I was leaving the post office today and noticed a sign indicating holidays when the post office is closed. I laughed out loud when I saw Columbus Day is still a holiday. I have not thought of Columbus Day in years. As a child I remember talking about it in school but I do not remember having the day off or even that it was a national holiday. I remember celebrating Veteran’s Day, and hearing my fifth grade teacher describe how it had once been Armistice Day, celebrating the end of WWI. Mrs. Brugger said that at 11:11am, they would stand and face east for one minute. As a young boy who was always immersed in American History, I thought this was a cool thing.

But Columbus Day?

Why is Columbus Day a federal holiday? Is there not something else to be celebrated? Is it because we need a holiday sandwiched in between Labor Day and Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is often associated with the Pilgrims and Native Americans (formerly known as Indians in my youth). As a junior Lincoln scholar, I always cringed when the teachers would make us draw Pilgrims (an early form of Gothic costuming!) or worse, yet, make Pilgrim hats! The girls would fashion those dreadful little white caps with flaps, and we guys would make the black hats with buckles. In third grade (1973), Mrs. Vance, the long worn out art teacher who had tutored da Vinci, had us make our Pilgrim gear for the Thanksgiving celebration. Instead of the Pilgrim hat, I produced a stove pipe hat and black beard to represent President Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Vance was livid and without listening to my story, insisted that I had not listened to the assignment and sent me to the coat hall (Washington School was a beautiful 1894 building with marble floors, a staircase that rivaled Twelve Oaks, and tons of wood carvings). Mrs. Hennegan, my third grade teacher, a darling lady, saw me in the coat hall and asked why I was there. I explained to her that the Pilgrims celebrated their big dinner in August or September and that it was President Lincoln who established Thanksgiving as a national holiday – not the Pilgrims. Mrs. Hennegan asked where I got my information. Well, by third grade I had read Carl Sandburg’s 1400 page book several times. She pondered my information for a moment and took me back to the classroom.

“Class, can you please stop what you are doing for a minute.” And looking over at Mrs. Vance with what I envisioned as disapproval, “Darin is going to tell us the real story about how Thanksgiving became a holiday. It was not like I had imagined all these years.” Mrs. Hennegan placed my Lincoln construction paper stovepipe on my head and stepped back.

The story… President Lincoln, though never a member of any church, was a very devout man. February 20, 1862, his (favorite) son, thirteen year old William Wallace Lincoln, known to everyone as “Willie,” died from a typhoid/malarial fever. Though we tend to hear how ‘crazy’ Mrs. Lincoln behaved, we seldom understand just how devastated Lincoln was. Several weeks after the funeral, Lincoln was driven to the Congressional Cemetery where Willie’s coffin was temporarily entombed in the Carroll mausoleum until a time it could be removed to Spingfield to be buried by the brother he never knew, Eddie. Lincoln had the sarcophagus cover removed and the coffin opened in order to look upon his dead son’s face (yes, Willie had been embalmed in what is now called the Green Room). President Lincoln repeated the tragic death to anyone who would listen, and kept himself closed up in his room for days. Since Willie died on a Thursday, Lincoln retreated to his bedroom every Thursday, refusing to see anyone. In 1863, Lincoln, still mourning his beloved son, requested the last Thursday of every month be celebrated – not as a day of mourning for all the young soldiers who were killed – but as a day of Thanksgiving. In 1864, the last Thursday of November was proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving (following several major Civil War victories) and has remained a national holiday since.

When I was in school we celebrated the birthdays of Lincoln and Washington. They were big deals! We did not have a President’s Day, yet, but I was in my element every February 12th. My grade school teachers (Mrs. Hennegan, Mrs. Lane, and Mrs. Brugger) always made a big deal of Lincoln’s birthday just for me.

I think it is marvelous that we celebrate a day to honor those who have served our nation in the highest office. What has always bothered me is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I have never thought him the ultimate hero of civil rights, as there were so many before him who fought, worked, and died for civil rights. MLK was merely the last voice prior to President Johnson signing the amendment. To me, I believe it should be referred to as Civil Rights Day, a day to celebrate all those who fought throughout the years to win this battle. Why does Martin Luther King, Jr. get his own day? I mean, Jesus Christ must share his own birthday with Santa Claus, Frosty, and retail!

If we must celebrate MKL Day, why don’t we set aside days to also celebrate Women’s Rights Day, Gay Rights Day, or anything else that should be “righted.” I am not a big fan of any one particular minority receiving special attention and I often wonder why we cannot have a Human Rights Day – a day to celebrate a nation that truly believes in the rights of each citizen.

I guess, for the first time, I have used my blog as my soap box… I am sure my opinions will offend some, but that is fine. This is actually pretty mild compared to some of my stronger beliefs…

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