TT: Commemorates What, Exactly?

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one to learn not only what a tishien is but how thrilling it is to see words turned into pictures.  Then come back for a return to a former theme.  Several month ago, Alan and I were discussing holidays.  In honor (and even “honour”) of the coming of  Armistice Day, we decided to return to that theme this week.

JANE: Alan, back when we were discussing holidays, you mentioned that your mom’s birthday was also Armistice Day.  We don’t have a holiday by that name.   How did sharing with a holiday effect your mom’s celebration?  Did she get anything chocolate out of it?  Little foil wrapped tanks or something?

WW II Memorial: Washington, D.C.

ALAN: That would have been a very appropriate gift. What a shame I never thought of it at the time.

When I was a little boy I was always really impressed that on my mother’s birthday everybody in the country wore a poppy to celebrate it, and the Queen laid a wreath at the Cenotaph. The wreath laying ceremony was always broadcast on the TV news.  This just confirmed what I already knew  – my mum was a really important and influential person. It was only later in life that I came to realize that it wasn’t all for my mum. Some of it was to remember and commemorate the soldiers who died in WWI, and also, of course, in later conflicts as well.

But I never quite lost the conviction that most of it was for my mum.

JANE: Oh!  I think we do have that holiday but, like too many holidays created to celebrate specific events, it has become generic.  Here, Armistice Day is now Veteran’s Day.  It is still anchored to November 11th, but except for kids and a few government workers getting a holiday, no one pays much attention.

ALAN: Just like you, we use the ceremony to commemorate the dead of far too many wars. So for that reason, we often now refer to it as Remembrance Day rather than Armistice Day. But the older name is still used.

Strangely, we don’t get a holiday for it. I would have thought that it would be an ideal choice for a public holiday. But what do I know?

JANE: I must admit, I have a rant on that’s related to this.

ALAN: Kindly rant.

JANE: Too many days of commemoration have become generic and therefore lost any meaning at all.   Here in the U.S., we used to have Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday.   Now we have President’s Day.   Since just about everyone has a gripe about some president or other, the day is not really a celebration.

We used to have Decoration Day (which originated after  our Civil War).   Now we have Memorial Day and no one remembers what we’re remembering.

I’m still not sure what Labor Day is about.  Since it falls at the end of summer, when I was a kid, I thought it was “Labor” day because we were going back to our labors in the classroom.

I think I’d prefer for old commemorations to remain as they were, rather than becoming so diluted that they lose all meaning.  At least we’d get a history lesson that way.

ALAN: Well said – I couldn’t agree more. But sometimes circumstances force us into behaviours that quickly become entrenched in custom. A good example is a very strange holiday that only happens in the North of England. It’s called Wakes Week and, as the name implies, it lasts for a week. Except when it lasts for a fortnight. This is England we’re talking about and the last thing you’ll find there is logic.

Wake’s Week takes place at the height of summer in the Northern counties which were once the industrial heart of England. Every year the mills and the factories would close down so that the machinery could be serviced and refurbished. So that was the time when  all the workers took their annual summer holiday.

JANE: Why is it called Wakes Week?

ALAN: Why not? Not a very satisfactory answer to your question I agree, but it’s the only honest one. I have no idea of the derivation and neither, it seems, does anyone else.

Traditionally, during Wakes Week, everyone would go to the seaside; usually (in our case at least) to Scarborough or Morecambe – pronounced SCAR-bru (short ‘u’, sort of a grunt) and MORE-cum respectively. We’d roll our trousers up and paddle in the sea.  We’d tie a knotted handkerchief around our head to protect ourselves from the sunshine. Yes – I *know* that’s a cliche and you’ve seen it parodied a million times on TV shows like Monty Python, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. I’ve seen both my father and grandfather do it, and believe me they were not alone.

JANE: Did you do it too?

ALAN: I’ve certainly done the knotted handkerchief but, at the time of which we speak I was still a small boy in short trousers, so I didn’t have anything to roll up. It saved a lot of time…

JANE: Ah, yes.  I remember the days of my youth when I’d go swimming in whatever I was wearing at the time – usually shorts and a tee-shirt. That stopped when I started having what people go to wet tee-shirt contests to view.

Now that I think of it, didn’t you mention an interesting New Zealand holiday a few weeks back…  It began with Wai…

ALAN:  Ah, yes! Waitangi Day. On 6th February 1840, a treaty was signed between the Maori tribes and the white settlers. Effectively it brought New Zealand under the rule of the British Crown and guaranteed the Maori rights to their land, and the rights of  British subjects. The treaty was signed in a town called Waitangi (hence the name of both the treaty and the holiday). We regard the treaty in much the same way that you regard the Declaration of Independence; it’s the founding document of our nation and we celebrate it with a holiday every year.

JANE: How do the Maori feel about it?  As I mentioned a while back, some of the Native Americans view Thanksgiving with less than thankfulness.

