the more empty and insincere the holiday seems. Once you admit that this is an arbitrary choice meant to converge an equilibrium, it stops seeming like a good choice anymore.

Now, if we could find dates and rituals that really had good reasons behind them, we could probably escape that; but I’m not entirely sure we can. We can use Darwin’s birthday—but why not the first edition publication of On the Origin of Species? And Darwin himself is really that important, but why Sagan Day and not Einstein Day or Niels Bohr Day… and so on? The winter solstice itself is a very powerful choice; its deep astronomical and ecological significance might actually make it a strong enough attractor to defeat all contenders. But what do we do on the winter solstice celebration? What rituals best capture the feelings we are trying to express, and how do we defend those rituals against criticism and competition?

In the long run, I think what usually happens is that people just sort of start doing something, and eventually enough people are doing it that it becomes a tradition. Maybe it always feels awkward and insincere at first. Maybe you have to be prepared for it to change into something radically different as the decades roll on.

This year the winter solstice is on December 21st. I think I’ll be lighting a candle and gazing into the night sky, reflecting on our place in the universe. Unless you’re reading this on Patreon, by the time this goes live, you’ll have missed it; but you can try later, or maybe next year.

In fifty years all the cool kids will be doing it, I’m sure.

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