Image: Presidents Day Sale announcement. Art by vectorshots.
Today is President’s Day in the United States. The holiday came into being in 1968, when President Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 into being. Before that, we celebrated President Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and President Washington’s birthday on February 22.
According to President Johnson:
This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.– Statement by the President Upon Signing the Uniform Holiday Bill, June 28, 1968.
Moving holidays to Monday meant that instead of holidays that broke up the work week, we had long weekends for President’s Day, for Veteran’s Day, and for Memorial Day.
I was once engaged as a High Holy Day leader by a congregation that wanted to move Rosh Hashanah to a Friday night, to make it less disruptive of their work week. They were upset with me when I refused to accommodate their wishes. The principle is firm: we don’t move the High Holy Days for our convenience, because they are more important than our convenience. Even when the 9/11 attacks fell during the Days of Awe, we did not put off Yom Kippur until an easier time. In fact for many of us, the Yom Kippur services marked a key step in mourning the attacks and coming to terms with the fact that our world had changed forever.
Sometimes things in the Jewish calendar do move, but usually that has to do with a conflict with other calendar items. For instance, this year we have two months of Adar. We do that so that Passover and next Rosh Hashanah will stay in their proper seasons. If we did not adjust, then our lunar calendar would send the spring and fall holy days spiraling around the year.
For very small congregations served by student rabbis or rabbis on a once-a-month schedule, it can be very difficult to keep holy days in their proper place. Still, most small congregations I know keep the major holidays faithfully and do the best they can with the minor ones.
I don’t know how Presidents Washington and Lincoln would have felt about us combining their birthdays into one holiday. Likely they would have agreed with President Johnson that it would be better for business. However, I notice that it has taken the emphasis off of the men themselves and made it more of a “holiday weekend” for vacations and sales. The same is true, maybe more so, for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, both of which originally marked solemn days in our country’s history. Those days have largely lost their significance as days of solemnity and gratitude unless your family has members who have been in the military.
With that in mind, I don’t see myself accepting any requests to celebrate Jewish holy days at more convenient times. The holy days’ very inconvenience is part of our experience, reminding us that yes, indeed, some things are more important than work, or even play.