On the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, although we may not get our history always right, we do seem to give at least a nod to the events that gave rise to the holiday. Presidents Day, however, does present some confusion. Are we honoring all Presidents, and why would we honor Buchanan? Or is it only Washington? Or is it Washington and Lincoln? At least by the car and mattress ads “celebrating” Presidents Day, it seems to be both George and Abe, whose images are flashed about. In fact, who is being officially honored depends on where you are. The federal holiday is officially George Washington’s Birthday. It was once celebrated on February 22 although Washington was born on February 11, 1731, but that was under the Julian calendar that the British then used, which was eleven days behind the Gregorian calendar. In 1752, the British Empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, and February 11 magically became February 22, and 1752 apparently had eleven fewer days than other years. In 1879, Congress proclaimed Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday in Washington, D.C., and extended it to all federal offices six years later with February 22 as the commemoration date.
I had a distinctly personal interest in this holiday. I knew that my mother and Washington had birthdays on February 22 and February 24, but I had trouble remembering which was which. When that month came, I would look at a calendar to find the legend “Washington’s Birthday,” and only then would I be sure on which day to give the mother a card—we weren’t big on gifts. I had problems starting in 1971 when Congress passed the Uniform Federal Holidays Act, which stated that Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated on the third Monday of February. The holiday now falls anywhere from February 15 through February 21, but never on February 22. Go figure. I am not sure how the mother would have reacted to all of this.
The federal holiday honors only George Washington. No federal holiday honors the other presidents, and certainly not Lincoln’s Birthday, which is February 12. Do you really think that the South was going to allow a national celebration of Abraham Lincoln? The states, however, do not have a uniform commemoration. Some have a generic President’s Day; some have a Washington’s Birthday; some have a combined Washington/Lincoln Day; and some have separate holidays for Presidents Day/Washington’s Birthday and for Lincoln’s Birthday. (And thus the holiday can be Presidents Day, President’s Day, or Presidents’ Day in different part of the country.) I have been grateful that New York falls into the category with two commemorations. When I worked as a public defender, it meant that the courts were closed on both Presidents Day and Lincoln’s Birthday, giving me two holidays in a short period. And I am still thankful that New York City’s alternate-side-of-the-street-parking restrictions are suspended on both days.
Whoever is being officially honored, we do seem to know and give at least a little nod on Presidents Day to the Father of our Country and perhaps also to the president who saved the Union.
Do most of us even retain even that much of the real meaning of Memorial Day? The federal holiday, once called Decoration Day and celebrated on May 30 but now on the last Monday of May, is for remembering and honoring those who died while in the military. There may be a few official speeches somewhere along those lines and there are some of our older generations who maintain a tradition of visiting the graves of loved ones, but this somber holiday now seems primarily celebrated as the unofficial beginning of summer and, for smaller fry, the end or near-end of the school year. It is not a time for the solemn reflection about the sacrifices of others but about the joys of the beach and the freedom from homework.
The name of the federal holiday Veterans’ Day does force us at least to momentarily think about the purpose of the day—to honor those who served in the military (Memorial Day commemorates those who died in the military), but originally its purpose was different. It was Armistice Day, and the armistice was the one that ended World War I that occurred at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. The following year, President Wilson issued a message in celebration of Armistice Day, and in 1938 it became a federal holiday: “a day,” according to Congress, “to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’ ” After World War II, a movement began to expand the commemoration to include all veterans, and in 1954, November 11 became Veterans’ Day.
Its scope has been expanded, but Veterans’ Day does not generate the hoopla of the Fourth of July, the family rituals of Thanksgiving, or the excitement of the impending summer of Memorial Day. As a kid, it seemed to be a minor holiday primarily because our schools did not close. Instead, at a few minutes before eleven on the eleventh day of the eleventh month our studies were interrupted. We all stood, and over the school’s public address system, a student, sometimes recognizably, played taps on what was usually a trumpet. We then sat down and picked up again with our social studies class.
Even as an adult, Veterans’ Day seldom has had the impact on me that it should. That was driven home one year. I had gone to the New York Public Library to continue some research in newspapers from the Revolutionary War era. The library’s hours varied, but this project had been going on for months, and I knew all the times that the library was open. I walked up the many steps between Patience and Fortitude, the stone lions guarding the entrance, but the door was locked. Mystified, I walked over to the sign with the library’s times. It should have been open. I tried the door again. It was still locked, and I noticed that there was not the usual bustle of patrons and tourists in and out of the building. Only then I thought about. It was November 11. It was a holiday, and the library was closed.
I had planned to spend the day at the microfilm machines, but now I did not know what to do with myself. Then I heard the faint sound of a band, and I finally noticed that there was no traffic on Fifth Avenue. I realized that the Veterans’ Day parade was going to pass in front of the New York Public Library. I had seen many other parades in New York, including ones for St. Patrick’s Day, Puerto Rico Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving, but I had never seen one for Veterans’ Day in New York City. I waited and watched. It made me a bit sad. Some flags, a couple of bands, and a few people, mostly men, in old uniforms were marching or being driven in open cars. The really depressing part was that unlike the crowds and exuberance and the shouts and the vendors of the other parades, almost no one was watching the procession. Everything seemed lonely and forgotten.