Evacuation Day – Real Holiday or Excuse to Drink Green Beer?

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Most people are familiar with St. Patrick’s Day: leprechauns, shamrocks, parades, and of course, green beer. But few outside the city of Boston are aware that another holiday falls on March 17th, Evacuation Day.

The History – A significant day for the American Revolution

What is Evacuation Day? It commemorates a very real and important event in American history: the day the British army evacuated the city of Boston and the first Revolutionary War victory for General George Washington. The battles of Lexington and Concord began the American War of Independence on April 19, 1775. The aftermath of these battles was that the British troops retreated to the city of Boston where the militia (which was to become the Continental Army) promptly laid siege to the city. The siege lasted 11 months, during which time a group of men commanded by General Henry Knox (for whom Fort Knox was later named) moved a number of cannon from captured British Fort Ticonderoga, located on the New York side of Lake Champlain, to Dorchester Heights in South Boston.

In the late 18th century, the city of Boston was a peninsula, and after the militia cut off land access, the British Army depended on the sea for crucial supplies. The strategic location of the cannon allowed the Continental Army to bombard the British ships in Boston Harbor. British commander William Howe realized that without access to the sea he would not be able to hold the city so he made a deal with General Washington. The British forces would be allowed to evacuate Boston by ship without harm in exchange for not burning the city as they left. What was the date of this evacuation? You guessed it. March 17th, 1776.

The Debate Continues

So March 17th is a significant day in American history, especially for the city of Boston. Still, it was not made into an official holiday until 1901, a full 125 years after the event, and its observance is limited to Suffolk County, Massachusetts (in which both Boston and Cambridge are located). In the past, state and city offices and schools have closed on March 17th. The fact that it falls on St. Patrick’s day has not been lost on anyone (including General Washington, who deemed the password to be ‘St. Patrick’ on that memorable day in 1776) and it has come under criticism by many who claim it is an excuse to have a day off from work, attend the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and drink green beer. In a state struggling with a huge deficit, it has become increasingly harder to justify this extra paid day off for state and city workers (along with a second paid day off, Bunker Hill Day, which falls in the otherwise holiday-less and sunny month of June).

According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick swore to sign a bill to remove Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day as paid holidays if one came across his desk. However the Boston Herald reported that the two holidays were retained in this year’s state budget which was signed by the governor. The budget states that offices must be open for business but gives no definition of what that means. Governor Patrick recently stated the decision of whether to allow workers to take the day off is being left up to individual agency managers. The two holidays are written into the contracts of state and city union workers.

So is this a frivolous observance? Despite its significant history, many say yes. Then again, what’s a St. Patrick’s Day parade without school children? I guess in the end it’s a matter of personal opinion.