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.

Labor Day

The industrial revolution changed the world. One thousand years ago, Chinese technology created a new and better version of steel. Over the centuries that recipe spread, until it reached the British Isles, where iron and coal were abundant and were near each other, and where transportation by water made it easy to distribute what was manufactured. Labor-saving devices such as mechanical spinners and looms allowed increased production, and what happened in Britain began to happen in other European countries, in North America, and eventually throughout the world.

Capitalism had already begun to develop in medieval Europe. Workers formed guilds which controlled each craft, putting the power of production into the hands of workers. Along with the guilds came financial leagues which led to modern banking and a new financial system. With the industrial revolution came a new form of capitalism. Only those who had access to wealth could buy the new machines. Now workers came into the factories and worked for the investors instead of working at home and controlling their own careers. Following the precepts of capitalism, investors and factory owners paid as little as they could to workers and got as much work out of them as possible, thereby keeping prices low for their customers which allowed them to gain a profit.

Many people realized the problems implicit in the system of capitalism. Even Adam Smith, who wrote the book defining and defending capitalism, explained that workers needed to be treated well to produce a better product—and to be the customers that the factories required. Karl Marx was not the first thinker to attack capitalism, but he offered the most dramatic solution. He complained that the system was rigged to keep the many workers under the control of the few people who had wealth. Government and even religion, he said, always took the side of the wealthy few against the many workers. Marx predicted that the workers would rise in revolt. They would overthrow the wealthy few, along with government and religion, and create a new and fairer system. For a time, the government would own and control the factories and farms on behalf of the people (socialism). After a while the government would wither and die and the people would own the factories and the farms. They would distribute the wealth they produced according to the workers’ needs, and each worker would willingly labor according to his or her ability (communism).

Marx said that the revolution would begin in the countries where the industrial revolution began and would spread as industry had spread. When it had reached the entire world, then the conversion from socialism to communism could happen. Marx did not foresee any way the workers could achieve their goals of proper wages and decent working conditions without violent revolution. He did not foresee any way that capitalism could be preserved.

Marx was wrong. Workers in Europe and North America found ways to organize themselves into unions which could speak to the owners of factories on behalf of all the workers. Christian sensibilities took the side of the workers and implored factory owners to treat them better—fair wages, fewer hours of work, better and safer working conditions. Swayed by Christians and by the growing power of the labor unions, governments began making laws to require the workers in factories to be treated properly. Child labor was gradually abolished, work hours were regulated, and inspectors were sent into factories to guarantee the safety of the workers. Although there were exceptions, generally governments required factory owners to permit their workers to form unions that would negotiate with the owners for the good of the workers. Socialism and communism were not necessary. Capitalism, under limited government regulation, could be preserved, with investors and customers and workers all benefiting from the system.

In the United States we celebrate workers and their contribution to the nation and the world with a holiday called Labor Day. Unlike Memorial Day (which was originally May 30, until it was moved to the last Monday in May), Labor Day has always been celebrated on a Monday, the first Monday in September. Originally that Monday was meant to be a time when workers would parade through the streets of the city to be recognized by their fellow citizens. It was, naturally, an extra day without work for the laborers, a day when they could gather with their families and those of their coworkers in picnics and other festive occasions. Labor Day weekend has become the social end to summer, as Memorial Day weekend is the social beginning of summer.

Every Memorial Day a few people speak out about the importance of recalling the reason for the holiday. Memorial Day is not just about cook-outs and the beginning of summer. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country. I have written such reminders myself. Scolding Americans because we have forgotten the meaning of Labor Day happens far less often. Of course we should be grateful to those workers whose labor improves our lives. We might not go into factories and shake the hands of laborers there, but each of us can mark this Labor Day weekend in some appropriate way. Be kind to the restaurant workers and grocery store workers you encounter. Thank them for doing their jobs. Think of those other laborers who do not get time off for the holiday—police officers, fire fighters, hospital workers, pastors, and all those expected to continue working on a holiday weekend.

Labor Day recognizes workers. It also reminds us of a process—the way labor unions, governments, and Christians concerned about the lives of factory workers combined to assist those workers. Along the way, they rescued capitalism from the danger of revolt. We continue to debate how much regulation is necessary and which laws hinder capitalism excessively. We should debate these things. On Labor Day, though, we also rejoice and are glad for the good things we have because of the work of our neighbors. J.

Holidays

Labor Day weekend led me to thinking about the many different holidays we observe. My initial thoughts about holidays became too complex and entangled to post. Here, then, is a summary of my remarks about holidays.

Some holidays are truly holy days. Christmas and Easter stand at the head of this class, although over two thousand years the Church has marked many other days and seasons for celebrations and commemorations. For this reason, I don’t take part in the seasonal objection to “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The world’s recognition that a certain day is holy should be encouraged, not resisted.

Other holidays are national holidays. In the United States we mark Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, among others. All of these are declared by the government to be holy, time for us to set aside work, to enjoy life, and also to consider the blessings we have s citizens of the United States of America.

In the United States, certain days have been set apart to reflect the various cultures of which the American experience has been built. Saint Patrick’s Day, el Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, and Octoberfest all have developed as holidays that call attention to one or another ethnic groups in the United States.

Some holidays reflect the seasons as they change. Most cultures have, in some way, observed the solstices and equinoxes. Many Yuletide customs reflect more the change in seasons than the Incarnation of the Savior. Celtic and Germanic groups in pre-Christian Europe also marked the half-way points between solstices and equinoxes, laying the foundation for Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween.

Not all holidays are widely celebrated. Some are personal, celebrated only with family and close friends. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries fall within this category, and some families have other special commemorations to recall past events in their shared lives.

Families and nations sometimes commemorate sad events. September 11 and December 7 are days that “live in infamy” for most Americans. Once again, families might commemorate the loss of their loved ones on the anniversary of their deaths, or they might remember other sad or frightening experiences they have shared.

On my personal calendar, I like to add a few celebrity birthdays to celebrate in my own private way. The four Beatles, the seven main cast members of the original Star Trek, and a few other entertainers are listed on my calendar. They neither know nor care that I remember them on their birthdays. No one else really cares either. I don’t make a major celebration to mark their days, but I do happen to remember them on their birthdays.

Do you have any holidays that are special to you or unique? J.