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Let Us Now Stop Praising Famous Men
A proposal for revamping America's holiday calendar
Presidents Day is a ridiculous holiday. It was invented by salespeople out of an amalgam of Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, and it encourages the worship of an office that was too quasi-monarchical to begin with and that only grows more dangerously Caesarian with time. I will happily add my voice to those who call for scrapping it.
But if we’re going to do that, I think it behooves us to take a more thoroughgoing look at the whole calendar. I’ll admit freely that our era of dueling 1619 and 1776 projects would seem to be a particularly inauspicious time for doing something like that. We can’t seem to agree about anything; we certainly won’t agree on who or what to celebrate. But we’re doing that rethinking already, in a piecemeal fashion every year as one holiday after another becomes the occasion for essays about how awful it actually is, how false to history, how insulting to those who suffered, unfairly, from the very events we celebrate. Maybe it’s better to try to conduct the discussion in some kind of principled way rather than suffer death by a thousand cuts.
So, to that end, here are a few proposed principles to guide a rethinking of our scheme of federal holidays.
First, we should recognize that people want days off to do things that are not especially civic. Yes, people still do march in Independence Day parades, but for a whole lot of people Memorial Day is a barbecue and Labor Day is the last beach day before the kids go back to school. Nor are we going to stop merchandizers from blitzing us with advertising every time a holiday comes around. If we’re going to fight the tide of civic disengagement, this is a tough beach on which to do it.
Second, we should accept that in our day and age essentially everybody from the past is going to be controversial, and that omissions are going to be as controversial as inclusions. If we celebrate Roosevelt, do we have to celebrate Reagan? Moreover, celebrating people in this fashion can impede both healthy national myth-making and genuine historical knowledge, since anyone so celebrated must needs be turned into a marble statue. Perhaps it would be easier to appreciate the personal contributions of our forebears to our national story if we focus on the story and learn about them in that context, rather than celebrating them directly.
By the same token, of course, we should understand that every national story has its crimes and catastrophes, and that these are not reasons to lament our very existence. Celebrating important events of our national history does not require us to ignore the costs of every gain or to imply that we have achieved some kind of perfection. If we can’t agree on that, then we might as well give up on the idea of any historical celebrations at all, and stick with holidays celebrating segments of society, the human life cycle and the natural world.
Which, finally, do also deserve a place in the calendar. Japan has a host of national holidays of this sort: Coming of Age Day, Marine Day, Mountain Day, Sports Day, and so forth. We have them as well: New Year’s Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day. Perhaps we should have more of them—or different ones—to reflect the society that exists.
So, based on the above principles, how does the current holiday calendar stack up?
The first thing I notice from this calendar is that only four federal holidays fall within what we might broadly consider the summer, which is when most people take vacation and when most people might appreciate long weekends. There are no federal holidays at all between Independence Day and Labor Day. That seems less than optimal.
Then of course there are three obvious celebrations of individuals (not counting Christmas, which I think should be treated as sui generis): Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington, and Christopher Columbus. If we’re going to move away from that conceptually, all of those days need to be reworked.
There’s definitely a national story being told by means of this calendar. The key events are the encounter between Europeans and Americans (1492), the colonization of New England (1621), the break from England (1776), and the emancipation of the slaves (1865). Implicitly being celebrated as well are the end of the Civil War, the formation of the labor movement, the end of World War I, and the Civil Rights movement. But that story leaves some very important elements out.
The most obvious of these is the establishment of the constitution. Personally, I think the constitution is dangerously antiquated and in many ways no longer serves America well. But I also recognize it as extraordinary in human history to have even attempted to found a continent-scale republic, and an enduring achievement that we still inhabit one. It’s worth celebrating even if it’s also worth changing. It already has a holiday of course, but that holiday surely deserves elevation. Since that day is actually known as “Constitution and Citizenship Day,” it provides an entirely natural opportunity to celebrate immigration—another missing part of the national story—at the same time.
