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Yesterday morning, while I was still sleeping, a motley parade wound down Main Street in my hometown. The high school marching band, competition-honed, demarcated the route with a syncopated rolling step; Boy Scouts, American flags braced in brackets at their belts, marched raggedly; Brownies walked four abreast at such an uneven pace that the banner they carried looked wavy, as though at the bottom of a shallow pool. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, waving little flags, rumbled down Main Street in a convertible not yet old enough to be antique, followed at a distance by a knot of grizzled Veterans for Peace.
My hometown’s Veterans’ Day parade is a poignant affair, like a Norman Rockwell painting without quite enough people to fill the frame. It is sparsely attended—my coastal town’s population shrinks drastically in the off-season—and as the high school band director eschews John Philip Sousa unfestive music in minor keys ricochets between the shuttered storefronts. There seem to be fewer veterans every year. Their absence is poorly disguised by the addition of more boy scouts. Bystanders shift from foot to foot, filling the gaps between cub scout dens with small talk—“Isn’t it warm for November?”—“Oh, look, there’s Timmy now”—and overenthusiastic applause. When the parade trickles to a stop everyone leaves reluctantly. It doesn’t seem, somehow, that we’ve done enough to celebrate veterans. The parade is brief; after it, Veterans’ Day lies all before us, free of school and work.
The problem isn’t unique to my hometown. Veterans’ Day has suffered from an identity problem for the better part of a century, according to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (VA) unattractive website. The federal government first recognized Veterans’ Day in 1926, with the intention (in the words of the concurrent resolution) “that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” In 1938, Nov. 11 became a federal holiday, Armistice Day; in 1954, the holiday was renamed Veterans’ Day. Of all the federally-recognized holidays, Veterans’ Day is the most eligible for a VH1-style biographical docudrama: in the not quite 30 years since its creation, Veterans’ Day had suffered through three different incarnations, and its problems aren’t over yet.
Instead, the Uniforms Holiday Bill of 1968, which created four long weekends by moving the celebration Veterans’ Day and three other national holidays to Mondays, intensified Veterans’ Day’s image problem. The change was met by widespread opposition, and in 1975 the holiday was moved back to Nov. 11. The VA applauded the move, since “the restoration of the observance of Veterans’ Day to Nov. 11 not only preserves the historical significance of the date, but helps focus attention on the important purpose of Veterans’ Day: a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
As any student of VH1 biographical docudramas could have predicted, the comeback failed; Veterans’ Day’s star had already fallen. It was too late to refocus attention on the original purpose of Veterans’ Day. Like Columbus Day or Washington’s Birthday—two of the other holidays the Uniform Holidays Bill shifted to Mondays—Veterans’ Day had become disassociated from its namesake, and had irrevocably become associated instead with brief vacations and department store sales. This is why my hometown’s parade feels insufficient: it is too modest a recognition of veterans on the day that bears their name, too brief an interval before we rush to the mall to take advantage of holiday sales.
Fortunately, VH1 biographical docudramas provide a solution to Veterans’ Day’s faltering career. Like an aging starlet, Veterans’ Day will do best to retire. I do not suggest doing away with Veterans’ Day altogether, and I certainly don’t suggest abandoning long weekends. But we would do well to adopt the British custom of observing Veterans’ Day with quiet dignity on the nearest Sunday to Nov. 11. (You sense, reading the VA website’s rhapsodic description of British observations of the day, that the VA thinks this would be a good idea, too.) And in lieu of those Monday holidays the Uniform Holidays Bill created, we might adopt the British custom of bank holidays—those Mondays free from work and school for purely commercial reasons. The benefits would be enormous: our long weekends would be free from nagging guilt, and our observation of Veterans’ Day (and Presidents’ Day and Columbus Day) untainted by our delight in a day off from work. I relished sleeping in yesterday, but I would have relished it more if I hadn’t known that in my hometown there was a parade I ought to be attending.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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