The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The creation of holidays in America has always been political

This year’s Columbus Day could be the last

Police officers guard a statue of Christopher Columbus in front of the Ohio Statehouse on July 18 in Columbus. (Jeff Dean/AFP/Getty Images)
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Today, we celebrate Columbus Day. But will it be the last time? The holiday is part of a larger debate about whether to make Juneteenth a national holiday, whether Election Day should be a paid day off, whether that would give us too many federal holidays and whether the United States should be honoring Christopher Columbus at all. As we debate these questions, it may be useful to remember that all holidays are invented, none will last forever and the decision to add a holiday to the federal calendar is always political.

The early colonies were settled for a variety of reasons. Massachusetts and Connecticut were established to create a new and better England, one where — among other things — the calendar would not include any holiday except the Sabbath. Even Christmas, a holiday not specified in the Bible, was anathema to New England. Because the colonies were largely populated by Calvinists and small pietist sects and settlement happened at a time when England itself shunned Christmas, it would not become a major holiday until the 19th century.

Thanksgiving Day, also not in the Bible, required a theological workaround. Puritans were doctrinally opposed to annual holidays, but believed that a special Day of Thanks for God’s goodness could be declared as often as the people had special reason to be grateful — a situation that governors declared to have arisen when famines, droughts or epidemics ended, and every fall just after the harvest. Thanksgiving spread west and south in a long campaign led by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor who made Godey’s Lady’s Book the most widely circulated magazine in America. Hale and others wrote novels, recipes, menus, short stories, songs and poems that persuaded Americans to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The rise of Halloween and Christmas remind that holidays do not require official sanction to become wildly popular; in fact, the federal government did not create any until 1870 and Halloween is not an official holiday. Instead, mayors, governors, political movements, religions and activists like Hale created holidays.

Similarly activists drove colonial America’s most political holiday: Massacre Day. The 1770 Boston “massacre” was a very small riot provoked by independence activists. It gave the independence movement its first martyr and was marked with marches and speeches from 1771 until 1783, when it was discontinued because the War of Independence had been won.

Public celebration of George Washington’s birthday began the year after victory at Yorktown. It replaced the king’s birthday, a popular colonial-era holiday, and was celebrated the way London celebrated King George’s birthday, with grand birthnight balls, parades and later, after enactment of the Constitution, a formal reception hosted by President Washington and his wife. Federalists used ceremony to bolster what they knew to be a frail union, while Democratic-Republicans deplored it as a violation of republican principles.

With Washington’s death, the speeches and parades with which his birthday was celebrated became remarkably nonpolitical. Washington’s farewell address was read aloud in towns nationwide and became an expression of the hope that America could, somehow, avoid civil war over slavery.

Like Washington’s birthday, the Fourth of July dates to independence, but it has often been politicized. It too was celebrated with parades and speeches after which the women went home while men attended large public dinners — and drank. Although fireworks began to appear in major cities in the early 1800s, much of the noise in early celebrations came from guns. Every type from pistols to cannon were fired; with injuries and death caused by stray bullets and exploding cannon.

Muster Days and Election Day were the liveliest days on the early American calendar. On Muster Days every able-bodied man between 18 and 45 was required to drill in the local militia. Families packed picnics and ventured into town to watch. Food booths were set up and everything from wrestling matches to livestock auctions might be held, along with music and dancing as evening fell. Politicians and militia officers, who were elected by their men, treated the town to kegs of cider and ale.

On Election Day, women visited with friends and ate election cake (an old-fashioned fruit cake) while men electioneered, voted and drank the ale and cider paid for by candidates. Voting might be followed by anything from turkey shoots and ballgames to torchlight victory parades.

The War of 1812 added a holiday to the calendar, Jan. 8. On “The Eighth” in 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. The victory carried Jackson to the White House in 1828.

By the 1830s, however, the date had become associated with the proslavery cause and ceased to be celebrated in the North. When the Confederacy fell, the holiday was forgotten.

Holidays are regularly co-opted by social and political movements. The temperance movement, with prominent women leaders concerned about the impact of drunken husbands on wives and children, held Fourth of July parades urging independence from King Alcohol, while the Washingtonians, a mass movement of men working to contain their own drinking habits, held rallies on Washington’s birthday. A state legislator named Abraham Lincoln spoke at the 1842 Washingtonian temperance rally on Washington’s birthday in Springfield, Ill.

But nothing quite compares to the controversy surrounding Thanksgiving, the most politicized American holiday of the 19th century. Because anti-slavery clergy used Thanksgiving as the day on which to preach abolitionist sermons, the South stopped celebrating it. Years after the Civil War ended, Texas Gov. Oran Milo Roberts described Thanksgiving as “a d---ed Yankee institution” and refused to have it in his state. Both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis had proclaimed special days of Thanksgiving for particular victories during the war, but in 1863 Lincoln became the first president to declare a general purpose Thanksgiving Day “for the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies” — though the date wouldn’t be firmly and permanently settled until 1947.

The Civil War produced a new holiday, Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day.) Historian David Blight traces this holiday to newly free Black Americans who placed flowers on the graves of Union soldiers in Charleston, S.C., in May 1865, only a month after the war ended. Unsurprisingly, several other towns claim to have been first to mark the day.

But by the late 1870s, political battles over Reconstruction transformed Decoration Day into a holiday of national reconciliation, honoring the nobility and heroism of the White men who fought to preserve slavery and the White men who fought to end it, while ignoring slavery, Black regiments and the post-war failure to secure Black civil rights.

The same tensions shaped debates about Lincoln’s birthday, a celebration begun shortly after his assassination, albeit in fewer than half the states. Refusing to honor Lincoln, Virginia defiantly made Robert E. Lee’s birthday a holiday in 1889 and added Stonewall Jackson in 1904. Lee-Jackson Day was widely celebrated in Southern states for decades.

Then, in 1984 — a year after the federal government made Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday — Virginia created Lee-Jackson-King Day, an incoherent compromise that a later governor, Douglas Wilder, called “insane.” The idea was to avoid giving two paid holidays in January. Lee-Jackson Day was separated from Martin Luther King Day in 2000 and abolished altogether by the Old Dominion in 2020.

Election Day is unlikely to be added to our holiday list, not only because having the day off would make it easier for the less privileged, who tend to vote for Democratic, to get to the polls, giving Republicans an incentive to resist, but because giving paid holidays to government workers costs money.

The proposal from two Republican senators to simultaneously eliminate Columbus Day and add Juneteenth has a better shot of success. Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1968, back when the Italian American vote had real clout. Replacing an unexciting — and now fraught — federal holiday that falls in October, when nobody really wants a holiday, with one that could add a three-day weekend to the summer by affirming the equal rights of Black citizens sounds like the American way of celebrating.