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November 11, 2009

Armistice Day and A Theory of Holidays (Commercial, Political, and Religious)

Clarifying Veteran's Day vs Memorial Day

Veteran's Day and Memorial Day have become conflated, merged to the point where their differences are lost.

Memorial Day commemorates our war dead, even though for most citizens consumers it's mostly about the beginning of summer, parades, and sales at Sears. This is what Memorial Day should be about:

Veteran's Day celebrates our survivors of military service. Originally called Armistice Day, the holiday was created to celebrate the end of hostilities in WW1, The Great War, the War to End All Wars. Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. From Wikipedia:
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed an Armistice Day for November 11, 1919. A 1938 Act made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday; "a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as 'Armistice Day'."
This is what Armistice Day was once about:

This is a 1982 photo of WW1 vet Joseph Ambrose. The flag he's holding to his chest is the one that draped his son's casket after he was killed in Korea.

This is what today's holiday is too often about:

This holiday started off celebrating the end of World War 1 (trench warfare, machine guns, and mustard gas), just as in the 1940s we celebrated V-E and V-J day.

If I may be contrarian: as the memory and significance of the Armistice dimmed, politicians and marketers saw fit to repurpose the holiday to their own needs; it was not an act of political courage to be pro-Veteran in 1954.
In 1953, an Emporia, Kansas businessman had the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans. The Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Education supported closing to honor veterans. Emporia's Rep. Ed Rees moved a bill for the holiday through Congress. President Eisenhower signed it into law on May 26, 1954. Congress amended this act on November 8, 1954, replacing "Armistice" with "Veterans", and it has been known as Veterans Day since.

Vannevar's Theory of Holidays

I'd like to suggest my Theory of Holidays (TOH). I believe there's a sort of utilitarian Holiday Darwinism - in a complicated world, with multiple voices clamoring for attention, Holidays survive over time only if they are supported, and we can categorize them by their support. How do we categorize holidays?
  • If Hallmark sells cards, or if stores advertise sales it's Commercial. (New Years, Washington’s Birthday, Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas.)
  • If there are parades, it's Political. (Martin Luther King Day, St. Patrick's Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, 9-11, Columbus Day, Veteran's Day.)
  • If there are no sales, no parades, but church services, it's Religious. (Easter, Yom Kippur.)
The relative distribution of these events (Commercial 7, Political 7, Religious 2) is probably significant.

Value of a Theory

Like any good theory, its value comes in two parts: (1) does it explain what you observe, and (2) does it help predict the future? As Karl Popper teaches, (3) you can't prove a theory, you can only falsify (that is, disprove) it.

We Love A Parade

Parades are opportunities for politicians to posture and generate press coverage (free advertising); show me a parade that doesn't have politicians in the photo op. Kids get a day off school, Macy's has a big Foundations sale, and military recruiters staff the parades because they need next year's youngsters to meet their quotas.

This is what Veteran's Day should be about:


Anonymous said...

Well... What if there are parades and there are sales? Commercial or Political? St. Patrick's day - Hallmark sells cards. Fourth of July, Columbus day, Labor day, and Veteran's day (thus the basis of your post) all have sales. 9-11 ( or patriots day) is not really a 'national holiday', otherwise, there would be no school for my kid. Anywho, good post.

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