ALAN: Waitangi Day is not without its controversial aspects but nevertheless the Treaty of Waitangi has given Maori a status that few, if any, other indigenous people have managed to achieve in other colonial outposts. The treaty has not been well implemented and there have certainly been abuses, but nevertheless it puts Maori in a very strong position. For all its flaws, I still think its heart was in the right place.

And Waitangi Day is a commemoration which most certainly has not become generic. Its significance is still strongly appreciated so it is perhaps a counter example to your rant. It’s nice to know that there are exceptions, don’t you think?

JANE: Absolutely.  Makes me happy, actually.  Now, you thought you were going to escape from answering questions about British titles, but I’ve thought of a new one!

7 Responses to “TT: Commemorates What, Exactly?”

  1. Sally Says:

    Decoration Day still exists, primarily in the South–or rather, a number of them do, taking place mostly in the spring and early summer. The Decoration Day which became Memorial Day was just the national version of a tradition which definitely predates the Civil War, that of a set day (usually a Sunday) for decorating graves in particular graveyards. It’s a family and community holiday.

    Which is not to say you don’t have a valid point on the national scale. The symbolic significance of a number of holidays was sacrificed to make neat 3-day weekends. Not that I object to 3-day weekends!

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Labor Day, as I understand it, celebrates the contributions of American labor, and it became a federal holiday in 1894.

    What’s interesting to me is that Memorial Day and Labor Day are now important, not because of what they celebrate, but because they bracket the beginning and end of summer in the US.

    Actually, if I may gently rant, the pagan part of me is greatly amused by which holidays get celebrated and which do not. Think about the celebrations of the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days (May 1, August 1, October 31 and February 1), we have:

    –Feb 2: Imbolc. Actually, this one gets scooped up in a variety of containers, from Groundhog day (on that date) to Valentines day (Roses in February? Only Hallmark could think of that) to the Presidents’ birthdays.
    –March 21: Spring equinox. Combine St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, and you’ve got it covered pretty well.
    –May 1: Beltain. Proms. Oh yeah, there’s that May Day thing too, but communists and maypoles make a bad pairing.
    –June 21: Summer solstice. Actually, Americans celebrate this on July 4th.
    –August 1: Lughnasa. State fairs. I find it amusing that the month most Americans take off is the only one with no official holidays in it.
    –September 21: Fall Equinox. Actually, we wait until Thanksgiving in November to celebrate the harvest. Shows we pay more attention to the fields than to the sky.
    –October 31: Samhain. Halloween!
    –December 21: Winter Solstice. This is America’s big problem IMHO. We’ve got this holiday grease fest stretching from Thanksgiving through New Years, all to celebrate the end of the year. Unless there are students around, in which case it’s finals season. Oh, and we’ve got the end of the calendar year silliness. Whatever. We’ve badly over-cluttered the winter solstice.

    It seems that Americans are trying to recreate a seasonal ritual calendar, and festivals that don’t fall close to those solar dates or real events tend to go away.

    We even improve on the solar calendar. Witness Memorial Day (the start of functional summer), Labor Day (the end of functional summer) and Thanksgiving (the end of the major harvests). They don’t fall where pagan theory or astronomy would have them, but they certainly belong where they are.

    The deep irony is that the business cycle is also infesting our calendars, contaminating the spring equinox with tax preparation, the summer solstice with end of the fiscal year paperwork, and the winter solstice with end-of-the-year paperwork. Add in elections on the fall equinox and the whole pagan calendar has been coopted. We do like to stress ourselves, don’t we?

  3. Peter Says:

    The US version of Labor Day (not to be confused with the Labour Day celebrated almost everywhere else in the world – Canada is an exception) was signed into law in the 1890s to “celebrate the social and economic contributions of workers” or some such. The date was explicitly chosen to be as far away from Labour Day (May 1) as possible (the irony here being that the events Labour Day commemorates happened in the US, which is one of the few countries not to recognize it). If I remember the timing right, counter-Labor Day was already a holiday in some states, but became a federal holiday shortly after the Pullman Strike massacre.

    • Sally Says:

      So it isn’t really surprising if most of us Americans don’t know what Labor Day is about. History from the workers’ point of view is not generally taught in schools.

      [Wanders off muttering “Damned corporatist oligarchs…”]

  4. Deborah N Says:

    Labor Day: Celebriate the gains the unions have made in workers rights and safety. Veteran’s Day: I was really caught off guard when by son asked me what Veteran’s Day was. I had never thought of him not knowing. My dad was in the Navy for 20 years. He was a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam. My father-in-law had been a veteran of WWI. The grandpa he knew on his father’s side was a veteran of WWII.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    You all are rather wonderful! I really like these expansions and I’m sure Alan will appreciate them, too.

  6. Alan Robson Says:

    Thanks everybody. Down here in NZ we’ve just blown up parliament in effigy again and we are about to remember the soldiers who died in our wars.

    Happy Something-Or-Other day to all of you.


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