Revolutionary holidays didn’t start and end with Independence Day.
When the Revolutionary War ended, Trumbull, Conn., celebrated with A Great Jubilee Day on May 26, 1783. The grand event featured militia maneuvers, feasting, prayer, speeches and toasts. The town was then called Stratford, and the holiday is now called Memorial Day.
Holidays used to be local affairs, and they often moved around the calendar. For many years, the entire United States celebrated only two annual holidays: Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July. Much of New England, of course, didn’t celebrate Christmas.
Early Thanksgivings happened when state or local officials decided it happened. In 1816, for example, Massachusetts celebrated Thanksgiving on November 28, while New Hampshire observed it on November 14. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress passed a federal law making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.
New Englanders continue to celebrate Revolutionary holidays that commemorate events in the war with Britain. They tend to happen in the summer, often to attract tourists to their craft fairs, parades and reenactments.
Revolutionary Holidays in RI and Vermont
Since 1965, Pawtuxet Village in Warwick and Cranston, R.I., has celebrated Gaspee Days around Memorial Day. The festival commemorates Rhode Island’s version of the Boston Tea Party, when patriots burned a British customs schooner in 1772.
Celebrations of the Gaspee Affair in 2018 include a road race, parade, party, fireworks and reenactment of the ship burning.
In Vermont, Bennington Battle Day is celebrated every August 16. Vermont is perhaps the only state to commemorate an event that happened in another state. The Battle of Bennington, an important victory in the American Revolution, took place in 1777 in New York.
Bennington Battle Day happens every year with a battle reenactment, but the local historical society holds events throughout the summer. The 2018 Bennington Battle Celebration includes a road race, a ceremony at the memorial and a fashion show of historic costumes.
Powder House Day
New Haven celebrates Powder House Day every year to commemorate the events of April 22, 1775. Then Capt. Benedict Arnold and his Governor’s Foot Guard were eager to help out during the Siege of Boston. So they demanded the keys to the powder house so they could actually use their weapons.
Town Meeting had voted against sending help, but the Foot Guard ignored the vote.
Arnold sent a message to the selectmen that if he didn’t get the keys in five minutes, his men would break into the power house. He got the keys.
In 2018, New Haven celebrated Powder House Day on April 21 with a memorial service at the Center Church on the Green. Then a re-enactor playing Arnold marched across the Green and demands a key from the mayor. (Click here for the script.)
The day also featured carriage rides, a parade and tours of the new trees planted on the Green.
The first naval battle of the American Revolution took place in Machias, Maine (then Massachusetts). Today Margaretta Days is still one of Machias’ Revolutionary holidays.
During the Siege of Boston, British authorities asked Ichabod Jones, a Loyalist merchant in Machias, to help obtain supplies for the army. In June 1775, two of Jones’ vessels and the Margaretta, an armed British sloop, arrived in the harbor. The townspeople tried to arrest Jones on June 11 and went after the Margaretta’s commander, who escaped. The townspeople then seized one of Jones’ ships, armed a second and chased after the Margaretta. A short battle resulted in the death of the commander and several others, as well as the capture of the Margaretta.
In 2018, Machias celebrates Margaretta Days on June 16 with a reenactment, children’s activities, period foods and artisan demonstrations.
Eighty years ago a state law gave two holidays to state and municipal workers in Boston and the rest of Suffolk County, but not to anyone else. Government workers could take off March 17, Evacuation Day, which commemorates the day British troops and Loyalist sympathizers began to leave Boston. They can also take off June 17 to observe the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Critics say the Revolutionary holidays reflect Massachusetts’, shall we say, overdeveloped government bureaucracy. They ridicule the ‘hack holidays’ that occur once a month except for August, when government employees take long vacations anyway.
Massachusetts hack holidays include New Year’s Day and Martin Luther King Day in January, Presidents Day in February, Evacuation Day in March, Patriots Day in April, Memorial Day in May, Bunker Hill Day in June, Independence Day in July, Labor Day in September, Columbus Day in October, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving in November and Christmas in December.
Revolutionary Holidays That Disappeared
One of the Revolutionary holidays that disappeared was Boston’s Massacre Day.
Patriots celebrated the holiday every March 5 from 1771 to 1783 to commemorate the 1770 Boston Massacre. Each year a prominent patriot delivered a speech, which would then be printed. When 1783 brought the end of the American Revolution, Boston officials decided to replace Massacre Day with Independence Day.
Fast Day wasn’t one of the Revolutionary holidays until it became one.
Since at least 1670, New Englanders regularly set aside fast days to, well, fast, attend church and ask God for blessings.
Massachusetts celebrated Fast Day until 1894, when the Legislature changed it to Patriots’ Day to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Maine jumped on the Revolutionary holidays bandwagon and did the same in 1897. New Hampshire clung to the Fast Day tradition until 1991, when it became Civil Rights Day in January.