World War I (as a European as opposed to purely Balkan conflict) began in August. So did World War II. (Technically, World War II began September 1, but the immediate run-up to war and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which made war inevitable both happened in August.) Also the Berlin Wall went up in August, and more recently Richard Nixon resigned under pressure in August. So it is obviously nonsense to say that nothing much ever happened or happens in August.
Still, August has long had an auspicious aura about it as the vacation month par excellence. The tradition of August as the holiday month has long been established in Europe. Indeed, it probably goes all the way back to the Romans. The notorious Italian Ferragosto is derived from the Latin Feriae Augusti, established by the Emperor Augustus in 18 BC to celebrate the completion of the harvest and offer a time of rest at the end of its challenging agricultural work. All this fell in the old « sixth month » Sextilis, since renamed in honor of the Emperor Augustus (with an added thirty-first day to make it equal to July, named after Augustus’ uncle Julius).
The ancient imperial festivities included horse races, a tradition which survives most famously in the Palio held in Siena on August 16. (Palio is from pallium, a band of fine cloth which was a prize for winners of ancient Roman horse races.) Modern Ferragosto is associated with holiday excursions to the seaside or into the mountains, known as « gita fuori porta, » a practice popularized in modern Italy by the 20th-century Fascist regime.
In the world of un-air-conditioned homes and schools and workplaces in which I grew up, July and August were the recognized holiday months, bounded by the end of school in the last week of June and the resumption of school on the Monday after Labor Day. That pattern largely still persists here in the northeast. August still falls in the vacation season in these parts of the United States, although in many other states school has already resumed, thus shifting the school year’s « summer vacation » from July-August to June-July. During my 10 years as a pastor in Tennessee, I learned to treat August 1 as the beginning of the annual work cycle. But the continued observance of Labor Day as an « end-of-summer » celebration reflects the persistence of that more traditional mindset – although increasingly even colleges and universities resume classes before rather than after Labor Day. That was already true for me in seminary, when classes already resumed at the end of the month. Even so, early to mid-August was spent at Lake George in NY’s Adirondack region, a traditional summer retreat from the pre-air-conditoning era. (The above photo from across the lake was taken several years later in October 2009.)
Of course, in today’s frenzied world of texts and emails that require immediate response and so keep us forever at work wherever we may be physically, pining for August relief from routine may seem almost Luddite. Yet, just as human beings need a weekly sabbath-like day (another enrichment of human life that has almost entirely vanished in just my lifetime), people do need August or something like it in their lives. More work may be getting done than ever before. People may be more productive than ever before. But to what end? And to whose benefit?