With apologies to John Oliver, why ARE some of our “national holidays” still “a thing?” 

In one sense, they aren’t, and never have been. 

Believe it or not, the Federal government has never had the ability to declare or enforce truly “national holidays.” Legally, our so-called ”national” holidays apply only to the District of Columbia and to federal workers.  For them to apply elsewhere, they have to be adopted state by state, and in some cases, locality by locality.

The first four so-called “national” holidays, were approved by Congress in 1870.   

They included New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day, and only applied to the District of Columbia. 

Thanksgiving Day was included in the bill, but was dropped, in part because of its association with President Lincoln.  Not until 1941 did the fourth Thursday “officially” become “Thanksgiving Day.”

In 1880 Congress added George Washington’s Birthday to the list.

Not until 1885 did Congress extend those holiday benefits to all federal employees.

Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) was added in 1888; Labor Day in 1894; Armistice Day (changed to Veterans Day in 1954) in 1938; Inauguration Day in 1957 (only celebrated in the District of Columbia); Columbus Day in 1968, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday in 1983. In 1954, Armistice Day was broadened to honor Americans who fought in World War II and the Korean conflict, and the name of the holiday was changed to Veterans Day.

Sometimes, the Federal Government just “drops” a holiday. 

We no longer celebrate, for example, “The Eighth,” January 8, celebrated from 1828 to 1861 to mark our victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans.  We dropped the holiday in 1861, when Louisiana and its capital dropped out of the United States and British good will was deemed more important than a day off.

“Victory Day” or “VJ Day,” the third Monday in August, marking the end of World War II, lasted only from 1948 to 1975

For a federal holiday to apply throughout Virginia, our General Assembly must formally adopt it, and sometimes that process becomes both messy and unpleasant. 

Consider, for example, Virginia’s singularly tortured approach to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Virginia had celebrated Robert E. Lee’s birthday since 1889, the year Benjamin Harrison, grandson of Virginia-born President William Henry Harrison, became President.  The year marked the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration; North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington became states.

In 1904 the General Assembly re-named the “Lee’s Birthday” holiday. “Lee-Jackson Day, ” to celebrate both Lee, and the life and contributions of Confederate General Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson, Lee’s “good right arm.” 

In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Congressman John Conyers introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. 

In 1983, after a fifteen-year effort by Conyers and Shirley Chisholm, President Ronald Reagan finally signed the “Martin Luther King Day” bill into law.

Virginia adopted the holiday, but not without vigorous opposition from, “traditionalists,”  “south-was-right” conservatives and others who vigorously and openly despised King and everything he stood for.    In Virgina, the holiday became:  “Lee-Jackson-King Day,”

In 2000, the General Assembly came to its senses, and adopted the third Monday in January, the federal holiday, as “Martin Luther King Day” in Virginia.

In honor of its two favorite Confederate Generals, and no doubt as a sop to still un-mollified opponents of a stand-alone Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the General Assembly retained, and still retains, the preceding Friday as “Lee-Jackson Day.”

Such debates are rare, of course. 

Congress itself admits that commercial interests, the realities of leave-taking and convenience determined the holidays  “officially” adopted by the Federal (and now State and local governments). The day AFTER Thanksgiving, for example, is now an official Virginia holiday.

Why are these things still things?

Sometimes to honor events and individuals and attitudes that we believe stand at the heart of our national culture.  More often, and sometimes at the same time, for pure pleasure, convenience . . .  and, as always,  money.

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