On the Significance and Function of Holidays

So here we are on Martin Luther King’s Day.  We are all familiar with the struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr. for civil rights, and we are all familiar with the derivative struggle to make a federal holiday in honor of him.  The appropriate day for honoring King is his birthday, January 15, which is today, a Monday.

But that is a coincidence.  By law, the holiday occurs on the third Monday in January. Right away, that makes us suspicious. I mean, what is more important, honoring King by having a federal holiday occur on his birthday, whichever day that may be, or making sure federal employees get a three-day weekend so they can have a good time?

Let’s back up a little, about six thousand years ago, when God created the heavens and the earth in six days.  On the seventh day, he rested.  And if having a day off was good enough for God, he figured it would be good enough for the rest of us too. Well, no one had to be told twice to knock off work once a week, but God wanted the day to be in honor of his creation, not a day for people to enjoy themselves by playing games or loafing around.  So, one of his Ten Commandments is to remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.  That part about keeping it holy meant that the Sabbath had to be turned into the most boring day of the week, and so much so, that some people would actually sneak off and do a little work anyway, for which, if caught, they would be put to death.

This has been the tension in holidays ever since.  On the one hand, we are supposed to honor something or other, which presumably means having a somber expression, speaking in reverential tones, and passing the day in a mirthless manner. On the other hand, getting the day off is something we hate to waste, and so we soon forget the original purpose and use the day to have fun. For example, Good Friday and Easter, the days Christians are supposed to honor the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, their Lord and Savior, has become Spring Break, the week college students head to the beach for sun and surf, sex and suds.

And that is no doubt why in 1994, President Clinton signed a law designating Martin Luther King Day a National Day of Service.  I think the idea was that we would all use the day off to do some volunteer work.  Of course, that suggestion was directed primarily to government workers, because the rest of us typically go to work just as we do on any other Monday.  The fact that those in the private sector have to work while those in the public sector get the day off created an invidious distinction, engendering hostility and resentment.  The purpose of the National Day of Service, then, was so that those of us who had to go to work would not feel cheated, knowing that those government workers that did get the day off would be spending it doing volunteer work.

Of course, the one holiday that is unequivocally about having a good time is New Year’s Day.  We honor nothing on that day, but merely recover from partying the night before.  Exactly why people should get the day off merely to celebrate the passage of time is a mystery.  But at least we are not asked to feign honor and reverence.  And we are not asked to volunteer.  But most important of all, the rest of us get this day off too, and not just civil servants.

At the other extreme, there are Thanksgiving and Christmas. We know that these days are meant to be taken seriously, because they have yet to be moved to the nearest Monday.  Of course, some people manage to take off the Friday after Thanksgiving, turning that into a four-day weekend, and some people manage to combine Christmas and New Year’s Day into a whole week off, but all in all, the fact that these days are not invariably celebrated on a Monday tells us that they are meant for more than just having fun.  Besides, these are days many of us have to spend with relatives, so how much fun could we be having anyway?

The Fourth of July doesn’t count.  It cannot be put in the same category with Thanksgiving and Christmas, even though it is not celebrated on the nearest Monday. Rather, this holiday is tied to the actual day it is supposed to celebrate owing to the fact that its name designates that day.  It has this in common with New Year’s Day. Sometimes it is referred to as Independence Day, and if that ever takes hold, we will finally be able to move it to the nearest Monday, the ultimate destiny of every holiday.

It is interesting that Memorial Day has been moved to the nearest Monday, but Veterans Day has managed to remain fixed to November 11, even though both days have something to do with honoring people who served in the military. But more private sector employees get off for Memorial Day than for Veterans Day, probably because the former affords people a three-day weekend, whereas the latter does not.  In other words, Veterans Day has more honor and reverence, because it remains tied to a particular date, but Memorial Day is more important to us, on account of the long weekend we get.

Columbus Day is another one of those holidays in which only government employees get the day off.  This is in honor of the Europeans who killed off the Indians and took their land. There is a movement to change the name to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in honor of the Native Americans who were killed by Europeans and had their land taken away from them.  There are two things about this day that will not change however it is designated:  it will be celebrated on a Monday, and only government employees will get the day off.

Finally, we come to the one holiday in which everything comes together without the usual tension between honor and reverence on the one hand, and having a good time on the other.  That is Labor Day.  This is all about honoring the worker. He gets to take the day off and honor himself.  This is the one lasting contribution of the labor movement.

Republicans still haven’t figured out how they let this one get past them.