Holidays and Public Celebrations
HOLIDAYS AND PUBLIC CELEBRATIONS
Guy Fawkes Day, King George III's crowning, the British evacuation of New York, the Battle of Yorktown: these were some of the most popular events commemorated in the colonies and the new nation. Celebrations of these events often involved whole communities and were marked by public sermons, toasts, and parades. Public commemorations of holidays served as a way to both express and inculcate a shared identity, first as British subjects and then as citizens of a new nation.
Prior to the Revolution, colonists celebrated a series of British events centered on the Crown. When word of George III's accession reached the colonies, colonists paraded in the streets and expressed with gusto their fealty to the monarch. These celebrations occurred throughout the colonies, binding colonists together as British subjects. They celebrated other traditional secular holidays that reaffirmed the colonists' British heritage, such as the monarch's birthday, the Restoration, and Guy Fawkes Day (called Pope's Day in Boston).
Although virtually all colonists shared in commemorating these events, celebrations were local. Philadelphians, for example, had little if any knowledge of what Bostonians were doing. Instead, they celebrated their heritage as members of a separate colony that was part of a broader Atlantic world directed toward London. The mustering of militias, followed by tavern-going and toasting, marked many of these secular celebrations. Guy Fawkes Day (5 November), the holiday commemorating the failed plot by a group of Catholic radicals to blow up Parliament and assassinate James I, became a holiday with both regional and class distinctiveness. The holiday was a particularly raucous event among mechanics and artisans in Boston and New York, whereas royal festivals in other regions were orchestrated by the elites and thus more subdued and standardized.
Celebrations of religious holidays were less formal and less public. The traditional Christian liturgical calendar was seldom observed outside the pages of almanacs; Christmas, in particular, was little celebrated except in German- and Dutch-speaking communities. Although colonists shared many secular holidays, local exigencies shaped religious celebrations. Churchgoing itself in the Northeast was a communal affair, with tightly knit towns congregating in a central parish to worship. In colonies with less centralization, particularly in the South, churchgoing was less frequent, serving as a special occasion for the community to gather and socialize. Congregational New England and Anglican Virginia practiced state-mandated fasts more often than the more pluralistic and expansive colonies like New York and Pennsylvania. Colonists fasted as a form of penance intended to influence God's will. In Pennsylvania during the Seven Years' War, for instance, casualties were attributed to the colonists' profligate ways, and the governor declared fasts to appease God. The fasts usually lasted for a day and restricted people from performing "servile labor"; instead, they were to devote a day to public prayers and sermons.
after the revolution
In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, citizens needed to create new holidays that would help cement a national bond. The Fourth of July was one of the most popular holidays, but citizens also celebrated other dates, now forgotten, with almost as much fanfare. Battles fought in distant colonies became the subject of parades and toasts. Newspapers throughout the country reported on these celebrations, helping to create a shared memory among widely scattered and previously unconnected people. As a new shared identity as American citizens took shape, the celebration of holidays reinforced the sense of collective nationhood and citizenship. Celebrating the battles also recast the Revolution, not as a bitter, divisive, bloody, and closely fought battle, but as a moment of national ascendancy and union.
As the nation became more partisan, especially following the debates about the Constitution's ratification in the late 1780s, celebrations of secular, civil holidays became politicized. Political parties realized that owning the commemoration of popular national events was a potent strategy for gaining power. Rather than the raucous, rebellious celebrations during Revolutionary days, the national culture began adopting more formal, prosaic, and sentimental displays of memory, which were nonetheless highly contested by the dueling parties. For a brief time, Federalists successfully used public celebrations to reaffirm their ascendancy. They promoted Washington's birthday as a holiday according to the tradition of celebrating the king's birthday. Anti-Federalists recognized the Federalists' success late and slowly, and then unsuccessfully tried to co-opt these same events for their cause.
Party politics inspired new kinds of commemorations. Republicans, the opposition party, began commemorating the French Revolution in the 1790s as a way to critique what they viewed as the growing elitism and aristocracy of the Federalist Party. Federalists, on the other hand, bitterly fought over the right to own the commemoration of George Washington's death.
Formal, public celebrations of religious fasts and thanksgivings were eclipsed by the increasingly contested but popular secular holidays. After Independence, the Continental Congress often endorsed fasts, in some respects linking God's will to the outcome of the Revolution. However, with the ratification of the Constitution, Federalist attempts—and then those of President Washington—to decree a day of thanksgiving met with widespread opposition. This day of thanksgiving was not a formal remembrance of a specific event like the modern Thanksgiving, but rather a day to give thanks to God for the success of the Revolution and creation of the federal government. Washington's successor, John Adams, decreed two national fast days during the Quasi-War with France and couched these declarations in explicitly Christian terms. Although individual states often celebrated a day of thanksgiving in the early Republic, it was not until Sarah Josepha Hale, a prominent writer, successfully lobbied Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to create a national holiday that commemorated the Pilgrims' original feast.
Although fasts and public religious celebrations were few, sermons at secular events were common, especially during the Federalist period (1789–1800). Newspapers, broadsides, and pamphlets disseminated many of these sermons throughout the country, which allowed celebrants in different states to share a common bond as citizens. In this respect, even civil events had an air of sanctity. The strength of the Democratic Republicans and the Jeffersonian victory in 1800 brought another partisan change to celebrations. Sermons receded as secular orations about political, local, and patriotic heroes assumed a more prominent role. Although holidays were still hotly contested, both parties used orations to link their cause to the Revolution.
Partisanship may have marked the public performance of holidays, but the very nature of the celebrations—public events that often involved all members of a community as either spectators or participants—helped create a sense of national unity and identity in the new nation. Both Democratic Republicans and Federalists saw themselves as the proper inheritors of the Revolution's mantle, but the centrality of the Revolution in both camps' public celebrations helped create and reinforce a shared national identity.
See alsoAlmanacs; American Character and Identity; Democratic Republicans; Fourth of July; Federalist Party; Federalists; Franklin, Benjamin; Nationalism; National Symbols; Quasi-War with France; Religious Publishing; Taverns; Washington, George .
Anderson, Fred. A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years' War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Newman, Simon. Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
The Papers of George Washington. The Thanksgiving Proclamation. Available at http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/thanksgiving/transcript.html.
Pencak, William, Simon Newman, and Matthew Dennis. Riot and Revelry in Early America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.
Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.