The politics of holidays

Some days are sacred to individuals, couples, families, nations, and religious communities.  We call them holidays.  On such days, people pause to summon memory, and to bask in the mixed sentiments it evokes.  They may be sentiments from a deprived or happy childhood, a shared life, a heroic and difficult struggle, or a recurring promise of redemption and renewal.  Most holidays fall on fixed dates in the calendar – like birthdays, death anniversaries, wedding anniversaries, Independence Day, and Christmas Day.  Others follow the cosmic rhythm of the seasons – like the holy days of Lent in the lengthening days of spring.

By their nature, holidays are never convenient; they are precisely meant to interrupt the routine carved by work in our daily lives.  They are necessary pauses, memory markers creating space for special reflection — distinct from the normal weekend or the long holiday breaks we take in order to rest.

And so it baffles me no end that our political leaders have felt it necessary to “rationalize” our national holidays.  Unknown to many of us, the 13th Congress, while setting aside bills of greater urgency (like the bill on cheap medicines), managed to pass early this year “An Act Rationalizing the Celebration of National Holidays.”  This bill, now awaiting the President’s final signature, would make national holidays like Independence Day (June 12), Labor Day (May 1), Rizal Day (Dec. 30), and Bonifacio Day (Nov. 30) movable.  They will henceforth be observed on the Monday closest to their original date. The idea is to make such celebrations an extension of the weekend.

The word “rationalization” has been so overused by this government that one no longer knows what is exactly meant by it.  What does it mean to rationalize remembrance, for instance? In its usual sense, rationalization refers to the selection of the most efficient means to achieve a certain goal.  If commemoration is the goal, how does annexing a national holiday to a weekend significantly enhance its remembrance?

But, if the idea is to realign national holidays in such a way as to produce long weekends suitable for vacation and shopping, one has to ask why this should be called rationalization and not commercialization.

It is possible that this bright idea was copied from the United States. The absorption of national holidays into 3-day weekends has been the practice in the US since “The Uniform Monday Holiday Act” took effect in 1971.  But, it is interesting to note that this law applies only to four national holidays, namely: Washington’s Birthday, Columbus Day, Labor Day, and Memorial Day.  The US Congress left Independence Day untouched, sensibly avoiding the absurdity of celebrating 4th of July on any other day but July 4th.

Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 22) has evolved into Presidents Day, which recalls the contributions not only of Washington but also of Lincoln (born Feb. 12) and other American presidents.  In this expanded meaning, it is no longer important to commemorate this day on Washington’s actual birthday.

Columbus Day, on the other hand, holds a mixed significance for many Americans.  The movable date in which Columbus Day is now remembered roughly corresponds to the shifting public opinion on this

European voyager.  The dominant view still favors the celebration of Columbus’ arrival in the New World (Oct. 12), but there is considerable sentiment among Americans that the decimation of the native population that followed in the wake of Columbus’ entry into America can never be a source of pride.  Indeed, even Latin America is divided on the significance of this event.  While Argentina, Chile, and Mexico celebrate Oct. 12 as “Dia de la raza” (Day of the race), the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela marks it as “Dia de la Resistencia indigena” (Day of indigenous resistance).  It is not farfetched to imagine that, one of these days, Columbus Day will be taken out of the list of US holidays.

Labor Day in the US, is, of course, not the same as May Day elsewhere in the world.  It has always been set on the first Monday of September, instead of May 1st, a sacred day for the world’s working class.  On the other hand, Memorial Day, moved from May 30 to the last Monday in May, honors those who died in military service for the United States.  It is more or less the equivalent of our Bataan Day, although in the US, there is a separate Veterans Day, which is explicitly devoted to honoring US veterans of past wars.  Originally celebrated on Nov. 11th, this day was moved to the second Monday in November by law.  But the veterans felt slighted and demanded the return of the original date. They argued that number 11 meant something special: the Armistice marking the end of the 1st World War was signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  They got their way.

What insight might we draw from this short review? Only this, I think: That some national holidays lose their inspirational and instructional value when the original dates of their remembrance are sacrificed to give way to long weekends.  This is true of June 12th (Independence Day), May 1st (Labor Day), Dec. 30 (Rizal Day), and Nov. 30 (Bonifacio Day).  In the secular calendar of Filipino nationhood, these dates are as important as New Year’s Day and Christmas Day. There is good reason to shield them from the “rationalizing” hands of politicians and merchants.

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