Happy Evacuation Day! Why It’s Time To Bring Back This Britain-Bashing Holiday
Evacuation Day was once gloriously celebrated for when the British finally left precious New York. Then we got all mushy for the Anglos. Screw Downton Abbey, let’s bring it back!
A long, long time ago in a Gotham far, far away…REVOLUTIONARY WAR. *cue orchestra/opening title crawl*
Sorry. But that’s about as close as I can get to equating a history column with a current event everyone is excited about. AaaanySkywalkers, the Manhattan our former landlords invaded, and occupied, for the whole of this rebels-versus-evil-empire saga was officially returned to the winners on Nov. 25, 1783.
And for most of the 1800s, that mark on the calendar was celebrated with just as much pomp and circumstance as the Fourth of July—-with the resulting traditions being way weirder than annually listening to a Russian composer honor his motherland’s victory over Napoleon on Independence Day.
This die dierum was given the unfortunate title of “Evacuation Day,” (which always made me think of colonists being incontinent) and here’s a quick primer:
Gen. George Washington (he’s that Bernie Madoff-looking dude on the one-dollar bill) was told to press pause during his triumphant march into southern Manhattan due to the fact that some scamp of a Red Coat nailed the Brits’ banner to a Bowery Park flagpole, and then greased the thing so as to make it impossible to climb and orchestrate a victorious Stars and Stripes exchange. A spry knickerbocker by the name of John Van Arsdale eventually made his way up the slippery slope, and dispatched the Union Jack.
Not yet finished, an angry English gunner aimed a cannon at heckling Staten Islanders as his ship exited the harbor. While the punk’s projectile never made it near the shore, the entire incident did have the dubious distinction of being the last shot fired in the Revolutionary War.
For years afterwards New Yorkers would mark the date with stunning firework displays, and even more stunning attempts to climb lubed up polls sporting a British flag, begging to be torn down.
(Rumors that the banner-grabbing winner was allowed to punch a visiting, but subdued, Charles Dickens, remain unfounded.)
Many attribute President Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation as marking the end of ED’s relevance, (which is why I’ve always maintained that Abe was kind of an asshole). Buuuuut…
It was more of a slow fade with World War I kind of being its unofficial death knell, with America’s ties to the Allies making this kind of British bashing slightly inappropriate.
Forget about the then only-Irish-immigrant-celebrated Halloween and this yet-to-be-taken-seriously turkey-eating-event bookending ED and know that it was doomed to hit the dustbin of American holidays, regardless.
Way before Winston Churchill first dubbed the U.K. and U.S.’s BFWB status a “special relationship,” it was always a “distant worship” from our end. Going as far back as President Adams quietly favoring the limeys over our liberators, we always felt weird about weaning ourselves off of Britannia’s tit-annia. (Too much? That was probably too much.)
America never stopped worshipping a monarchy that we actively chose to extricate ourselves from (whenever I’m in London I always get a variation on the query: “Why are you guys as obsessed with Will and Kate as we are ambivalent?”), nor stopped pining for a 1,000-year-plus history we are no longer a part of (they also don’t get why so many of our landmarked buildings are, like, just a couple decades old).
The sun has set on the British Empire, but our inferiority complex—stemming from way back when we rightly assumed they looked at us as the rube colonists we were—never faded.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Not to make my 7th great grandpappy roll over in his plus-sized grave (William Dawes Jr. was both a founding father AND fat as fuck), but I’m probably even more of an anglophile than you are. I wish I could get rid of my DVR BBC trail as easily as I can the porn history on my laptop…but I’m too behind on my Graham Norton episodes to just up and delete ’em all.
That said, we SHOULD party on a V-Day that marked the Red Coats exiting our East Coast much more so than for a date signifying a bunch of (then) insignificant colonies declaring their independence. “Declaring” is a lot easier than “doing.” But an evacuation celebration is an aggressive affront to our ally (and prodigal papa). Independence events, by comparison, can be viewed as more of just a statement yelled out into the 18th century ether.
I brought up my idea of resurrecting this rebellion revelry to several British vet friends of mine, and their responses ran the gamut from “go away or I shall show you what a lubed pole is really used for” to “I’ll be happy to fly over and kick the shit out of anyone who tries to damage our flag.”
Hmm. I suppose we could update the event by way of “evacuating” the actual greased pole tradition but, again, I doubt such an aggressively anti-Anglo event will ever make a comeback.
The wonderfully fop/British pop version of King George III in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash, Hamilton, sings “You’ll be back; Time will tell; You’ll remember I served you well; Oceans rise; Empires fall; We have seen each other through it all.”
In some ways we never really left, your Highness.
(Parliamentary Post Script: I still think it’s our colonial duty to make fun of HRH’s oddly colored doody. File that juvenile act of defiance under “Purple Reign”—and happy E Day, everybody!!!)
Your E-Day Itinerary: Take back the night (and/or day) by visiting these destinations during, or around, this once great date.
Fraunces Tavern 54 Pearl St., New York, NY 10004 (212) 425-1778
The 296-year-old landmark where Washington gave a tearful adieu (hey, a lot of them were French) to his troops is helming a walking tour that’s sadly sold out, but these/evacuation-day-dinner/on the premises parties aren’t!
New York Public Library 5th Ave. at 42nd St., New York, NY 10018 (917) 275-6975
Bryant Park’s book behemoth houses such E Day relics as B.F. Stevens’s collection of unpublished British headquarters and the papers of James Riker, a New York author, and historian, who penned the 1883 pamphlet “Evacuation Day.” Riker basically retells the story of the whole greased pole ordeal. Per director of media relations, Angela Montefinise: “Riker’s papers have this original source material connected to John Van Arsdale—-the guy who took down the British flag and put up the American flag!”
The British Consulate 845 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10022, (212) 745-0200
“Although we don’t have a specific event planned around Evacuation Day, we will recognize the day by posting about it on our social media channels,” wrote the Press & Public Affairs Assistant Affairs Assistant to England’s diplomatic representative to the United Nations to my email inquiring as to how they plan on celebrating Nov. 25. Honestly? God bless ’em for actually acknowledging my obnoxious query. That said, I encourage any and all patriots to swing by their offices with a couple of greased flagpoles and show America’s Manhattan-based mates how to do it to it!