by David Sisler

Today is a national holiday in Russia, but few Russians know why.

On June 12, 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic produced a 2 1/2-page declaration that spelled out the democratic goals of Russia as a part of the Soviet Union. Eighteen months and nine days later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

For most Russians, the Day of the Passage of the Declaration of State Sovereignty, is simply an excuse for a long weekend at their dachas, farming their small garden plots.

Boris Yeltsin, vowing to make the individual, not the state, "the measure of all things," became Russia's first popularly elected president on June 12, 1991. For that reason, most Russians call the day Independence Day.

On June 12, 1993, I walked from my rented flat on Golocktiwanivskya in Samara to Kuibyshev Square and enjoyed those early days of freedom with friends. We bought hot shashleek (grilled beef on a stick) from street vendors, drank warm Cokes and watched fireworks explode overhead.

I remember Vladimir Dubin saying, "This is only our second celebration. It means so much to us. For your country it has been 200 years. It must mean so much more."

I did not have the heart to tell him that most Americans have forgotten why we celebrate our national holidays. We have moved most of them to Monday so we can have a long weekend of driving too far, drinking too much, and spending too much money, and never thinking about what the day means.

Thirty-two percent of Russians surveyed by The Moscow Times said Independence Day means nothing to them, even though the Declaration of State Sovereignty, "lays a foundation for the recognition of ... human rights and guarantees of political, economic, ethnic and cultural rights for all nationalities in the Russian Federation. It ... guarantees the equal rights of individuals, political parties, social organizations, mass movements and religious bodies."

Before we criticize, I wonder how many Americans know that Thursday, June 14 is an American holiday? It is, you know, the day when, in 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the "Stars and Stripes" as our national flag. Today it is okay to burn it. Once it was okay to die for it. How many people, I wonder, really understand that the last line of our National Anthem has nothing to do with Ted Turner's baseball team?

When I was a boy, we celebrated Decoration Day each year on May 30. Now the last Monday of May is called Memorial Day and it is more a celebration of washing machines and refrigerators than of soldiers who "gave the last full measure of devotion."

What is Veteran's Day all about? And whatever happened to Armistice Day?

Who is honored on President's Day?

And why is there a day each January in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Did you know that we celebrate Labor Day in September, not because of some spectacular event in the world of the working man and woman, but because in 1882 we needed something to break the long gap between Independence Day and Thanksgiving?

In days gone by Independence Day was important enough that major events were planned to correspond with it. The Erie Canal was started on July 4, 1817. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the first railway in our nation, began construction on July 4, 1828. The cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid on July 4, 1850. The Statue of Liberty was presented to the citizens of the United States in Paris on July 4, 1884.

We no longer celebrate our own national Independence Day. We just call it "The Fourth of July" and with that cheapening of the day, the meaning of the struggle for our nation's birth has been lost.

The average American cannot even tell you what actually happened on July 4, 1776.

It was not the day a resolution of independence from Britain was approved (that was July 2), nor was it the day the Declaration was first read publicly (that was July 8), but it was the day the Declaration was drafted by the Second Continental Congress.

For more than six years an army (composed largely of farmers) which rarely numbered over 20,000 fought, and finally defeated, forces three and one-half times their strength. Let's honor those soldiers by burning one more hamburger in the back yard, swilling one more beer, and then rushing off to a spectacular Fourth of July holiday sale.

Holiday. Miriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says that "holiday" originated in Old English and simply meant "holy day." That was contracted to "holiday" after the 12th century. Today, for all too many of us, a national patriotic holiday is just a hollow day. And we didn't even notice the mutation.


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Copyright 2001 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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