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A holiday by any other name: from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to Columbus Day

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Two years ago New Hampshire recognized Juneteenth in state law. This year June 19 falls on a Saturday, which means many of us will have the day off to celebrate. Any other year, though, public schools and state offices would still be open. That’s because Juneteenth is not an official state holiday – and if it was, history suggests there would have been a lot more debate about whether to recognize it.

Not all holidays are created equal

There are a few different ways to declare a holiday.

The federal government of the United States designates ten official holidays:

  1. New Year’s Day (January 1)
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (third Monday in January)
  3. Washington’s Birthday (floating Monday in February, commonly known as President’s Day)
  4. Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
  5. Independence Day (July 4)
  6. Labor Day (first Monday in September)
  7. Columbus Day (second Monday in October)
  8. Veterans Day (November 11)
  9. Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November)
  10. Christmas Day (December 25)

Update 6/17/21: The federal government now also recognizes Juneteenth (June 19) as an official holiday.  As explained below, this holiday is still not an official day off in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire state law recognizes the same ten holidays, plus Election Day. Public schools and state offices close for these days. State law does not require employers to recognize these holidays, although many do.

The governor can also proclaim special celebration days or “observances,” with or without the direction of the Legislature. These less formal holidays are not a day off for state employees—or usually anyone. Instead, the proclamations “urge” the public to remember and observe.

There are over two dozen of these observances, found in Chapter 4 of New Hampshire’s state laws.  For example, RSA 4:13-s proclaims March 13th as Canine Veterans Day. RSA 4:13-z proclaims the second Saturday in June as Pollyanna of Littleton New Hampshire Recognition Day.

In 2019 the Legislature added Juneteenth to the list, through RSA 4:13-aa. This holiday commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement of freedom from slavery in Texas. Juneteenth celebrations date back to African American communities in Texas in the 1800s. Texas was also the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980.

Official holi-debates

When it comes to proclaiming observances, there is usually little resistance from New Hampshire lawmakers. For example, the bill to recognize Juneteenth passed unanimously in the state Senate and passed on a voice vote in the House (meaning the “yeas” were overwhelmingly louder than the “nays”). When it comes to changing the official list of state holidays, however, debate has been heated and sometimes prejudiced.

New Hampshire legislators only agreed to acknowledge Civil Rights Day in 1991 if it replaced a different holiday: Fast Day. According to the New Hampshire Almanac, it was “...not the intent of the General create an additional paid holiday for state employees.” (If you’ve never heard of Fast Day, be glad; it was a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer to curry favor from God before the spring planting.)

Then there was a battle to change the name from “Civil Rights Day” to “Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Day.” Legislators debated the issue every year in the 1990s. Opponents argued that New Hampshire should celebrate all Civil Rights leaders and/or that Martin Luther King, Jr. was un-American. Supporters pointed out that New Hampshire was the only state in the nation that refused to name the day after Martin Luther King, Jr., even while other holidays celebrated white men by name (notably Columbus Day and Washington’s Birthday). A Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate finally agreed to add Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name to the holiday in 1999.

In recent years holiday debates have turned to whether New Hampshire should celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day.

Columbus Day v. Indigenous People’s Day

The idea of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day in New Hampshire can be traced to 1992, the 500th anniversary of the first voyages of Christopher Columbus. That year the New Hampshire House and Senate both voted on a resolution to proclaim October 12, 1992 as Native American Day. The resolution passed the Senate but was voted down in the House.

The resolution noted how the arrival of Christopher Columbus led to the “nearly total genocide and annihilation of the indigenous population.” The resolution also noted the contributions of the Abenaki, Pennacook, Sakoki, Pigwacket, and Micmac nations in New Hampshire.

In recent years legislators have resurrected these arguments and introduced bills in 2018, 2019, and 2021 to rename Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day in New Hampshire. None of these bills passed, although other states, from South Dakota to Maine, have made the switch.

Some opponents argue that Columbus is still a historical figure worthy of veneration. Others argue that Columbus Day is an important part of Italian-American and immigrant culture. Columbus Day celebrations started in Italian and Catholic communities, and some of the earliest opponents of Columbus Day were anti-immigrant groups.

In 2021 members of a House committee tried to forge a compromise, adding an entirely new Indigenous People’s Day to the list of official state holidays, to be recognized August 9. That proposal died when the House failed to act on it before deadline.

The debate over Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day is likely to repeat over the coming legislative sessions.

More than a day off

There is something to be said for not marking every occasion with a day off from work. While Memorial Day is intended as a day to remember those who sacrificed their lives in service to their country, somber ceremonies are often overshadowed by summer barbecues. Washington’s Birthday seems to be a celebration of car and furniture sales.

Still, what we celebrate says just as much about us as what we condemn. Whether you support changing any of New Hampshire’s official state holidays or not, it is worth pausing on these days to reflect on their origins and what might be missing in our celebrations.

Click here to explore the latest legislative proposals related to state holidays and icons.


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