Holiday Guide 2011

Thanksgiving and the history of America’s long weekends

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, unless you began celebrating early, which you probably did. Vacation-deprived Americans have perfected the art of the holiday jump-start: the Tuesday office potluck followed by the Wednesday 2 p.m. dismissal and 4 p.m. pilgrimage down Interstate 95.

The official turkey dinner is tomorrow, and the official shopping is the day after tomorrow. The tomorrow after tomorrow after tomorrow? Still free! Four days stretch all the way to the sad Sunday afternoon when the only thing to do is watch the James Bond marathon on SyFy and count the waning hours to Monday morning.

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Thanksgiving, that cherished American tradition celebrating family, encompasses a second, more fervently cherished American tradition — that of the Long Weekend.

The history of Thanksgiving, the one learned in grade school, usually involves some combination of Pilgrims, Indians, friendship and corn. The history of the long Thanksgiving weekend involves lobbying and practicality. And a women’s magazine editor from New Hampshire.

The first federally endorsed Thanksgiving holiday was the one proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. More than 70 years later, Abraham Lincoln issued his own proclamation. But between those events were decades of relentless lobbying and letter-writing campaigns by Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshirite who made it her life’s mission to formalize the then-ad hoc holiday. (She also wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”)

In Hale’s mid-19th-century heyday, “the only American holidays were Independence Day and Washington’s birthday,” says Penny Colman, who wrote “Thanksgiving: The True Story.” “And those were both military holidays — full of bombs and explosions.” Hale wanted a holiday that would honor domestic tranquility and not, you know, blowing stuff up. Additionally, she wanted it on a Thursday.

Partly, that was to honor George Washington, whose own proclamation had been Thursday-scheduled. The other part? To honor housewives. “Thursday is the most convenient day of the week for a domestic holiday,” Hale wrote in one of her dozens of Thanksgiving editorials. What with all of the washing on Mondays and ironing on Tuesdays, Thursdays seemed like the best opportunity for a homemaker to prepare a meal and still get to hang out with her visiting family.

Hale’s letters are credited with ultimately bending Lincoln’s ear and prompting him to standardize the Thursday feast. Had she opted for Wednesday or Sunday, the country might not know the joys of awkwardly long family gatherings or waiting in line at 5 a.m. on Black Friday for Best Buy’s deeply discounted television sets.

A practical solution

What does a long weekend do, anyway? Psychologists (and the travel industry, naturally) have said that several short breaks can do a body more good than one big one. Humans need downtime, frequently, which the United States is notoriously bad at providing its workers. In international vacation comparison charts, the United States is always pitifully incompetent when it comes to time off — 13 days per year to Britain’s 26 or Italy’s 31, in one survey last year — the idiot brother of relaxation.

Strategically placed long weekends help compensate. Thanksgiving slingshots the beleaguered worker to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Presidents Day. After a spring dry spell, Memorial Day kicks off a glorious trifecta including July 4th and Labor Day, and the fall begins the cycle anew.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before weekends could be long, they first had to be weekends.

For most of the 19th century and part of the 20th, there were none — there were simply weeks that ended. The working class had Sundays off only. Because of this, many of them would spend the Lord’s day carousing, then call in sick on Mondays. This practice was observed with enough regularity that it was called “Keeping Saint Mondays.” Religious groups hated it, and so did bosses, writes University of Pennsylvania professor Witold Rybczynski in his leisure-time history, “Waiting for the Weekend.” Various special interest groups put their heads together to come up with a solution: Saturdays. Give the people Saturday afternoon off so they have less reason to be plastered Monday morning.

The term “weekend” first shows up in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1879; it wasn’t until the Great Depression that the Saturday-Sunday dynamic duo really became codified in the United States. Shorter hours were seen as a “remedy” for unemployment, Rybczynski writes. “Each person would work less, but more people would have jobs.”

And as for that heathenish practice of Saint Monday holidays? It was mostly abandoned, for decades and decades, until Congress descended upon the calendar and decided to repackage America’s free time.

Shifting observance

Byron Giles Rogers was a Democrat from Colorado, a man who, his obituary said, was known by colleagues as “Old Civil Rights Rogers” for his tireless work on equality issues. During his 20 years in Congress, he brought the Chatfield Dam to his state, as well as the Colorado-Big Thompson Transmountain Irrigation Project.

He also brought the country the bulk of its three-day weekends. Rogers was the man who, in May 1968, introduced bill H.R. 15951, which affected four existing holidays and later became known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. (A subcommittee considered adding Thanksgiving to the Monday lineup but ultimately disregarded the idea.)

“The evidence is conclusive,” Rogers said to the floor, “that the Monday holiday program will stimulate greater industrial production and contribute to an increase in our gross national product.”

Before this, holidays were rigid. George Washington’s birthday was marked for the date he was born, Feb. 22. Memorial Day was always May 30; Columbus Day was always Oct. 12.

During House deliberations on H.R. 15951, a parade of congressmen spoke passionately about all of the fishing that could be accomplished on brand-new three-day weekends, all of the frolicking that could happen in their great states. The representative from Illinois hoped that everyone would come to visit Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield; the mountain state representatives invited everyone to come skiing. The representative from Iowa — a crotchety man named H.R. Gross, who won the nickname “the Useful Pest” — found the whole discussion completely appalling.

“Would it be possible,” he asked incredulously, “to put all holidays over to Tuesday and thus establish four-day holidays?”

Only in our dreams, Mr. Pest.

Despite a few objections, the measure passed with an overwhelming majority.

And what of Congressman Rogers, the man who launched the debate? He died in 1983, having served 10 terms.

“When he would come home on a holiday weekend,” says his daughter, Shirley Martin, “he would spend it working and getting in contact with his constituents.”

The man who championed three-day weekends never really celebrated them himself.

The well-being of the people

By now it seems we have veered far from Thanksgiving. But really, we’re still on track. Promise.

When we talk about long weekends — the way that dates have become malleable chess pieces on America’s calendar — what we are really talking about is the way that the country has occasionally bent to the will and well-being of its constituents.

One might argue that George Washington and others deserve to have their birthdays celebrated on the days of their birth. Some people do argue this: Frank Wolf (R-Va.) proposed such a bill this summer. One might argue that a country that organizes holidays around housewives’ chores and sales is a country that does not understand the sanctity and solemnity of the holidays.

But one could also argue that a country providing its citizenry with long weekends is a country recognizing that sometimes the holidays purporting to be about one thing (say, the birthdays of presidents) are also about another (say, the gathering of families and the restoration of the soul). Surely, George Washington would agree — he wrote the first Thanksgiving proclamation, after all, telling everybody to be grateful, be humble and take the day off.

You know what? Thanks be.

 
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