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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Remembering Memorials, Part 1

Yes, I know that Memorial Day has come and gone, and I didn't intend to write about it this year.  But I'm going to – and I'm going to ask those of you who send me e-mails to send your thoughts on what you think (and think that other think) about exactly what we commemorate in late May.  Especially, how do you think it differs from November 11?  The intent of the 4th of July is clear, but other holidays have gotten muddled in their meaning.


Let's go through the calendar.  We start with New Year's, which is unusual in being a holiday that is neither religious nor patriotic.  Then there's Martin Luther King's birthday, and it is recent enough that everyone understands the history.  Both are official federal holidays with paid time off from work.


February brings another federal holiday, President's Day.  It is a fairly recent combination of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  When I was a child, we acknowledged Lincoln on February 12th and Washington on the 22nd, but I think that was via lessons at school, and no one got the day off.  The Uniform Federal Holidays Act, which went into effect in 1971, established the third Monday in February as President's Day and honored all of them, whether merited or not.


I say that especially because 1971 was during the tenure of Richard Nixon, who most certainly does not deserve recognition.  Making commemorative dates into three-day weekends, however, was a goal of the travel industry, and business interests always outdo historical truth.  Yet businesses make much more money on Valentine's Day than on President's Day, but February 14 is not a day off for anyone.  And the reason for that date is obscure, as is St. Valentine. 


St. Patrick is the reason for March's biggest holiday, and that, too, is not a day off – nor should it be.  We adhere to the principle of not acknowledging religious holidays with Easter, but not for Christmas and Thanksgiving.  Perhaps that is because Easter's date is so variable – the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and so it can be in either March or April.  It is always on Sunday, and like Valentine's Day, there's no time off of work or school.  


Easter is supposed to be about Christianity, but almost everything that fills store shelves instead relates to springtime, so we really should celebrate it on the vernal equinox.  That is the time between March 20-22 when the sun is exactly above the equator, and we have equal hours of daylight and dark.  After the vernal (green) equinox, days will get longer until September, when the autumnal equinox occurs and days are shorter here in the northern hemisphere; in the southern, it's the reverse.


Our primitive ancestors celebrated these days, as well as the summer and winter solstices – the longest and shortest days of the year.  Some cultures still acknowledge these celestial dates.  When Hubby and I were in Poland at the summer solstice, people decorated their cars and homes with green branches of trees; women wore floral wreaths; businesses closed, and everyone stayed up all night on the longest day.


Remembering Memorials, Part 2


But back to home and May.  When I was growing up in Minnesota, May Day was a big holiday, especially for girls.  Following the Scandinavian tradition, we made May baskets (often of paper or small boxes), filled them with candy and treats, and after ringing the doorbell, hid from our friends as they answered and found the surprise.  Our school chose a May queen and a princess (yes, I was one as a kindergartener), and we danced around a May Pole, elaborately wrapping it in colorful crepe paper.


That was on May 1st, and on the 30th, I raided Grandma Hansen's garden next door for lilacs and tulips, and then we little kids followed the high-school band down Main Street.  When we reached the creek near the train depot, we tossed flowers into the water – and I was convinced that they went on to the Mississippi, hit the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, and drifted to France, where they landed on soldiers' graves. 


So I guess I did think of Memorial Day as somewhat about the military – but we marched on from the creek to the town cemetery, where all the residents were commemorated, not just soldiers.  That was even more true after we moved to Arkansas, where Memorial Day often was called Decoration Day, and people went to cemeteries with flowers for the graves of their loved ones.  There usually was a tent with refreshments, and neighbors took the opportunity to visit.  It was homey, peaceful, and not at all mixed with patriotism.


Patriotism was saved for the 4th of July, and that is pretty much the same everywhere.  I celebrated it several times in Washington and Boston, as well as in Minneapolis, on the West Coast, and here.  Big parades in the morning, picnics in the afternoon, and fireworks at night.  Did you know, by the way, that when John Adams wrote about signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he predicted future celebratory fireworks?


