The Creation Of Holidays In America Has Always Been PoliticalRoundup
tags: Columbus Day
Diana Muir Appelbaum is an historian who has written books about Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July.
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.
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