Holidays give society stability. Their cyclical regularity can be counted on as the days pass each year, but holidays lately have become matters of uncertainty, less stability, even controversy. Columbus Day, marking the explorer’s supposed landing in North America, has been a federal holiday since 1934 but is not universally celebrated in all states as an official holiday, including Minnesota. Designated Oct. 12, 1971, it was shifted to the second Monday in October (the 14th this year) making for a longer three-day weekend for some celebrants.

Its placement on that day coincided with the movement in 1971 of Memorial Day from its traditional spot on May 30 to the fourth Monday in May, allowing a three-day weekend to commemorate the unofficial beginning of summer, just like Labor Day’s placement on the first Monday in September marks summer’s end – the end of the State Fair, too.

Columbus Day happens to fall on the day Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving. The American version of that feast is on the fourth Thursday of November, moved up in 1939 from its traditional final Thursday of that month in order to enlarge the end-of-year holiday shopping season culminating on Christmas, Dec. 25, a date that, like New Year’s Day a week later, seems immutable to change.

Holidays often raise issues in the eyes of the law, many in connection with counting days for various time periods or statute of limitations. Generally, official holidays do not count in calculating various deadlines such as time for serving legal papers, filing briefs, and the like. Conversely, they generally do count when calculating statutes of limitations, which generally range from 300 days to six years depending upon the nature of the claim.

Columbus controversy

While modifying the date of Columbus Day has aroused little controversy, the same cannot be said for its appellation.

Many communities have given it different names, largely due to challenges by Native Americans and others who claim that, because Columbus and fellow explorers brought perfidy to the New World, the day should be named in honor of those who were here before him, giving rise to Indigenous People’s Day. That term has been officially adopted by the city of Minneapolis and it, or variations, also have taken hold in nearly a half dozen states and some 130 communities around the country.

Another holiday naming controversy has reached the White House, where President Donald Trump has vociferously stated his departure from the contemporary greeting “Happy Holidays” to revert to “Merry Christmas.”

Lunar leap

Controversies aside, the holidays can provide calendar volatility as well. For instance, the end of September is the Jewish High Holidays: the Jewish New Year, known as Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Regardless of their denominational affiliation or observant behavior, most Jews do recognize those holidays and many will be absent from schools and workplaces, here in the suburbs, where a few thousand of the estimated 45,000 Jews in Minnesota reside. Their presence is greatest in Golden Valley, site of the impressive two-year old Jewish Family & Children’s Services facility on Golden Valley Road, conjoined with Prism, across from the historic Oak Grove schoolhouse, now a church by the same name, with a smaller number living in New Hope, and fewer in Crystal and Robbinsdale.

These holidays come on different dates, too, not because of social planning but the Biblical edict and the phases of the Moon. The Jewish High Holiday dates stem from a portion of the Old Testament, Leviticus 23:24, which prescribes that “on the first day of the month, you shall observe a complete rest, sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”

To compound the confusion, the Jewish New Year does not even fall on a “new” year. The date is described in Leviticus as the “seventh month,” not the first of the year.

Those two holidays generally fall in early or mid September. This year, the two days of the “New Year” begin Sunday evening, Sept. 29, (all Jewish Holidays start at sunset) through Tuesday, Oct. 1. Jews who belong to Reform worship groups only observe one day. Then, the single day Yom Kippur, the Period of Atonement, follows 10 days later.

The dates are later than usual this year because their timing is based on the 354-day lunar calendar, with months of 29 to 30 days, as opposed to the 365-day solar calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which has a leap year for every four revolutions around the sun, the Hebraic calendar provides an additional month seven times every 19 years, including last year, in order to keep the holidays in their proper seasons.

Thus, the Jewish holidays begin nearly 20 days later on the Gregorian calendar than last year, while next year, they fall earlier, beginning on the weekend of Friday, Sept. 18.

The previous lunar leap cycle also pushes back the next major Jewish celebration this year, Hanukkah. The eight-day festival usually occurs during the first part of December, but this year starts belatedly on the 20th and runs through the year-end holidays.

Finally, that variance is not unique to the Jewish religion. Ramadan, the Muslim month of holy fasting, and the colorful Chinese New Year are other illustrations of lunar-based cycles that annually fall on different days of the calendar. Although belated for the Jewish people, the High Holidays beginning this weekend will come, better late than never.

Marshall H. Tanick is a Golden Valley resident, is a constitutional law attorney and historian.

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