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Rethinking our holidays: What we celebrate helps to define us



What we celebrate as a state and as a nation helps to define us as a people. Our holidays are based in myth, not history, and as such our thinking becomes mythologized and fuzzy. Right now, our holidays do not reflect our highest ideals of truth, justice, democracy, equity, solidarity, unity, labor, to name only a few.

By my reckoning, we have room for an additional 42 holidays, as we transition to a 4-day work week.

Accepting for the moment that a holiday is a day in which an employee is paid for a celebratory day off, right now, there are ten recognized holidays in Rhode Island: New Year’s Day, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Victory Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

There are also ten recognized Federal Holidays. Simply swap out Washington’s Birthday for Victory Day in the above list. Washington’s Birthday is also known as President’s Day.

The above list is obviously problematic. First, it favors Christianity. Why is Christmas, a religious holiday, a paid day off? Second, there is Columbus Day, a day that celebrates a mythological Columbus who “discovered” America and was not a genocidal monster. Third, the list commemorates too much war and not enough peace, art, science, beauty and humanity.

Not included on this list is Election Day, which could be a celebration of Democracy. Not included on this list is any religious holiday that isn’t Christian. Not included on the list is the celebration of the end of slavery, Juneteenth. (And yes, I know the 13th Amendment still allows for slavery, but Juneteenth is a monumental moment in American history).

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What we celebrate as a state and as a nation helps to define us as a people. Our holidays are based in myth, not history, and as such our thinking becomes mythologized and fuzzy. Right now, our holidays do not reflect our highest ideals of truth, justice, equity, solidarity, unity, labor – to name only a few.

I’m not pretending that this short post even begins to properly frame this issue, but as we move ahead I hope we can start to expand our ideas about what we celebrate, and why. By thinking about this in terms of:

  • Labor: I know we celebrate Labor Day, but we need to begin a movement towards a 4-day work week, and that opens up the possibility of more holidays. And while we’re at it, let’s move Labor Day to May 1st, like the rest of the world does, or celebrate May Day in addition to Labor Day.
  • Truth: Columbus was a monster and the Pilgrims were no friend to the indigenous people. Let’s find people and events worth celebrating, and when people have a problematic history, let’s own that and understand that nobody is perfect, we are simply human. (That said, Columbus was a monster and there is no redeeming his legacy.) One way to address this is to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
  • Justice: Juneteenth is a day worth celebrating. August 18, 1920, the day this country passed the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote to women, is a day worth celebrating. Both these days come with caveats, Juneteenth does not mark the day of slavery’s complete abolition; that day, sadly, is still to come. The 19th Amendment did not grant all women the right to vote. Large numbers of Black women continued to be denied the vote in some states. But we can own these truths and still celebrate the victories.
  • Democracy: Election Day is not a paid holiday. Why? Because forcing people to work on this day is a form of disenfranchisement, perhaps. Can we do better?
  • Solidarity: Christmas is exclusionary. There are many other winter holidays that deserve acknowledgement. Can we do better in December?
  • Unity: Why limit our celebrations to simply America? Why not celebrate the accomplishments of ourselves as part of the larger human family? Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the first man in space, April 12, 1961. Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman in space, June 16, 1963. Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon, July 20, 1969. Mae Jemison was the first Black woman in space, September 12, 1992. And that’s just space exploration, a bias of mine. There’s so much more out there.

We can come up with a calendar of celebrations that unify us, rather than divide. And that calendar should not be a static, revered thing. That calendar should be open to change and amendment as we as a people and as a species accomplish great things together. Our holiday celebrations can be a living thing, that grows and evolves with us as a people, so we can be open, somber, exultant, inventive and joyful together.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.