Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cleaning Up Our National Holiday Calendar

I take national holidays pretty seriously. A week before each one, I set my alarm for the morning of the holiday so I don't forget to put my American flag out before I leave for work. I have my own little traditions. I read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety on July 4 and I watch the "I Have A Dream" speech on Martin Luther King Day. My family makes a very big deal out of Thanksgiving. I probably enjoy teaching lessons about national holidays to my students more than I do any other aspect of teaching.

That said, I think that there are a lot of problems with our yearly calendar of national holidays as it presently stands. Perhaps it's not as big an issue as global climate change or the rising national debt, but allow me to present my thoughts on the subject, for whatever they're worth. Understand that I'm talking about our national federal holidays, not fun and rather silly holidays like Halloween or Valentine's Day, nor religious holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah or Easter. I'm talking about those particular days to which we assign importance in the "civil religion" that goes with being an American citizen, the holidays that all Americans, no matter their religious or ethnic background, share in common. So, here goes.

Let me start with the holidays that need to be left right where they are without being changed: Memorial Day, Veterans DayLabor Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving. These are all wonderful and important holidays and there is no need to alter them in any way.

There are a few holidays, though, that I would tweak a bit. For starters, I would change Columbus Day to Discovery Day. I usually don't feel inclined to give in to political correctness, but I do think that we should acknowledge that it's the discovery of the Americas we are celebrating, not the person of Christopher Columbus. The Italian explorer was a thoroughly rotten person, even by the standards of his own time, who gleefully enslaved the Native Americans he found. He never quite grasped that he had discovered a "new world" anyway. I think the holiday needs to be broadened to encompass all of the daring explorers, not just Columbus, who awoke the European consciousness to the existence of two vast new continents across the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, I would change Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to Civil Rights Day. I sometimes worry that the focus on the single individual of Dr. King makes it easy for people to overlook the full story of the civil rights movement. We need to remember not just Dr. King, but Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, other civil rights leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy, and the thousands of brave people willing to march, go to jail, and face the water hoses and attack dogs of the segregationists in pursuit of their equal rights. I am reasonably certain that Dr. King himself would object to having the holiday named after himself. Fixing the holiday on January 15, Dr. King's birthday, would remain a way to focus particular honor on the great man (the other possible date would be the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, but that would be July 2, rather too close to Independence Day).

I would change Presidents Day back to Washington's Birthday. That's what it was before the 1950s, anyway. Honestly, Presidents Day is currently a mass of confusion and it's not even clear who precisely is being celebrated or even the proper punctuation to use in writing the holiday's name. It is for Washington, for Washington and Lincoln, for every President, or just for the office of the Presidency? No one seems to know. I don't think that a holiday should exist to celebrate every man who has been President, if for no other reason than because lots of scoundrels and witless men have found their way into the White House (I'm not really anxious to honor James Buchanan or Richard Nixon, to be honest). Washington is bigger than all of this. He's bigger than the presidency itself, for he is truly America's great hero and the founder above all other founders. We should honor George Washington not only his role as the first President, but for the contribution he made as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and his role in the Constitutional Convention. He is undoubtedly the Father of the Nation and restoring this holiday to one centered exclusively around him is, I think, more than appropriate.

So, those are the holidays I would tweak. Let's move on. There are a few holidays that we currently recognize but don't really celebrate. A few of these need to be given greater attention and emphasis. Chief among these is Constitution Day, which is marked on September 17, the day that the members of the Constitution Convention signed the finished document in 1787. This day should be as grand a holiday as Independence Day, for the creation of the Constitution was as important an event in the founding of our nation as was declaring independence from Britain. In the civil religion we all hold as American citizens, both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are essentially sacred documents and both need to be honored with proper, full-fledged holidays.

I also think that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on Armed Forces Day, which is held in mid-May. Few pay much attention to it, sadly. We have Veterans Day to honor men and women who have served in the armed forces and Memorial Day to honor those who gave their lives in defense of the nation. Armed Forces Day should be emphasized as an appropriate honor for the men and women currently serving in the military. However, I think it should be moved from its current place in mid-May (I honestly don't know why it's there) to June 14, which is the day in 1775 that the Continental Congress established the Continental Army.

