Boston 1775 reader Alex Beam asked me if I had any thoughts on the recent debate in the Massachusetts legislature over the value of the Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day holidays. Not their historical value—no one was really questioning whether the Battle of Bunker Hill or the departure of the British military were important events in local history, or still fit with modern values as well as, say, Lee-Jackson Day in Virginia.
Rather, the argument was over whether those two days should remain paid holidays for the employees of Suffolk County, the only jurisdiction that observes them so devoutly. The nation as a whole remembers the Revolution by taking Independence Day off and making lots of noise and pretty lights in the sky. Massachusetts and Maine celebrate Patriots Day, on a Monday around the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. But only Suffolk County observes Evacuation Day, and only Suffolk County and the neighboring city of Somerville observe Bunker Hill Day.
Suffolk County includes Boston and three smaller cities. (At the time of the Revolution, Suffolk County included modern-day Norfolk County, and extended to the Rhode Island border. It did not, however, include the town of Charlestown, where the Bunker Hill battle was actually fought; that was taken out of Middlesex County when it became part of Boston. Somerville gets in on Bunker Hill Day since that was the site of the provincial fallback camp.) One might therefore think these holidays would be a purely local issue, but the coverage has gone national.
Evacuation Day is the more popular of the pair since, by coincidence, it falls on St. Patrick’s Day. Indeed, many of the legislators arguing to retain the holiday referred to it by that name, and cited the importance of Irish-American celebrations rather than, say, ceremonies on Dorchester heights.
Proponents of scrapping the two days off say that they cost government $5 million per year, and the state can’t afford that expense. However, that cost includes two floating holidays assigned to state employees outside Suffolk County. In other words, the proposal isn’t truly about the dates of 17 March and 17 June. It’s about eliminating benefits that employees have won through collective bargaining and political pressure. Is it any surprise that the bill came from the Republican House leader?
And is the issue really waste? I think it has much more to do with envy. Envy dating back to childhood that most of us in Massachusetts didn’t get those days off from school. Envy that the holidays apply in only one county—“As if it’s that special of a county that we should all bow in reverence to it,” to quote state senator Michael R. Knapik (R-Not Suffolk County). Envy that most private-sector employees don’t get those days off now (though we do get free parking!). Measured against current budget shortfalls, $5 million is simply symbolic.
If Massachusetts must save money by eliminating paid holidays, why doesn’t anyone suggest eliminating Patriots Day as well? That affects many more communities, so it should produce even bigger savings. But of course that holiday has even more political support—even in Republican suburbs. And it has a strong tradition behind it: every year tens of thousands of people from all over the world unite to join in commemorating the historic battle at...Marathon.