DID YOU HAVE a happy Helsinki Human Rights Day last May 7? Or were you occupied with Vietnam Veterans Recognition Day, which also fell on May 7?
Perhaps on May 7 you were in the middle of celebrating National Correctional Officers Week -- or Small Business Week, Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week or National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Week.
Or you may have been busy observing all of May 1985 as National Older Americans Month, National Child Safety Awareness Month, Very Special Arts U.S.A. Month, Steelmark Month and Better Hearing and Speech Month.
And 1985 was also the Oil Heat Centennial Year, International Youth Year, the Year of the Ocean and the Year of the 75th Anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America.
In 1985, more than half the weeks and every month except, curiously, July were dedicated to something or someone. Altogether, the American people "celebrated" at least 156 such national observances -- the equivalent of three holidays a week, each established by an act of Congress or a presidential proclamation. And that doesn't include the 10 federal holidays, such as New Year's Day and the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
Whether you were a medical transcriptionist, a foster grandparent, a Polish American or a working mother, there was a day, week or month for you in 1985. You could have paid tribute to the music of Jerome Kern, celebrated our space program, participated in a neighborhood crime watch or increased your awareness of more diseases than you'll find in a medical textbook -- all during a special period Congress or the president set aside for that purpose.
Most national observances are authorized by a specific law and then designated by a presidential proclamation, though presidents can issue proclamations without a congressional request. Most designations apply only for one year. But some observances, such as Mother's Day (second Sunday in May), Flag Day (June 14) and Citizenship Day (Sept. 17), recur each year by law or proclamation.
Unlike federal holidays, national observances don't necessarily mean schools or government offices are closed. Most take place with little fanfare, despite the usual presidential proclamation urging all Americans to observe the occasion with "appropriate ceremonies and activities." After all, it's hard to imagine banks closing for National Nursing Home Residents Day (April 26, 1985).
Little attempt is made to coordinate national observances or put them into a rational order. The week beginning May 12, 1985, was dedicated to senior centers, science, police, transportation -- and digestive diseases awareness. May 1985 was both National Child Safety Awareness Month and Older American's Month. The week beginning Oct. 1, 1985, may have been National Buy American Week, but December 1985 was Made in America Month. October 1985 was jammed with 28 separate designations for days, weeks and months -- not to mention other year-long celebrations. January, the least popular month in 1985, was the time for only three days and one month.
Some observances mark an important anniversary. Others simply correspond to the dates of an organization's national convention. But even if you wanted to celebrate one of the occasions, there is no easy way to figure out what is happening when. Not even the White House or Congress publishes a list of current national observances.
Except for a handful of the more popular observances, few ever make it onto your desk top calendar. That's because most designations aren't approved by Congress until after the beginning of the year. Some dates get pushed back or overlooked as legislation is delayed in Congress. The start of National Osteoporosis Awareness Week last year was delayed from May 1 to May 20 because Congress didn't vote on it until May 7. A resolution designating May 1985 as Better Hearing and Speech Month didn't pass until June 4 and it wasn't signed into law until nearly two weeks after the month ended.
The number of bills and resolutions introduced in Congress to designate national observances is steadily rising, and a greater number are passing. In the 1979 session, about 225 were introduced and 13 were enacted. In the 1985 session, more than 435 were introduced and 95 were enacted.
The resulting hodgepodge of special occasions has little meaning, and that's too bad. Americans like national observances, and they like participating in the political process to create new ones.
Several proposals have been offered to take Congress completely out of the process, leaving the designation of national observances to a presidential advisory committee. While this would clean up some of the confusion, it wouldn't take care of the recurring annual observances still on the books. Moreover, it would be one more example of Congress' failure to handle difficult issues without turning over responsibility to someone else.
What is needed is a fine-tuning of the process, not a new one. First, Congress should determine which recurring annual observances are still needed. Next, Congress should consider national observance designations only once each year -- in advance -- so that it would look at the entire annual calendar. The result could be fewer national observances, a better record of those approved, elimination of duplicative designations and a more logical arrangement.
Finally, let's pass a bill to designate a "National Day of Responsible National Observance Designations."
Then again, let's not.