April 19 has been an incredibly significant date ever since that cold spring morning in 1775, when the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired on Lexington Common, thereby solidifying Lexington’s place in history.
It did not take long at all for the importance of the date of April 19 to be acknowledged, as demonstrated by the fact that exactly one year later on the anniversary of the battle, Lexington’s Reverend Jonas Clarke gave a sermon “to commemorate the murder, blood-shed and Commencement of Hostilities, between Great-Britain and America” begun at the Battle of Lexington. This historic date was thus memorialized, and it has been acknowledged and celebrated ever since.
It was not until March 16, 1894, however, that April 19 became known as the state-recognized holiday of Patriots’ Day when Massachusetts Governor Frederic T. Greenhalge signed a proclamation making the date a legal holiday. Just three years later, it become an even more prominent date when the Boston Marathon began and hosted its first race on Patriots’ Day, which it has done ever since.
For many years, Patriots’ Day was celebrated on the actual date of April 19, but since 1969, it has been observed on the third Monday of April. It has become such an important day of celebration in Massachusetts that it might surprise some to learn that only a handful of other states have adopted Patriots’ Day over the years: Maine, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and North Dakota. Much of the nation is actually much more familiar with the existence of “Marathon Monday.”
The April 19 celebrations in Lexington may have begun as smaller and more humble acknowledgements of the Battle on the Green, but over time, the festivities evolved into what we know today. In 1875, before it was even known in an official capacity as Patriots’ Day, President Ulysses S. Grant visited town on the 100th anniversary of the Battle to participate in what was then “Lexington Day.”
In 1900, for the 125th anniversary, Henry Hudson Kitson’s bronze Minuteman statue (which was originally purposed as a drinking fountain) was unveiled on the corner of the Battle Green, where it remains standing today. In 1915, a large pageant was planned and enacted.
For the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, the 1925 celebration drew particular national participation. Not only was there another pageant, but the federal government helped to create commemorative stamps and coins, and Lexington committees worked to schedule parades, religious services, and ceremonies. Even Vice-President Charles G. Dawes, who was serving under President Calvin Coolidge, attended Lexington’s events that year. Similar events took place in 1975 for the Bicentennial celebrations, and President Gerald Ford was in attendance.
In recent years, especially since Patriots’ Day often falls during various school vacation weeks, thousands of tourists have flocked to Lexington and surrounding towns to view and participate in dozens of reenactments, parades, and other programs commemorating the historic happenings of the day, as well as the events leading up to and following the Battle. For history lovers, myself included, it has become one of the most anticipated days of the year.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 had a major impact on Patriots’ Day festivities in 2020, forcing all events to be either cancelled or held virtually at the last minute. Similarly, there will be very few in-person events in 2021 either, but with more time to plan for virtual events this year, we at Lexington Historical Society are very pleased with our offerings! The Town of Lexington also has their own full calendar, with a variety of events scheduled, including a program on the history of Lexington’s Patriots’ Day celebrations and parades.
This year is not a big anniversary year (though we are already gearing up for the 250th anniversary in 2025!), but the uniqueness of these last two years’ celebrations will certainly make them memorable and historic in their own right as we look back on years of note. With any luck, next year Lexington will once again be able to welcome thousands of visitors to acknowledge such a momentous day for our nation and to engage with us in person!
– Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.