The second most obvious omission is the end of World War II. Armistice Day is a real commemorative holiday in Britain and Canada, but the end of World War I just doesn’t hold the same significance for American memory (which is why it has been transformed over time into Veterans Day). World War II, however, radically transformed our country and its place in the world, and the war itself still resonates widely in our culture. It deserves a holiday of consequence. The Japanese surrender on September 2nd, 1945, provides a possible date that could join with Labor Day to form a four-day weekend. Rather than a celebration of the defeat of Japan, though, I’d suggest it be organized around the idea of making peace with former enemies (a marked contrast with the very different aftermath of the end of World War I). Sadly, I don’t have a brilliant name to propose for the day; Peace With Former Enemies Day sounds, well, very Japanese, but that’s all I’ve got for now. I suppose it could still be called Veterans Day, but my own inclination would be to combine Veterans and Memorial Day instead.
The other obvious missing element from the calendar in terms of the national story is the frontier. There is no holiday celebrating westward expansion, but of course it’s hard to even imagine inaugurating something like that today—for good reason! But there’s also no holiday celebrating the natural beauty and bounty of the country, no holiday for which America the Beautiful would be the natural anthem. That seems like another glaring omission, and would happily provide an opportunity to celebrate the fruit of expansion without celebrating the process or, indeed, the fact of it directly. The creation of the world’s first national park—Yellowstone—on March 1, 1872, suggests to me a plausible occasion on which to hang such a holiday. And the 150th anniversary is coming up, hint hint.
The fact that Election Day is not a federal holiday is of course a continuing scandal. Add that to the list of new holidays. That brings the total of new holidays to four, or three net of combining Veterans Day with Memorial Day. Now the question: what to do with MLK Day, Columbus Day and Washington’s Birthday? Here are my suggestions.
Martin Luther King Jr. is significant not for having been born but for having lived as he did, and for having died as he did. If we were a different sort of country, we might have a somber day in April to remember jointly the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln (April 14th) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4th). But that’s not who we are. So if we’re going to celebrate the Civil Rights movement with a holiday in his name—and it strikes me as entirely right and appropriate to do so—the holiday should commemorate a crucial event from that struggle associated with King rather than his birth. The March on Washington, on August 28th, 1963, will do nicely.
Columbus Day is significant not because of Columbus’s personal achievements but because this country would not exist were it not for the arrival of Europeans on American shores in 1492. As I’ve written before, that encounter needs to be remembered as part of our national story, but it doesn’t have to be linked to Columbus specifically, and I don’t think it should be. I can understand the argument for transforming it solely into Indigenous Peoples Day, but as I’ve argued before in the same piece, I don’t think that’s the best way to commemorate that history. Rather, I think there should be a single holiday that both recognizes the achievements of the European age of exploration and our debt thereto (perhaps expanded to be a celebration of scientific exploration more generally), as well as the fact that this land was already occupied by millions of people when the Europeans arrived, to whose heirs a different debt is owed, to aid in the revival of cultures and communities that were devastated by the arrival of Europeans. Again, I don’t have a brilliant idea for how to name the day; my best idea so far is American Peoples Day, which isn’t great.
Lastly, George Washington. He is already honored with the name of the nation’s capital and of our westernmost contiguous state. He is implicitly honored on Independence Day and Constitution Day, as he led the Continental Army and presided over the Constitutional Convention. The remaining element in his biography amply deserving of commemoration was less the conduct of his presidency than his leaving it, establishing the precedent that was not a monarch, not even an elected one, but just another citizen. His Farewell Address was first published on September 19th, 1796, which is very close to Constitution and Citizenship Day. Nothing would become his legacy better than folding that event into the same celebration, and thereby commemorating him for being, in the final analysis, just another citizen.
That gives us a calendar something like the following:
That’s a total of thirteen federal holidays. It shifts the balance away from the winter and towards spring, summer and fall, and away from commemorating specific people and towards elements of our national story or our national character. There’s still no Sports and Health Day (the day after Super Bowl Sunday?), no Respect for Elders Day, but still, I think it’s an improvement on what we’ve got now.
What do you think?