Patriots’ Day is a Boston-specific holiday celebrating the first shots fired in the American Revolution. It is marked by a day off for many, the Boston Marathon and morning baseball at Fenway Park. Author Kevin McNeil takes us through the long history of this local holiday and how it has become even more important in the wake of the tragic bombing in 2013.
Patriots’ Day commemorates the first shots fired of the American Revolution, the battle between the rebels and the Redcoats that took place April 19, 1775 on Lexington Green, about 12 miles northwest of Boston. Massachusetts Governor Frederic T. Greenhalge proclaimed April 19th a state holiday in 1894, and three years later the Boston Athletic Association chose Patriots’ Day as the appropriate date to hold their inaugural Boston Marathon. This makes it a civic sporting institution older than even the Red Sox, as the local nine wouldn’t become established as an American League franchise until 1901.
The Red Sox began playing morning home games on Patriots’ Day early in their existence (often as part of a doubleheader), the first such occurrence taking place in 1903, although it didn’t become a permanent fixture until 1959. By then the holiday doubleheader had been phased out, reduced to a single game starting at 11:05 a.m., making it possible to watch nine innings and then take a five-minute walk down Brookline Avenue to Kenmore Square to see the world’s elite distance runners performing on their greatest stage. Since 1969 the holiday has been observed on the third Monday of April.
Recently the Marathon’s start time was pushed earlier to accommodate the vast spread between classes of runners in order to make the event more manageable. Even with this change, erstwhile Sox fans can still stroll over the Mass Pike after the game to watch the race, but they’ll witness the efforts of the workaday field instead of the vanguard.
The original spirit of Patriots’ Day combined with these unique sporting events has created a special celebration for the city of Boston, one that’s come to mean much more than the sum of its parts. It heralds the debut of spring, the first extended hello to longer days and warmer climes, pitched against the backdrop of outdoor live music and pre-noon beers and charcoal grill smoke. It kicks off April vacation for schoolkids, many of whom go to the ballgame or camp out along the Marathon route. Employers grant the day off or look the other way when someone calls in sick.
The day brings a sense of both newness and renewal. Morning baseball’s improbable angle of the light renders Fenway unfamiliar, the sun coming from the first base side. It’s like being there for the first time.
The hamlets and towns and cities along the Marathon route turn out in force to ceaselessly support runners from all over the world, these competitors whose sole quest is to test the very limits of themselves, the crowd clapping and shouting itself hoarse for hours on end in recognition. They come to witness and celebrate this challenging of the self – the running often done to raise charitable funds or in the memory of the dearly departed – and they do it to provide the psychic energy that enables many of the runners to finish. And to feed off that incredible strength of will in return.
This relationship between the New England, the Marathon and the Red Sox was amplified and strengthened in the wake of the bombings in 2013. The Sox were on the road in Cleveland immediately following the attack, but upon their return to Fenway that weekend they held a pre-game memorial service, honoring the victims, the survivors, and the first responders. This moving ceremony introduced the Boston Strong mantra to the region, David Ortiz’s profane rallying cry that helped the city get on its feet, and Daniel Nava’s three-run homer in the 8th that gave the Sox – indeed, New England – an emotional win.
The stellar play of the team buoyed spirits all summer long, culminating in a cathartic World Series championship in October. The Sox paid their respects during the ensuing victory parade, pausing at the Marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street to place the World Series trophy on that hallowed ground, laying a 617 Boston Strong jersey atop the hardware.
Patriots’ Day was celebrated the following April with pride and resolve: The re-enactment at Lexington Green was fought, the Marathon was run, and the Red Sox game was played. Same as it had been and will always be.
The holiday is upon us once more, bringing with it the rituals that annually remind New Englanders what the community holds sacred, a victory claimed for freedom and the reinforcement of cherished ideals. On Patriots’ Day, the city of Boston gives and receives the best humanity can offer itself: Liberty, encouragement, and a little baseball before noon.