There are a few days of the year which are marked by presidential proclamations and little else, but which deserve to be out-and-out national holidays. One such day that I would elevate is Religious Freedom Day, marked on January 13. It was on this day in 1786 that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the legislative process by James Madison, became law in Virginia. By separating church and state in Virginia (over the bitter opposition of Patrick Henry), the act took away the power of the government to interfere in the religious practices of its citizens. It served as the model for similar legislation in other states and the Establishment and Free Practice Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It should be a point of pride for Americans that they are free to worship however they wish, or not worship at all, without fear of government coercion one way or the other. A national holiday to celebrate this glorious achievement is certainly well called for.

Two days mark victory in the Second World War, Victory in Europe Day is marked on May 8, celebrating the triumph of America and its allies over Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe from the tyranny of Hitler and Mussolini. A separate holiday is marked on September 2 to commemorate the surrender of Japan, but it has gone by different names at different times. I would title it Victory in the Pacific Day, since that provides a neat corollary with Victory in Europe Day and "Victory Over Japan Day" has a triumphalist tinge somewhat inappropriate now that America and Japan are close allies. Celebration of these two days has faded in recent years, which is a great shame. They both should be raised to the level of full-fledged national holidays to celebrate America's role in the destruction of fascism.

Having discussed the holidays that need to be tweaked and the minor ones that need to be made into major ones, let me now move on to discuss a few holidays that currently don't exist, but which should. I'd start with making December 6 into a holiday called Abolition Day. It was on December 6 in 1865 that the necessary number of states ratified the 13th Amendment to make it part of the Constitution, marking the final and irrevocable end of slavery in the United States (ironically, it the was Georgia, one of the members of the defunct Confederacy, that passed the final vote needed for ratification). I've always found it a little odd that we do not have a specific holiday to commemorate such an important moment in American history as the abolition of slavery.

I'd make August 18 Voting Rights Day. It marks the day in 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified by Tennessee (by the very narrow margin of 50 to 49!), thus giving the right to vote to women. The right to vote is such an intrinsically important aspect of American democracy and it makes sense that we should have a national holiday to celebrate the achievement of voting rights for everyone.

I would make August 4 Freedom of Expression Day. On that date in 1735, John Peter Zenger, the printer of an early New York newspaper, was acquitted after having been arrested and charged with libel for having published editorials critical of the colonial government. At issue was not whether the statements Zenger had made were true or false; he had been arrested simply for criticizing the government. This established the precedent that if a journalist prints the truth, he cannot be convicted of libel. It was the first great victory for the concept of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in America, which would later become enshrined in the First Amendment and which continues to stand as a pillar of the American way of life.

I would make October 19 Yorktown Day. The defeat of the British Army at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, which ended with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis on October 19, ensured the ultimate victory of the Americans in the Revolutionary War and solidified the independence that we had declared on July 4, 1776. It makes perfect sense to turn it into a holiday. Indeed, we might start celebrating on October 17, the date in 1777 on which General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, and continue for three days. Another aspect of the holiday might be the celebration of the friendship between the United States and France, since Saratoga brought France into the war on the American side and Yorktown was a combined Franco-American operation, with each side making up roughly half of the victorious force.

March 24 should be Medal of Honor Day. It was on that day in 1863 that the first Medals of Honor were presented during the American Civil War. It seems to me perfectly fitting that we set aside a day to honor those who have won the nation's highest military honor, going above and beyond the call of duty in defense of the United States. 3,449 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Honor since its inception and 77 are still living. They deserve to be celebrated.

I also think that April 9, the anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, should be a national holiday, as it is conventionally accepted as the date the American Civil War came to an end (although one could argue against this). However, this proposed holiday is rather more tricky than the other commemorations I have suggested. In my view, it should be called Reconciliation Day. I don't think it should take the form of a triumphant celebration of the victory of the Union over the Confederacy, since it would not be appropriate for Americans to celebrate a victory over other Americans. Rather, it should be a day to commemorate the courage and suffering of the men on both sides of the American Civil War, North and South, and the fact that we have remained a united nation ever since.

