Naïve Reflections on Federal Holidays

Labor Day, observed on Monday, is one of only 11 federally recognized holidays (12, if we include Inauguration Day, celebrated every four years after a presidential election). As the Congressional Research Service points out, although these are “frequently called public or national holidays, these celebrations are only legally applicable to federal employees and the District of Columbia. […] Neither Congress nor the President has asserted the authority to legally declare a ‘national holiday’ that would be binding on all 50 states, as each state legally determines its own holidays.”

But the growth of federal employment, the centralization of administrative power, the weakening of local, state, and regional identities, and the development of mass media and “mass culture” all suggest that we take seriously the catalogue of federal holidays as a means to understanding the American regime as it currently exists. In the words of the CRS, “each holiday was designed to emphasize a particular aspect of American heritage or to celebrate an event in American history.” The catalogue of federal holidays reveals which aspects of the American heritage the federal government has chosen to “emphasize” and “celebrate” above others.

The following examination is “naïve” insofar as it abstracts from the contexts in and modes by which each holiday was proposed and adopted. It takes the currently existing catalogue as it is given, and considers what can be easily observed about its parts and it as a whole. Doubtless, a more historically informed examination would reveal more and different insights. (The CRS document linked above provides a great deal of helpful historical information which would be fodder for a truly historical interpretation). But I hope to show in what follows that a deliberately naïve inquiry has merits entirely its own.

I divide my discussion into five parts. I begin with the first four federally recognized holidays, which emphasize America’s Christian and European heritage. I then depart from a strictly chronological development in order to discuss kinds of holidays. These are celebrations of particular American heroes, recognition of American groups, and sui generis case of Juneteenth Independence Day.

I conclude with some comments about some proposed federal holidays.

America’s Christian and European Heritage

In 1870, Congress recognized the first four federal holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Taken together, these suggest a national self-understanding that is both distinctly American and emphatically Christian and European.

New Year’s Day, January 1, is such according to the Gregorian Calendar, a 16th-century modification of the Julian Calendar originally established by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. during his short-lived dictatorship-in-perpetuity. Unlike the French Revolutionaries, the United States did not break with the established calendar when it declared independence from Great Britain. The particular established calendar preserved by the Americans was inherited from Europe, specifically, Western Europe or what was once known as Latin Christendom (whereas Eastern Christendom still employs the Julian Calendar). Few Americans still think of the specifically Christian significances of January 1—variously, as the Octave of the Nativity of the Lord; the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ; the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; St. Basil’s Day—but without a doubt, the American recognition of January 1 as New Year’s Day is a testament to our roots in the Christendom of Western Europe, a civilization that would have been incomprehensible without the pre-Christian Roman Empire.

Independence Day, July 4, is the most strictly American or “civic” of the four original holidays. An earlier “colonial” date is not chosen (which would force the question of regionalism: Virginia or Massachusetts?); rather, it is the date on which the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and published the Declaration of Independence “in General Congress” with one another. Interestingly, Constitution Day (September 17) is avoided altogether. Is this an acknowledgement of Lincoln’s argument, that the Union preceded the Constitution? But if that were the case, why not choose an even earlier date, with reference to the Albany Congress or the Stamp Act Congress? The publishing of the Declaration of Independence—with its affirmation of Americans as “one people” composed of “thirteen united states,” moved to common action by the common recognition of certain “self-evident truths” and a common experience of oppression by, and resistance against, British tyranny—is emphasized. Independence Day elevates the Declaration of Independence as a key touchstone for American national identity.

Thanksgiving Day, the fourth Thursday in November, does refer back to colonial roots, and to the fact that a holiday that originated in the colonial period had endured and spread and grown ever since. Thanksgiving weaves together in itself what is distinctly American and what is emphatically Christian: the public proclamation of thanksgiving to God, occasioned by the specific blessings and trials of various American communities through their histories.

Christmas Day, December 25, is the most emphatically Christian of the original four. Ask a scholar, and you will discover that other dates were, early in the history of Christianity, as important as the Nativity of the Lord; and Easter rightly remains so for many Christians. What is important for our purposes here is the presence of a strictly Christian holiday in the original catalogue of four federally recognized holidays. Moreover, it is the only one of the original four that unambiguously and unavoidably indicates a particular, individual person: Jesus Christ. More than any of the other four, it suggests the self-understanding of America as a Christian nation.

Three American Heroes

Next, we have three homages to particular American heroes, the only three men officially elevated for our veneration by the American civil religion. I present these in the order in which they were established.

Washington’s Birthday, February 22 since 1968 and observed the third Monday in February, was established as a federal holiday in 1879, and celebrates the American Pater Patriae, Father of the Fatherland, our first president, George Washington. In the context of the catalogue of federal holidays, Washington’s Birthday represents the importance of the American Founding, broadly understood, without singling out the declaring of independence, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, or any other specific event. Washington embodies the whole period, and whole act, of “Founding” the United States: as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the fight for independence, President of the Constitutional Convention, and first President of the newly independent Republic. He is the hero whose life ties together and sums up every stage of the Founding.

Columbus Day, October 12, is observed the second Monday in October. It was established as a federal holiday in 1968, celebrating Christopher Columbus, the explorer whose discovery of America was the condition for all subsequent European exploration, colonization, and settlement. The specific date, October 12, designates Columbus’s 1492 arrival in the Bahamas, and thus emphasizes his act of discovery. But the precise date (even the month) of Columbus’s birth is obscure, making it difficult to say whether Columbus’s birthday would have been preferred to his date of landing for the holiday. Columbus is the only non-American counted among the American heroes in this civic pantheon, as if the significance of his discovery warrants his “adoption” by America as an American.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, January 15 and observed the third Monday of January, is the official title of this holiday, singling out MLK’s birthday, rather than, e.g., the day (April 4) of his assassination. This suggests that the holiday should be a celebration of King’s accomplishments over the course of his life, rather than a mournful observation of his death. MLK is to be compared to George Washington, embodying the whole arc of the Civil Rights Movement as Washington embodies the whole arc of the Founding. This suggests that, for our present regime, the Civil Rights Movement is a second Founding, or a completion of the original Founding, conducted or at least symbolized by King.

