Juneteenth (and holidays in general)

I have no reason to complain about Juneteenth. I really don’t. If my employer has decided (as it has) to give me a paid day off of work in the middle of June, that’s fine. I’ll take the day off of work and accept the paycheck. My employer can congratulate itself on making the decision to recognize Juneteenth a year ago, before the United States Congress got into the act of declaring Juneteenth an official American holiday. (Not that my employer added another paid holiday to the year—we still have ten paid days off of work. Last year Veterans Day was made a paid holiday, when in previous years Presidents’ Day was a paid holiday. So they merely rearranged the calendar. Other than that, they are doing nothing different.)

The problem is not even that Juneteenth has dubious historical value. It began as an African American commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, federal soldiers announced to slaves in Texas that slavery had been banned. Setting the slaves free in Texas was not the end of slavery in the United States, though. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, announced in 1862 and made effective January 1, 1863, freed slaves only in states that were rebelling against the US government and taking part in the Confederacy. Slavery existed, and remained legal, in Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware in 1863. Lincoln chose not to free the slaves in those four states because he did not want them to join the Confederacy. Missouri and Maryland outlawed slavery before the end of the Civil War; Kentucky and Delaware did not. The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution ended slavery in all the states, but it did not go into effect until it was formally approved in December 1865. Even though Kentucky and Delaware did not approve the 13th Amendment, they were subject to its power, and so slaves were freed in those two states by the end of the year 1865—months after freedom was announced in Texas in the middle of June of that year.

But the Fourth of July is an equally artificial holiday. Not much of significance happened to create or approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but the date was selected for Independence Day because the founders of the United States wanted a celebration to mark our ideas of freedom and human rights. Granted that the founders of the nation were all wealthy white men. Granted that human rights to women, blacks, and other minorities were only gradually established and written into law in the years following 1776. Independence Day is still a holiday for all Americans; it is not only a white holiday. None of the ten federal holidays existing before approval of Juneteenth are white holidays. (For the record, they are: New Year’s Day, Dr. King’s birthday, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.) In many places, Columbus Day is already being replaced by commemorations of Native American history and culture. But Memorial Day remembers all soldiers who died in battle, male and female, black and white and every other culture. Veterans’ Day honors all who served in the armed forces. Presidents’ Day mostly remembers the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but they were presidents of the entire country, not just of white Americans.

Someone might suggest that Thanksgiving and Christmas are primarily white holidays. First, though, Christmas remembers the birth of Jesus, who is not white—he was born a west Asian Jew. Second, these holidays have significance for all Americans, but especially for Christians—and Christianity is not a white religion. It began among the Asian Jews; two significant non-Jewish converts to Christianity, according to the book of Acts, were an Italian centurion and an Ethiopian government official. So Christianity belongs to people of all cultures and ethnic groups. Moreover, according to this survey, blacks in the United States are more likely than whites to believe in God, to attend church, to pray, to study the Bible, and to respect the Bible as God’s Word. So Christmas and Thanksgiving can hardly be labeled white holidays.

I approve of special days set aside for the various cultures and ethnic groups present in the United States. I delight in noting the Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Octoberfest, along with Juneteenth. These days should be celebrations, commemorations of their various cultures, and open to all Americans to join the celebration. I see no reason any of them should be paid days off from work. These days are opportunities for schools, libraries, and other cultural centers to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and to remind all of us of what makes each culture special. We have seen from Memorial Day and Labor Day what happens to a federal holiday. People are paid to stay home from work. They gather for cookouts and other festive events. They travel to parks and beaches and other recreational spots. Meanwhile, hospitals remain open. Police officers and fire fighters remain on call. Retail outlets—especially fast food restaurants—serve more customers than usual, requiring them to schedule more of their employees than usual. That shift is especially ironic on Labor Day.

I propose a tweak to the observance of national holidays. We should, as a nation, continue to recognize annual celebrations for our various cultures and ethnic groups, but none of them should be paid days off of work. Instead, they should be opportunities to learn from one another about diversity in our land and to wish one another a happy St. Patrick’s Day, a happy Cinco de Mayo, a happy Juneteenth, and a happy Octoberfest. At the same time, we need to add a Service Day, perhaps in early August, one month before Labor Day. This would be a holiday, not for office workers and government employees, but for retail workers and others paid to serve customers. Stores and restaurants would be closed, and service workers would be encouraged to spend time with their families and to enjoy parks and the outdoors. The rest of us would gain appreciation for service workers through this annual reminder of their work, and it wouldn’t hurt us to know that, once a year, Walmart and McDonalds and all those places we take for granted the rest of the year are closed to give their employees a well-deserved vacation.

It all makes sense to me. J.

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