I think the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the date on which we hold national elections every other year, should be a national holiday simply called Democracy Day. This has actually been proposed in Congress, though the relevant bills have thus far failed to make it out of committee. In election years, this holiday would serve a genuine practical purpose in that having the day off from work would make it much easier for citizens to vote and would also allow larger numbers of polling places to be open as more people would be able to volunteer. During off years, civic groups could hold voter registration events, seminars on the importance of voting, training sessions on how to contact one's elected officials, and other such things.

There is one holiday I would actually get rid of: Flag Day. I confess I have never really understood why we have Flag Day in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I fly my flag every June 14, just like the flag code tells me to do. The America flag is one of the crucial symbols of our American civil religion, but why have a holiday to celebrate a symbol? The flag is supposed to be a tool to celebrate our ideals and represent our ideals, but it is not one of those ideals in itself. Besides, June 14 makes more sense as Armed Forces Day.

So, my calendar of national holidays would look like this:

January 13: Religious Freedom Day
January 15: Civil Rights Day
February 22: Washington's Birthday
March 24: Medal of Honor Day
April 9: Reconciliation Day
May 8: Victory in Europe Day
Last Monday in May: Memorial Day
June 14: Armed Forces Day
July 4: Independence Day
August 4: Freedom of Expression Day
August 18: Voting Rights Day
September 2: Victory in the Pacific Day
First Monday in September: Labor Day
September 17: Constitution Day
October 12: Discovery Day
October 19: Yorktown Day
Tuesday after first Monday in November: Democracy Day
November 11: Veterans Day
Fourth Thursday of November: Thanksgiving
December 6: Abolition Day

It's not a perfect calendar, obviously. There's a long stretch between Washington's Birthday and Medal of Honor Day. Labor Day and Victory in the Pacific Day will occasionally be on the same day (could we move Labor Day to early March, perhaps?). Religious Freedom Day and Civil Rights Day are too close.. Generally, though, I like it. Presently, we tend to shift the dates of our holidays around so that they fall on the nearest Monday, so as to give people a three-day weekend. I like three-day weekends as much as anybody else, but I feel that the specific dates of the holidays matter and that they therefore should be celebrated on the dates themselves.

I want to make clear that when I say national holidays, I seriously mean national holidays. Government offices, stock exchanges, banks, schools, and a hefty proportion of businesses should be closed. Local communities should organize parades, fireworks displays, and other celebrations. The day before, teachers should give special lessons devoted to the holiday. People should have their friends over for barbecues. Beyond all this, though, I would hope that the citizens of this great nation would embrace the true spirit behind these holidays and take the time to consider exactly what it is they are celebrating in the first place.

Some people will protest that expanding the national holiday calendar would be a bad idea because closing businesses on these additional days will hurt the economy. This is hogwash. Americans work far too much and too hard as it is. According to information available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans work longer hours and take shorter vacations than do people in Britain, France, Germany, or even Japan. I'd rather people enjoy more time off and spend it with their families and friends celebrating what makes our country great. If this means that we slip a bit in the global ratings of per capita GDP, I could not possibly care less. I have no doubt that if the American people were told they could choose between more money on one hand and more free time and less stress on the other, they would choose the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Perhaps this has all been a silly exercise. But it is one I have enjoyed and I hope I have given at least a few readers something to ponder.


  1. President's Day is actually called Washington's Birthday, at least by the federal government.

    Discovery Day is a bit problematic since there were people already living in the Americas. I'd just scrap the day altogether. Columbus wasn't even an American and he didn't even land in future U.S. territory.

    I like the idea of a 13th Amendment holiday, but I don't think it should be in December, since it would clash with Christmas. It should be on January 31st or April 8th, the days it passed by the chambers of Congress. Or, perhaps even on the 9th, to signify R.E. Lee's surrender to the U.S. Army. That way, we can commemorate both the ending of slavery and the victory of the U.S. in the ACW. It does irk me a bit that such a great moment in American history such as the ending of slavery and the victory of the U.S. in the ACW does not have a federal holiday.

  2. I must confess I don't support the idea of a 'Reconciliation Day' or at least the name of it. Do you think some Confederate holidays in the former CSA would be doable?

  3. Personally, I don't even consider the Confederates to be "Americans". They wanted to break away from the U.S. and form their own country.

    As for C.S. holidays, no way.