Our devalued holidays should mean more

How do you know you’ve made it as an American icon? When your birthday’s declared a national holiday, as is Martin Luther King Jr.’s this coming weekend? No doubt. But only when your birthday is associated with shop-till-you-drop sales do you become a true American legend.

I Googled King’s birthday. Along with biographical information, “Cheap flights Martin Luther King Day” and “The best 15 sales of MLK Day” also popped up. When he made his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, I doubt he dreamt of being associated with BOGOs and half-off sales.

But King isn’t alone. Prodded by retailers and travel groups, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, when George Washington posthumously had his birthday bumped from Feb. 22 to the third Monday in February. Columbus Day and Memorial Day were also moved to three-day weekends, with MLK Day added later. Congress declared it would bring “substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the nation.”

I’m not sold on the spiritual part, but there’s no doubting the economic boost the three-day holidays give retailers.

Presidents Day is officially designated Washington’s Birthday in New York, while called Washington-Lincoln Day in Colorado. In Alabama, the date is known as George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, even though Jefferson was born in April. Guess they’re not big fans of Lincoln, for some reason.

Meanwhile, do we really honor America’s great leaders by running mattress sales? In recent years, some marketers have gotten a bit carried away, from Hennessy cognac advertising “drinks MLK Jr. would be proud of” to a “Freedom 2 Twerk” dance party in Michigan with a flier superimposing King’s head onto the body of a man wearing a thick gold chain, according to cbsnews.com. The event was eventually canceled.

You can’t blame retailers for holding sales on days when we have time to shop. But would it be too much to keep them in good taste?

So enjoy your three-day weekend. And while you’re out shopping or whatever, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a few minutes thinking about the message of the man it supposedly honors.

Playwright Mike Vogel blogs at newyorkgritty.net.