President’s Day and the Order of Time

Posted on February 16, 2020

From Dr. Chris Schlect:

Idaho is one of eight states that will recognize “President’s Day” next Monday. The origins of the holiday trace back to the time following the Civil War when Congress closed federal offices for a day to mark the anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Today, six states refer to the holiday officially as “Washington’s Birthday” and in Virginia, our first president’s birthplace, it is called “George Washington Day.”

The “President” in Idaho’s “President’s Day” (singular noun) is George Washington. But in eight states plus Puerto Rico, the holiday is “Presidents’ Day” (plural noun). Students should take note of these important apostrophes! The plural noun indicates a recognition of more than one president: sometimes to acknowledge Lincoln together with Washington; in other cases, to honor each and every president, as if to commemorate the US’s pioneering system of three branches of government. In our neighboring Montana, the holiday is “Lincoln’s and Washington’s Birthday;” Minnesota reverses the names, thus it is “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday.” Colorado and Ohio deem it “Washington-Lincoln Day,” with a hyphen, but Utah uses a conjunction: “Washington and Lincoln Day.”

The practice of designating holidays is a gloriously human thing, a practice that arises out of the very fabric of reality. Noteworthy in the creation account in Genesis is how time gets marked out: “the evening and a morning were the first day,” “the evening and the morning were the second day,” and so on. History’s first week dazzles us with the appearance of new sun, moon, stars, seas and dry land, plants and animals, man and woman. It should also dazzle us with the attention given to time. In creation, God gathered evenings and mornings into days. He grouped seven of those days a unit we call the week, and He set apart the seventh day and called it holy. Also in history’s original week, God showed us that time shall also be ordered in units lengthier than days and weeks, for on the fourth day He created lights in the firmament—the stars—for marking out seasons and years. 

We can no more ignore time than we can ignore the earth itself—the ground, the sea, plants and animals, or even the nose that God placed in the middle of your face. Time is ordered, and so calendars are every bit as basic to human experience as other aspects of creation—such as marriage, eating and drinking, labor and rest. Ordering time is inescapable.

Not only does it matter that we order time, it matters how we go about it. In Leviticus 23, we find God instructing His people to mark out various feasts throughout the year: Passover, Firstfruits, Pentecost (or Feast of Weeks, Trumpets, or Rosh HaShanah, Atonement (or Yom Kippur), Tabernacles, and then back to Passover. In Esther 9 we read that Mordecai established another feast called Purim. And in the intertestamental period, the Jews established the festival of dedication, or Hanukkah, when they rededicated the temple after the Greeks had defiled it. John informs us that Jesus participated in Hannukah (John 10:22-23)—an indication that Jesus observed a holiday that had not been explicitly ordained by God.

The names we assign to hours, days, weeks, seasons, and years, invariably reveals a good deal about our values and how we see reality. For instance, when we mark out birthdays and wedding anniversaries, we celebrate important truths about the created order. But when Julius Caesar named the fifth month in the Roman calendar after himself—when quintiles became July—he asserted a god-like preeminence over time. Augustus followed suit.

In the early years of the United States, people celebrated important occasions just as people always do. It was not until the late 1800s that it became common to declare annual, civic holidays through formal legislative action. This development signals a trend toward the sacralization of civic life in America, the notion that our most sacred ties are forged not within our church communities, but within our political communities. Social belonging means belonging not to the church, but to the state; and “my people” refers more to my fellow countrymen than to my fellow churchmen.

The British underwent a similar transformation in the Tudor and Stuart eras when centralized civic observances gradually supplanted localized religious festivals. The trend began during Elizabeth’s reign, when church bells rang annually to commemorate her coronation on November 17 (“Crownation Day”). Before long other national remembrances entered the calendar. Important examples include the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 (November 5; “Gunpowder Treason Day,” and later, “Guy Fawkes Day”), the return from Spain of unmarried Prince Charles in 1633, the execution of Charles I, the Restoration (the accession of Charles II, or “Royal Oak Day,” celebrated on May 29th), and other Stuart-era milestones. In each case, royal politics penetrated more deeply into local lifeways, and in the consciousness of many Englishmen, community affiliation centered less around local ties and adhered more closely to the crown.

As we honor President’s Day, we should note the significance of naming a figure like George Washington, a Virginian, as an official hero out in the far-western state of Idaho. By honoring this day, we should remember the late 1800s. Specifically, we should remember an era when our national political life gained an important foothold over our calendar, a political life that is more central and less local. 

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