Misplaced holidays

January 14, 1994|By Thomas V. DiBacco

IT'S been 26 years since Congress launched the Monday holiday scheme for Washington's birthday, Memorial Day and Columbus Day. At the time, it seemed a good way to ensure that Americans (particularly federal workers) would have at least three three-day weekends instead of taking these holidays on their exact calendar day.

Public Law 90-363 was enacted by wide margins in 1968, with substantial support from business organizations and government employees. The House Judiciary Committee was convinced that the holidays could be observed on Monday "without doing violence to either history or tradition." Its Senate counterpart interpreted the change in terms of the "substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the nation."

In retrospect, the move has cheapened history. The meaning of the holidays always celebrated on Monday has been lost in the weekend exodus. This weekend will be no exception. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is tomorrow, but the national holiday is Monday. (King's birthday was added to the Monday list in 1986.)

It's difficult for Americans to get excited about Columbus Day when it falls on October 8 or on the day before they must return to work. Or about Memorial Day when the Monday bears no relation to the date that for years drew their ancestors to cemeteries to commemorate those who died for their country.

The third Monday in February, designated by some states as President's Day or Washington-Lincoln Day, honors neither of the two leaders in a special way, and the result is a murky understanding, especially among young children, about the qualities that made these presidents the object of high regard.

Until this century, Feb. 22 was the only holiday along with Christmas that all the states celebrated. What is more, nearly two-thirds of the states have a county named for Washington. How many of them hold ceremonies the third Monday in February to honor their namesake?

Americans, of course, always have been cussedly independent. Some states and municipalities have refused to go along with the Monday-holiday scheme. And for reasons having nothing to do with stubbornness or tradition, some refused to observe the King holiday.

Moreover, Congress compromised when it began the Monday scheme, refusing to add the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The result is a hodgepodge.

Compromise works well in politics, but when applied to the nation's history, it does harm. Monday holidays give primacy to leisure rather than historical accuracy.

The most significant benefit in reverting to the traditional holiday dates is strengthening the historical ties among generations, which tend to be loose in a democratic nation. Tocqueville noted this deficiency in 1835 when he wrote that not only does democracy "make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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