A few years ago I scribbled out some observations about the holidays we observe in the U.S., pointing out that some just seem rather beside the point today, and suggesting some reforms to bring our vacation schedule up to date. Progress toward adopting these changes has been, umm... slow.
But now that I observe a groundswell of opinion in favor (i.e., a fellow named John Oliver has questioned whether it makes any sense to celebrate "Columbus Day" - a question I ask myself every year), I think it's time to republish them so that more people can get on the bandwagon.
A (Not-So-) Modest Proposal Regarding Holidays, Part II
(Originally posted: February 18, 2009)
On Monday, I delved into some reasons we might want to move the Monday holidays back to their specific dates. (A (Not-So-) Modest Proposal Regarding Holidays, Part I. Now, I'd like to add some other thoughts about modernizing our calendar, bringing it into closer harmony with the shifting characteristics of our nation.
On this blog, I have said often that in politics we need to work to rediscover common ground among various parties and factions. I think that's also true in society generally. As the United States becomes more multicultural and more pluralistic, we need to move beyond holidays that mark observances of only one religion, or one group of citizens (like the suggestion that Patriot Day be a full-fledged holiday).
In brief, I suggest that MLK Day, Easter, Columbus Day, and Christmas all need serious rethinking -- and renaming. Some may see that as radical (sorry, I ought to have warned you to get the smelling salts out ahead of time). But shouldn't our federal holidays be defined in a way that all of us can identify with? If you are among those who value the religious or Italian-American aspects of these days, ask yourself if you would also support federal holidays for Eid-al-Fitr, Kwanzaa, Passover, Cinco de Mayo, Greek Day, and a host of others, for which federal status might legitimately be claimed, and which would create an interesting but unworkable crazy-quilt of holidays.
Thanksgiving is the quintessential "American" holiday. Its focus is family and friends, it can be celebrated by all of us regardless of religion, ethnicity, or other factors, AND it is blessedly free of the commercialization that accompanies many of our other holidays. We need more days like it.
Let's look at Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It might seem that this is a day for African-Americans. Some states and regions interpret it that way. But I see it differently. The more reading I do on U.S. history, the clearer it becomes that the issue of slavery -- along with its legacy of emancipation, civil rights, separate-but-equal, affirmative action, discrimination, and continuing racism -- has affected our society throughout our history and continues as a political factor today, even after the election of our first African-American President. Issues of equality continue to come to the fore for other groups like Latinos, or gays, as well. We should continue to observe the day, but we should rename it ("Equality Day"?). Despite its cold January proximity to New Year's, let's keep it on the same date because the identification with MLK gives it significance (besides, it's my birthday too!)
Easter is not a federal holiday, but we often refer to the school breaks or other events at this time of year as "Easter," which has meaning only for Christians; I prefer "spring" break for this, because even those who may not consider it religiously significant nearly all conceive of it as a time to celebrate the arrival of spring, to dye eggs and give the kids easter baskets. It's analogous to Halloween in that respect. If anyone ever feels we need a new holiday, this is the time of year we could use one (we have none in March or April). The spring season is already identified with environmental efforts in the U.S. and internationally, so we might consider making Earth Day (April 22 - it is an already-existing observation originally proposed by U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson), an official federal holiday.
Columbus Day needs work too. For starters, Columbus didn't "discover" the Americas. For most Americans, it's just a meaningless day off. For many Italian-Americans, it's a day to honor their cultural tradition. But that suggests it should be more like St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, or Kwanzaa -- celebrated by those to whom it is truly meaningful, ignored by the rest of us. Better yet, why not celebrate our ethnic pluralism, from Native Americans on, with an Ethnicity Day, or a Cultural Heritage Day, at this time of year?
And last, Christmas. Although it's a Christian holiday, it is commonly observed in various ways by people of many faiths and persuasions. I have known Hindus and Muslims in this country who put up a tree and exchange gifts as a secular tradition of the season. To non-Christians and even many Christians, it has become more about gift-giving than anything else, and of course for retailers, it's lifeblood. The date is arbitrary -- we celebrate Christ's birth at this time of year because it roughly coincided with pagan rites accompanying the winter solstice. My suggestion: December 22, Solstice Day, a time of rejoicing, a festival of cheer and light that chases away winter doldrums; a time, too, of gift-giving and of the all-important end-of-year extravanganza of buying that drives our economy. Maybe the change would also help move some of the commercialism away from the "real" Christmas on December 25.
So, that's my whole package. Religious holidays, and regular events like Valentine's Day and Halloween, would still be observed by those who wanted to, who would decide whether to take a day off work or not. I omitted Inauguration Day (January 20), the one federal holiday that is not widely observed except around Washington DC, and which comes only once in four years. I also considered whether we need a new word besides "holiday," since so few of our special days are "holy." But we all use the word generically now for any day off, and besides, I couldn't think of a better one. Keep reading below for a calendar that summarizes all this.
The Morning Fog Revised Calendar of U.S. Federal Holidays(c)
January 1 - New Year's Day
January 15 - Equality Day (formerly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day)
February 22 - Constitution Day (formerly George Washington's Birthday, also popularly known as Presidents' Day)
April 22 - Earth Day (optionally providing a new holiday in this part of the year where we have none; I've chosen the date of Earth Day, which is already an established occasion observed internationally; an equally good choice would be UN Earth Day, observed at the March equinox annually)
May 30 - Memorial Day (or Remembrance Day)
July 4 - Independence Day
September, first Monday - Labor Day
October 12 - Cultural Heritage Day (renaming Columbus Day but keeping the date; although Columbus wasn't the first European to reach North American shores, he was the precursor of pluralism, bringing European culture into contact with Native American).
November 11 - Veterans' Day
November, fourth Thursday - Thanksgiving
December 22 - Solstice Day