Holy Days

Political Cartoons: July 4By Frank Blechman

In medieval Europe, there were special days set aside from the normal routine of work. The church declared that these were Holy Days, days devoted to prayer, fasting, and sometimes feasting.

In the new United States of America there was to be no state-sponsored religion, and so while churches still promoted special days (and weeks, and months) such as Christmas and Easter, observance was spotty. “New Year’s Day” was marked in some places and not in others. At first, there were no official national “days off.”

But, bit by bit, we invented the equivalents of Holy Days, called “holidays,” still marked in red letters on calendars. As the Founders died off in the early 19th century, the revolutionary survivors (particularly Jefferson and Adams) promoted July 4th as a day of patriotic celebration and unity.

As other factions gained political power, they sought comparable opportunities for recognition and celebration of their roles in the American story. During the Civil War, President Lincoln revived an old harvest festival to declare an autumnal day of semi-religious “thanksgiving.” After the carnage of that war, families of the dead marked the arrival of spring by taking fresh flowers to the graves of fallen soldiers. Of course, since spring arrived later in the North than the South, “Decoration Day” (now, Memorial Day) had no fixed date. It moved with the season.

By the end of the 19th century, the Irish-Americans were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in March wherever there were enough of them to have a parade. And Italian-Americans followed by observing “Columbus” Day in October, to mark their contribution to US history. The organized labor movement created a day to acknowledge their contributions, eventually agreeing on a standard date in September (to set them apart from the more militant labor movements in Europe marching on May 1). The federal government created “national holidays” for federal workers, standardizing those holidays.

After World War I, the day of the great armistice (November 11, now called Veterans Day) became a time to recognize those who fought in foreign wars. Local observance of Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays became a national unified “Presidents” Day. Although not federally recognized, the greeting card industry promoted standardized “Mothers Day” and “Fathers Day.” Halloween became a secular holiday thanks to the candy and costume industries.

In our own time, growing political power of the African-American community resulted in national holidays for “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day” and now “Juneteenth.”

Nationally, we as a nation barely stop to think about either the histories or meaning of any of these days. We enjoy the day off work. We get together with friends and family. We eat and drink. We shop.

Nationally, we as a nation barely stop to think about either the histories or meaning of any of these days. We enjoy the day off work. We get together with friends and family. We eat and drink. We shop.

As we approach the July 4th summer three-day break, let us remember for at least a moment that when the Founders declared their “independence” from the King and Crown of England, they simultaneously declared their “dependence” on one another. Pledging “… their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor …” all of them knew that they might be signing their death certificates.

As we approach the July 4th summer three-day break, let us remember for at least a moment that when the Founders declared their “independence” from the King and Crown of England, they simultaneously declared their “dependence” on one another. Pledging “… their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor …” all of them knew that they might be signing their death certificates. The odds of winning independence from the greatest military power on earth were slim at best. Still wrapped in their identities as “Englishmen,” residing in separate and independent colonies, none fully understood what it would mean to stick together; what it would take to fight the war, or where it would lead. Their self-proclaimed title as the “Continental Congress” carried no weight. The term “continental army” had a nice ring to it, but it didn’t exist. And after 1776, it would take a dozen more years before a stable national governing structure (the Constitution) could emerge. And, 74 years after that, the idea of Union was to be tested by secession and civil war.

Today, we imagine that our political polarization is extreme. We moan that the current threats to democracy are unparalleled. Phooey. Our challenges are real, but they pale next to the dangers faced by political leaders in the past, whose courage we mark with the July 4th holiday. Sure, every holiday is just a political invention, created in part to solidify somebody’s power. Yet most of them, and perhaps this one especially, deserve a real pause this year.

 



Categories: Issues, National, politics

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