Monuments and Holidays

It is time to rethink what we celebrate and why.

Posted Nov 02, 2017

The debate of Civil War monuments venerating Confederates has slipped into a larger discussion. New York has created a committee to consider civic sculpture in the city and make recommendations about what to keep and what to replace.

Does Columbus Circle go and Columbia University change its name? What about Lee St. in Brooklyn? How about honored civic leaders who also benefited, directly and indirectly, from the slave trade? Or yesterday’s robber barons whose endowments no one doubts have been put to good use? Get rid of references to Peter Stuyvesant, the anti-Semite? Woodrow Wilson, the racist? An argument can be made that even Abraham Lincoln harbored views of blacks that are cringe-worthy.

How should we view yesterday’s heroes? Do we judge them in context or should we apply today’s standards? The issue isn’t easy to solve, as it raises fundamental questions about the nature of history, identity and patriotism.

The discussion is an important one to have. And I would like to extend it into another realm—our national holidays. My thought is that holidays shouldn’t mark the achievements of individuals, no matter how noble, but rather mark events which we can look to as inspiration and instruction. In this way of thinking, we no longer celebrate Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Day or Columbus Day. But we would add Freedom Day (marking the end of slavery, and Suffrage Day, celebrating the right of women to vote. Columbus Day would be renamed New World Day, to acknowledge the momentous event of bringing the Old and New World together.

New Year, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas would remain. The last two are compromises, of a sort. When Thanksgiving Day is understood as the day that Native Americans saved the lives of the new settlers, it is about opening one’s door to strangers and therefore an immigrant story.

Christmas is a religious holiday, of course. But it has been so widely acknowledged that even non-Christians can celebrate with the traditional values of gift-giving and open-heartedness.

It is time to rethink what we celebrate and why. This is only the beginning of the discussion.