Taken together and in the order of their lives, the holidays celebrating these three heroes compose a progressive narrative: the Discovery (the condition for all that follows, good or ill), the Founding (of the nation in which our story would take place), and Re-Founding or Perfection (the greatest event to have occurred in the already-established nation).

Honoring American Groups

In addition to specific American heroes, the catalogue of federal holidays includes homage to groups of Americans.

Labor Day, the first Monday of September, established in 1894, honors the labor movement in particular and, by extension, all Americans who are employees rather than employers, self-employed, or (rarest of all in a commercial and democratic society) the truly leisured who are entirely free from work.

Memorial Day, originally May 30 and since 1971 observed the last Monday of May, was officially established as a federal holiday in 1968, but dates back to the 1860s, and by 1890 was observed as a holiday in every state in the Union. Originally Decoration Day, it celebrated those who died in the Civil War, and endured as a Civil War-specific holiday for decades. During the last century, it has grown into an occasion to honor all who have died while serving in the U.S. armed forces in any war.

Veterans Day, November 11, established in 1938, was originally Armistice Day and still fixed in its observance to the day on which the armistice with Germany went into effect at the end of the Great War. Even as other days that originated in a specific event—e.g., the birthdays of Washington and MLK—have become “floating” holidays, Veterans Day remains stubbornly fixed. Perhaps this indicates the significance of World War I for the emergence of the United States onto the world stage in the 20th century. (The only other fixed federal holidays are: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas Day, and Juneteenth). Originally honoring veterans of the Great War in particular, it has since been expanded to honor all veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

These three holidays acknowledge the common condition of Americans as workers; the importance of military service and especially the ultimate sacrifice; and (though this is easiest to forget) the Civil War and the Great War as defining wars in American history.

Juneteenth Independence Day

The most recent addition to the catalogue of federal holidays is sui generis. Its adoption was accompanied by some political controversy (though it is hardly worth mentioning in comparison to the debates over MLK, Jr., Day). But that is not why I think it one-of-a-kind. It is manifestly so, at least if we distinguish between the original four and the rest. Granted, one might attempt to categorize the federal holidays in another way, and then Juneteenth might be grouped with King’s Birthday as “African-American Holidays,” or with Memorial Day as a “Civil War Holidays.”

Juneteenth, June 19, established in 2021, seems sui generis because it is the only holiday that presents itself as a completion or modification of another, preexisting holiday. It is, officially, not merely “Juneteenth” but “Juneteenth Independence Day,” and thus demands comparison to the original Independence Day. In this way, Juneteenth is to July 4 what Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday is to Washington’s Birthday: a celebration of a second founding (or re-founding). Or, rather, Juneteenth Independence Day indicates that Independence Day was not the day of independence for all Americans. The naïve reader of the catalogue of federal holidays, abstracting from the context of the federal establishment of Juneteenth, will understand it as a complement to or completion of Independence Day. But, perplexingly, Juneteenth precedes July 4 by several weeks.

More Heroes for the Pantheon?

To conclude, let us consider some proposed federal holidays.

Flag Day and Election Day/Democracy Day are holidays manifestly “national” in character, the one expressly symbolic, the other expressly practical; yet neither has a close analogue in the existing catalogue. September 11 Day of Remembrance is a historical observance. If it were recognized, it would be the first federal holiday that mourns a specific event and the victims thereof. Native Americans’ Day, if recognized, would be the first federal holiday recognizing a particular ethnic group’s contributions to American history.

But the bulk of these proposals are for new heroes to be added to the American pantheon, complicating the existing narrative of Columbus’s Discovery, Washington’s Founding, and King’s Re-Founding. Susan B. Anthony, the heroine of first wave-feminism and champion of women’s suffrage, would represent another Re-Founding or Perfection of the original Founding. Harriet Tubman would represent abolitionism and the significance of the Underground Railroad in the Civil War. Cesar Chavez would complicate Labor Day’s dominance over the recognition of the labor movement while elevating a hero for Mexican Americans in particular. Rosa Parks and Malcolm X would throw into question MLK’s claim to represent the Civil Rights Movement. Parks (like Anthony and Tubman) would contest the Great Man narrative implicit in the existing Columbus–Washington–King narrative of the American regime (both because she is a woman, and because she is remembered not so much as leader of the Civil Rights Movement but as a foot-soldier in it); while Malcolm X would introduce even greater tension into our civil religion by honoring Black Power, Black Nationalism, and racial separatism alongside King’s Civil Rights Movement.

I conclude by noting that our calendar of federal holiday would more closely reflect what the leading elements within the American regime currently reverence if all of these new heroes—and even more, representing more and different identity groups and “rights” struggles over the past half-century—were added to it. The doubtless effect would be to dilute (or, in some cases, overturn) the reverence for Columbus and Washington and all they represent.

Pavlos Papadopoulos is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College


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Notable Replies

  1. I almost skipped reading this essay. I’m glad I didn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this take on national holidays and the retrospective analysis of original intent and the now current thinking via the national psyche. We are nothing if not evolving creatures and our national celebrations do touch upon the divergences between evolution and devolution as classes, races, and competing ideologies.
    e pluribus pluribus ya’ll.

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