Both Memorial Day and July 4th are official federal holidays, but not Mother's Day or Father's Day that occur on Sundays in May and June.  That's good because not everyone gets the chance to be a parent, and sometimes the experience doesn't work out so well.  It can be a lonely day, but both are much better sales opportunities than Memorial Day.  I'm sure you know that Mother's Day is the biggest telephone day of the year.  Back before satellites, it could take hours to get past the busy signals.


Father's Day is June's only holiday, although it may be useful to remember that some excessively patriotic people tried to make a holiday of June 14th, which they called Flag Day.  It's still on some calendars, but never has been an official holiday.  It was intended to commemorate the adoption of the US flag in 1777, but I'm glad it never took hold:  not only do we not need three nationalistic holidays in three consecutive months, but also, it would invariably get mixed up with the myth of Betsy Ross.  As I've written before, there is no evidence that she made Washington's flag, and instead she should be remembered as a very successful Philadelphia businesswoman.


Remembering Memorials, Part 3


So now we are down to Part 3 of something I didn't intend to write… August is empty, but shouldn't be:  August 26th is the anniversary of the 19th Amendment that granted all voting rights to all American women.  Next year will be its centennial, and I have hopes that after more attention in 2020, Congress will make it an official holiday.  Even though school is not yet in session (in most places) and kids thus miss the teachable moment, I think that August 26th is the most appropriate date.  I don't want to emulate MLK with Susan B. Anthony, partly because her birthday is February 15th and too close to both Valentine's and President's Day, and mostly because I don't want to reduce a giant movement to one individual. 


Just around the corner from August is Labor Day, an official holiday included in the act that created three-day weekends.  The first Monday in September, it seems the holiday now signals the end of summer and back-to-school more than the significant contributions that the labor movement made to our democracy.  First celebrated in New York in 1882, it became an official holiday in 1894, but several conservative states refused to acknowledge it.  In the South, those states spent their time celebrating the birthdays of Jefferson Davis and/or Robert E. Lee.  I'm thankful that those dates are forgotten; they weren't when I was young.


October brings Columbus Day, traditionally celebrated on October 12th, the probable date in 1492 when Christopher Columbus' expedition sighted land in the Caribbean. He was an Italian sailing for Spain, and especially Italians led the promotion of a holiday for him.  It was recognized in several states during the 19th century, but did not become a federal holiday until 1934, under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Many people, especially Native Americans, now oppose it, and Columbus Day never has been much of an economic opportunity.  Instead, October's big moneymaker is Halloween, which once had religious meaning.


November's Thanksgiving remains religious – although these days, turkey and football are strong competitors to Pilgrims and prayer.  Early Thanksgivings were highly religious, as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first as a day of prayer during the Civil War.  Initially, many Southerners refused to acknowledge it, and again it was Franklin Roosevelt who made Thanksgiving permanent.  To promote earlier Christmas shopping during the Great Depression, Roosevelt set the date as the fourth Thursday in November.  It remained that even after the Uniform Holiday Act, and thus most of us enjoy our only four-day weekend of the year.


Christmas remains singular as December 25, with no assured three-day weekend.  Even though it is a paid federal holiday, it is solely a religious/cultural observance and has no connection with nationalism.  Given that Christmas has been celebrated for centuries all around the world, it would be hard to convince anyone that it is a particularly American holiday.  And almost everyone has forgotten that in Puritan New England, celebrating Christmas was a crime.


You may have noticed that I skipped Veterans Day.  When I was a child, it was Armistice Day and commemorated the end of World War I on November 11, 1918.  We Girl Scouts put on warm coats, went downtown, and sold paper poppies in remembrance of the Flanders poppy fields where so many young men laid down their lives in a war between Queen Victoria's grandchildren.  After that war led to a second, and much more significant one, some adjustment needed to be made to acknowledge the second generation of soldiers, and Armistice Day became Veterans Day in 1954. 


By the time that the Uniform Holiday Act created three-day weekends, November 11th was considered sacrosanct, and only the name changed, not the date.  What I want to know from you, though, is if these dates have any real meaning anymore.  How many people understand that Memorial Day, formerly May 30th, was intended to commemorate the Civil War and included civilians?  How many people can distinguish it from November 11, originally World War I's Armistice Day and now Veterans Day, and seemingly including both living and dead veterans?  Or are all holidays just an excuse for a day off? And what about August 26th?



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