Technically, American holidays aren't holidays. The word holiday means "holy day," and the only paid federal festival that even approaches that description is Thanksgiving. Independence Day, Labor Day, Washington's Birthday, etc. might be holy according to the dogma of the civil religion, but as Christians we reserve adjectives like holy and sacred for Christ and His Church.
That doesn't mean we can't celebrate along with our countrymen. Liberty, justice and equality are American distinctives, and we thank God we live in a country where they're upheld (at least for the most part). To hold our freedom lightly would be ungrateful on our part, so we celebrate it humbly when we have the chance.
Our favorite distinctly American holiday is Thanksgiving. Given the circumstances of its first celebration it's a little ironic that it's a federal holiday, but we aren't complaining. You can read more about it in our Thanksgiving category. We also like Independence Day because Civil War reenactments are fun and fireworks are super rad, but we've given it the full treatment elsewhere.
Many of the other holidays observed by our federal government are less well known or universally celebrated. (We aren't talking about Christmas or New Year; those aren't distinctly American.) Who even knew Columbus Day was a holiday? Well, if you work at the post office or a bank you probably knew, but most of us are quite unaware.
Which is kind of a shame. While we wouldn't support Martin Luther King, Jr.'s theology, celebrating his birthday isn't a celebration of him so much as a memorial to the Civil Rights movement and the struggle of the black community to achieve equal rights and standing as citizens. Insofar as his efforts were a rallying point for many, the holiday bears his name.
Celebrating the birthdays of Columbus and George Washington is almost a no-brainer: without Christopher we wouldn't even be here, and without ol' Georgie we wouldn't be ruled by a president. Those may be broad strokes to paint in, but few nations in the world owe so much to two distinct individuals for their existence.
Of course, millions of others have helped build this land. Memorial Day remembers those Americans who've died in war, while Veterans Day honors everyone who's served in the armed forces; Labor Day is a tip of the hat to the workers of America, the solid constituency that built Chicago, ranched Colorado, and found gold in the middle of Alaska.
There aren't a lot of specifically American traditions. We like to rally around the ones we do have to promote cameraderie and peace, and these holidays provide just that opportunity. If you aren't into celebrating state-sponsored festivals, that's fine. But the fact that you can have that opinion and still enjoy your freedom says a lot for our country, and we're willing to show our gratitude a few times a year.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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