Again this year, "Presidents' Day" took me by surprise. I was vaguely aware that Lincoln's birthday on February 12 had passed without much recognition.
Then as what used to be singularly and particularly and personally George Washington's birthday approached, I noted the announcements of "Presidents' Day Sales. These were not only the traditional "white sales" which had been associated with George and Martha, who seemed to be heavy into sheets and pillowcases (possibly, if we accept some doubtful historical data, because of George's disposition to sleep in so many places), but of sales of all kinds of things -- especially of automobiles.
Armistice Day, I knew, had already been made non-historic and renamed "Veterans' Day." I disapproved of that change, being of the opinion that the end of World War I deserved a day on the annual calendar just as I think VE Day and VJ Day also do. Memorial Day easily could have been expanded in scope to include all veterans -- the dead, the living and those missing in action. Consolidations of these kinds were probably inevitable, certainly threatened, once the moving of days from their fixed and proper historical date -- if such dates occurred in midweek to Monday or Friday so as to lengthen the weekend for either commercial or leisure purposes, was accepted.
They may have been foreshadowed even earlier and in a more subtle way with the introduction of homogenized food products. One of the first such products was homogenized milk. Its cream content did not show in the neck of the bottle and could not be poured off for special use, but was reduced to being reported as a percent of butterfat not evident to the human eye.
Homogenized peanut butter followed. One jar of pre-homogenized peanut butter provided at least three taste experiences. The first followed immediately after the jar was opened. At the top of the jar was a layer of oil to be mixed into the more solid contents. The mixing usually fell short of being thorough, and the peanut butter in those early days of use was somewhat oily. In the second stage, the peanut butter tasted much more like modern homogenized peanut butter, but in the last stages of use, what was left in the jar took on a special character -- dry and crunchy, somewhat like peanut butter bars or cookies.
If the reductionists, the homogenizers, the consolidators and promoters continue to have their way, more and more holidays and days of special observation and note may be changed. Mother's Day, now singular and personal, may be generalized to take in all mothers, including Ma Barker and Mother Jones. Columbus Day could lose its historical singularity, and be renamed "Discoverers' Day," so as to include St. Brendan and the Vikings, and any others who may have passed by.
Pearl Harbor Day could be re-christened as "Ship Attack Day," thus encompassing "Remembering the Maine," the Lusitania, and possibly even the Tonkin Gulf "Incident," the Pueblo and the Stark. Christmas could become simply "The Holiday," and everyone's birthday celebrated together on "All Birthdays' Day," say January 1, the day on which all thoroughbred race horses are presumed, for some purpose, to have been born.
Consolidations may have been foreshadowed by some religious practices. The more liturgical churches have long celebrated "All Saints Day," a catch-up observation designed to pick up those saints who had not been identified or canonized, and to pay attention to those recognized but who might not have received enough attention or honor. In a somewhat circumspect and careful action, the Catholic Church dedicates another day not to "All Popes" but to "All Holy Popes." "Good Presidents' Day" might better be the secular form.
Eugene J. McCarthy was a teacher and congressman before he became a Democratic-Farmer-Labor senator from Minnesota from 1959 through 1970. His latest book is No Fault Politics: Modern Presidents, The Press and Reformers (Times Books 1998).