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Monday holidays, a congressional creation

Today is celebrated as the Presidents' Day holiday, but historians, and at least some older Americans, know that this date is really the creation of Congress, not history. In 1968 congressional legislation mandated that, as of 1971, Washington's birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the newly created Columbus Day would be celebrated as Monday holidays in their respective months.

At the time, the idea of tampering with Father Time seemed to ensure that Americans would have long, three-day weekends in place of the come-what-may scenario for the traditional holiday calendar: Feb. 22 for Washington's birthday, May 30 for Memorial Day, Oct. 12 for Columbus Day and Nov. 11 for Veterans Day.

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The House Judiciary Committee was convinced that the holidays could be observed on Monday "without doing violence to either history or tradition." Its Senate counterpart was even more magnanimous, interpreting the change in terms of the "substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the nation."

In spite of all this highfalutin language, however, leisure time has been the real winner of this change and history the ultimate loser. Veterans were so upset with the Nov. 11th change that they barraged Congress with enough pressure that the Monday holiday date for it was eliminated in 1978, and today, Veterans Day remains Nov. 11. But five years later, in 1983, the January birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was made a federal holiday and added to the list of Monday celebrations.

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The meaning of the Monday holidays has been lost in the weekend exodus; most Americans, especially youngsters, know precious little about their history. It's difficult for Americans to get excited about Memorial Day, for instance, when the Monday holiday usually 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 is supposed to be in honor of George Washington's birth, but some states have designated it Washington-Lincoln Day or Presidents' Day because both men were born in the month. The result is that neither of the two leaders is honored appropriately, with a murkiness about the specific qualities that made these presidents the object of high regard.

Until the turn of the 20th century, Feb. 22 — Washington's birthday — was the only holiday, along with Christmas, that all states celebrated. What is more, nearly two-thirds of the states (including Maryland) 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. Another has been the usually highly touted characteristic of congressional compromise. The latter works well when it comes to most legislation, but when it comes to history, it's baffling. Why, for instance, were Independence Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas excluded from the 1968 legislation? Are these three more special than the others?

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For many countries, history has been the unifying thread of citizenship, keeping individuals wedded to each other and to values often reflected in their holidays. For Americans this historical tie has been loose, made more so by our Monday holidays. As visiting Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835 about America: "...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 (Tvmzdb6063@cs.com) is a historian and professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D.C.

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