It was recently the anniversary of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, a date that has historically been an occasion for rousing speeches and patriotic pomp and circumstance. In 1852, former slave Frederick Douglass took the opportunity to bring up a pressing national issue, the wretched practice of slavery.
Following that tradition, Vice President Joe Biden and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter railed against the continuing inequality of opportunity in education — a most fitting topic in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I too would like to follow that tradition to use the Independence Day holiday to achieve some public good, but on a more light-hearted matter: holidays themselves.
Think fast: when is George Washington’s birthday? If you said Feb. 22, you are right. If you said Feb. 11, you are more-or-less right, due to the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar that happened in his lifetime. If you said, “The third Monday in February,” you are probably a U.S. congressman. Since the passing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, which moved several holidays to Mondays in the same month, the celebration of Washington’s Birthday (colloquially, President’s Day) has been calculated so perfectly that it will never fall on the actual birthday of the good general. This smacks of monarchical practices Washington would have despised, like the celebration of the Queen’s Official Birthday in the United Kingdom (on a Saturday in June).
The effect of this change may be hard to see for those born since, but it should have been obvious then: Monday holidays are not observed as fervently as they used to be, for three-day weekends encourage family outings and assorted social events. What is by now a time-honored tradition, the Memorial Day barbecue, is hardly a substitute for commemorating our dead. It is for this reason that Congress very wisely changed its mind about Veterans Day, moving it back to Nov. 11 — the end of World War I (the outbreak of which turns 100 this year).
Congress should move important holidays like Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day and Labor Day back to proper calendar days. The Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., established after the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, should be moved to Jan. 15. (The shifting celebration of Columbus Day, which I do not care for, I take no issue with.) The celebration of these days on a special date encourages their proper observation. That they always fall within the working week naturally places the focus on the day off, and away from the intended subject — beneficial projects like the Martin Luther King Day of Service notwithstanding.
That is not to say we should break up the opportunities for family outings or increase the burden on our laborers. If Congress wants to give people days off, it should do so through proper labor protections and not with phony holiday celebrations. Why not task every employer with giving their employees a minimum number of days off throughout the year, in addition to holidays?
Certainly, it is very characteristic of the United States to wholly ignore Labor Day, for our country has some of the worst labor laws in the developed world and many people are made to work on Labor Day — a day made, it seems, for retail sales. Monday holidays can never be a substitute for proper labor laws, but Congress could always create some as part of comprehensive reform — like some Canadian provinces’ “Family Day,” uniquely suited for three-day weekends.
Write a letter to your congressman! If you want a proper amount of days off, insist on labor reform. And when you thank a veteran this Nov. 11 and pay mind to the armistice that ended the greatest war the world had ever known, be mindful that Congress would have had you celebrate just another Monday.