Monday holiday blues

IT'S been 17 years since Congress effected the Monday holiday scheme for Memorial Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Washington's Birthday. At the time, the idea of tampering with Father Time seemed a good way to ensure that Americans would have long, three-day weekends in place of the come-what-may scenario of the traditional holiday calendar. The House Judiciary Committee was convinced that the four 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, history has scarcely been the beneficiary of the legislation. The meaning of the Monday holidays (with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. added in January) has been lost in the weekend exodus. It's difficult for Americans to get excited about Memorial Day, for instance, 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 Presidents' Day or Washington-Lincoln Day, honors neither of the two leaders in a special way. The result is a murkiness about the specific qualities that made these Presidents the object of high regard.

Until this century, Feb. 22 was the only holiday, along with Christmas, that all states celebrated. What is more, nearly two-thirds of the states have a Washington County whose naming history is probably not recalled on the third Monday in February.

Part of the dilemma in this matter has been freedom of choice in a democracy, with Americans rightly having no stigma for choosing to observe holidays in their own way. For that reason, some states do not follow the Monday holiday setup. Another American trait -- compromise -- is also to blame. Rather than rejecting the 1968 proposal or applying it to all holidays (July 4, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are excluded), Congress compromised.

The most significant benefit in reverting to the traditional holiday dates is strengthening the historical tie among generations, which tends 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 the American University.

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