AT LEAST this year they closed schools for the birthday of the great slain civil rights leader, who struggled mightily to bridge the deep divisions of our nation. That's how Carroll schools marked that anniversary, even though his actual birthday was a few days earlier.
Of course, I'm referring to Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. The Great Emancipator, the Rail-splitter, the champion of an indissoluble union. His real birthday is Feb. 12, but we observed it Feb. 15, a Monday, in joint commemoration of George Washington's birthday (which is actually Feb. 22).
The economy of holding a joint holiday to honor these two exceptional presidents has been recognized for three decades. It's convenient to observe but one holiday in February, especially since the two notables had the good sense to be born in the same month.
Thus we have Presidents Day on the third Monday of February. The original intent was to honor the two greatest presidents of the United States. But current usage often views the day as an occasion to honor all former presidents.
In a way, that has helped to blunt lobbying for birthdays of other U.S. presidents to become federal holidays.
No national holidays
Notice that we are talking about federal legal holidays -- holidays for federal offices and employees. There are no national holidays, not even Independence Day or Thanksgiving, regardless of what you may read elsewhere.
States typically follow the lead of the federal government in designating the same commonly observed holidays. That's not always the case, as states may choose to observe the same holiday on a different date from that of the federal observance. In the trend to officially observe some holidays on Mondays, just to extend the weekend, some traditionalists balked. We had, for example, a Washington's birthday celebration by some states on Feb. 22 and a federal holiday observance on the third Monday in February.
Ah, but what about schools? In Maryland, a few holidays are set by the State Board of Education for school closings. They include primary and general election days, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Christmas Day through New Year's Day, and Good Friday through Easter Monday.
Other holidays in the school year may be observed by closing or not closing the schools. It is up to the school board of each jurisdiction, although the state board does require a lesson on the day's significance if the schools are open.
Presidents Day has been a vulnerable example of an expendable holiday for the school systems.
School systems in Maryland try to observe the Lincoln-Washington birthday by giving students a day off. But they are at the mercy of fickle winter weather that may require schools to be closed for days. Those days have to be made up by lengthening the school year in June or by cutting remaining holidays and vacation.
Baltimore County decided to hold classes on Presidents Day in several recent years, hastily changing the official calendar because of a blizzard of winter snow closings.
It's well-recognized that the public significance of Presidents Day has been undermined by commercial trivializing of the mid-February holiday as a sales event. If workers are given the holiday off, they might as well spend money shopping, merchants believe.
Washington's birthday as a super-sales day long preceded its assumption into Presidents Day.
Ignominy for Lincoln
But, at least in the schools, Lincoln suffered an equal ignominy. His birthday is but two days from Valentine's Day, a noncontroversial, secular (despite its Christian origin) holiday lavishly observed as a multiday celebration in elementary classrooms that provides a good opportunity for younger kids to demonstrate their artistic skills, penmanship, name recognition, etc.
The Carroll County school board, under siege by competing demands to revise the academic calendar, decided earlier this month to hold classes on Presidents Day, and on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as a last-ditch solution. After a public uproar, the board backed down and last week restored the two days as school closings for the 1999-2000 year.
As I've noted previously, children would learn more about the meaning of these holidays if they were in class instead of in the mall or on a long-weekend vacation.
Teachers may whine that holding class on a holiday confirms that the public expects schools to be baby-sitters. But another group of parents eagerly looks to the standardized Monday closings as the chance for a family outing or home project. Then there are the self-interest advocates who favor closing school as a symbol of respect for the person or event.
These are nothing more than self-interested pleadings. They are wrong, just as the Carroll Board of Education is wrong to close the schoolhouse on Presidents Day.
As history recalls it, young Lincoln would have done most anything to get another day in the classroom.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 2/21/99