Bowled Over

How the NFL’s big game became an anti-fan’s favorite holiday

An illustration of people sitting and drinking tea and whine while a football game plays on a TV in the background.

illustration by Lars Leetaru

A few years ago I realized that of the holidays I celebrate—religious, secular, commercial—Super Bowl Sunday, the giant of de facto holidays, had become my favorite. This is odd because I dislike many of the things associated with Super Bowl Sunday, including fighter-jet exhibitions, beer commercials, beer itself, halftime medleys, and football.

To some degree, Super Bowl Sunday has won its favorite status by default. I’ve become generally ambivalent toward holidays, especially in the years since my son’s attitude toward Christmas has matured into relative nonchalance. Though not devoid of patriotism, I possibly love America less than I hate being awakened by renegade fireworks, so I’m sour about the Fourth of July and the weeks surrounding it. The neighborhood children ought to consider me good-natured and freehanded on Halloween, but our front door is one floor below our living quarters, and I find that the mild knee pain resulting from repeated trips up and down stairs isn’t consistently offset by interactions with trick-or-treaters, many of whom have put so little effort or ingenuity into their costumes. Other secular holidays, such as St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve, have adapted poorly to my sobriety. I’m disgusted by turkey and spend much of Thanksgiving furtively eating energy bars in the tool shed.

I wouldn’t feel right glibly dismissing the religious holidays I grew up with, or at least I don’t want to get letters about it. I was raised in a Christian household, and, in that my mother was ordained as a Presbyterian minister around the time I graduated from high school, I’m nearly a preacher’s kid. Ethically and intellectually, I benefited from this upbringing. Still, I didn’t so much lose faith as never find it in the first place. Accordingly, Christmas and Easter don’t resonate with me as they will for believers. My atheism hasn’t engendered much personal angst, but a certain hollow melancholy threatens around dusk on Christmas Day, when I’m feeling guilty about excess and eager to sweep up the dropped needles and be done with it. Even when my son was young and the gift-giving more exciting, I felt mild shame about abetting Santa while skipping services, openly disbelieving in something serious while pretending to believe in something silly.

I’m fortunate to have a harmonious relationship with my immediate and extended family, and I enjoy spending time with them on all these holidays. On Super Bowl Sunday, however, we all seem most like ourselves. We’ve been having a small family Super Bowl party for a long time, so it’s a sentimental occasion in its way, but lighter and more uproarious than the others. A bunch of liberals, most of us would like to see the NFL dramatically reform the game to reduce brain injuries, and we admire the kneeling protests against police brutality and institutional racism initiated by Colin Kaepernick and cynically distorted by the Trump administration. Interest in the game itself ranges from those of us mildly invested in the results to those of us who don’t know, at kickoff, which teams are playing and by the fourth quarter are still shaky on how to distinguish these opponents. Some of us get up for more pizza during key plays.

Even more so this year, as the big game rolls into town, I’ll gladly celebrate the holiday with collective indifference. It’s a beautiful thing: watching something you don’t care about with people you do.