From the Boston Tea Party to the Boston Massacre, New England’s largest city, Boston, Massachusetts, cemented itself as a key player during the American Revolution. Apart from its ties to America’s early history, Boston also hosts its fair share of professional sports teams and events, from the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox to the annual Boston Marathon.
Although the Boston Marathon only dates back to 1897, it does have surprisingly close ties to Massachusetts’ revolutionary roots. After all, most years the Boston Marathon corresponds with Patriots’ Day, a once little-known holiday that’s now picking up traction in other states. So, why do these two big Bostonian events overlap? We’re taking a closer look at the world’s oldest annual marathon and the events that led up to its conception.
What Is Patriots’ Day?
If you’ve never heard of Patriots’ Day, you aren’t alone. In fact, only five states, including Massachusetts, officially commemorate the holiday. Apart from the Bay State, Maine, Connecticut, Wisconsin and North Dakota all recognize the day and, while Patriots’ Day isn’t officially recognized in Florida, residents of the Sunshine State are encouraged to observe it.
So, what is Patriots’ Day commemorating? The state holiday is actually meant to honor the Battles of Lexington and Concord as well as the Battle of Menotomy (in present-day Arlington, Massachusetts) — the earliest battles in the American Revolutionary War. For those who may not be as familiar with New England’s geography, all three of those places are located in Massachusetts, which explains why the state became the first to commemorate these landmark battles.
In 1894, the town of Lexington urged the state to recognize April 19 as “Lexington Day,” and, in turn, Concord advocated for “Concord Day.” The compromise? An all-encompassing holiday. And, since about 1969, Massachusetts has gone on to make a three-day weekend out of commemorating its Revolutionary-era past, with the actual observed Patriots’ Day falling on the third Monday in April each year.
The battles of Lexington, Concord, and Menotomy all took place in 1775, but these events were far from the start of the colonists’ problems with Britain. Two years prior, the city of Boston made itself known as a hotbed of revolutionary activity due to the Boston Tea Party.
Of course, tensions between the American colonies and Britain had been rising for a while, largely because of taxes: Britain imposed exorbitant taxes on the colonies, and, because these colonists had no political representation in British Parliament, they took a stand against Britain’s oppressive “taxation without representation” status quo.
Soon enough, those tensions turned deadly when British soldiers stationed in Boston fired their guns at Bostonians, who’d thrown snowballs and other projectiles at said soldiers. This 1770 skirmish became known as the Boston Massacre. Several years later, in 1773, Bostonians took matters into their own hands. Since tea was one of the many household items that was taxed excessively, colonists seized a huge tea shipment and dumped it into the Boston Harbor. This protest, which became known as the Boston Tea Party, led Britain to double down on squashing the colonists’ attempts at full-fledged rebellion.
For example, the Massachusetts Government Act nullified the original Massachusetts Charter — a contract between the residents of Massachusetts and the British Parliament. Before, folks living in Massachusetts did have some representation in local and colonial government, but, after the act, Parliament hand-picked the colony’s governor. In response to this loss of rights, colonists organized a militia. British soldiers quickly caught wind of this militia and aimed to destroy a store of weapons, but the rag-tag militia was able to move their supplies and avoid a skirmish.
British soldiers and members of the colonial militia finally met at the Battles of Lexington and Concord — as well as the Battle of Menotomy. And, of course, these early battles led to the American Revolutionary War.
How Does Boston Celebrate Patriots’ Day?
Although Patriots’ Day festivities vary from state to state, Boston, Massachusetts commemorates the day with various annual events. The celebrations start on Sunday with historically accurate reenactments at the various battle locations. Then, early on Monday morning, actors on horseback imitate well-known figures like Paul Revere and William Dawes.
Later, the festivities take a more modern turn. On Patriots’ Day, the Boston Red Sox, Massachusetts’ beloved Major League Baseball (MLB) team, always play a home game at the city’s historic Fenway Park. And, perhaps even more excitingly, runners from all over the world come to the greater Boston area to participate in the Boston Marathon.
How Does the Boston Marathon Relate to Patriots’ Day?
First celebrated in 1894, Patriots’ Day has a long history. But what you might fail to realize is that the Boston Marathon, which started in 1897, is almost as long-running as the patriotic holiday. Interestingly, the sporting event takes its name from the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon, during which Greece’s Athenian citizens fought off a Persian invasion. Most notably, Pheidippides (or Philippides) ran 26 miles — the length of a modern marathon — from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the Athenians’ victory.
As The Atlantic points out, “American orators frequently invoked the memory of Marathon, linking the citizen-soldiers of Athens with the militiamen who mustered at Lexington and Concord, facing down an empire in defense of republican liberty.” That is, Americans have always taken inspiration from the Athenian victory. Still, why did officials think a marathon was the best way to celebrate Patriots’ Day?
In some ways, it’s an example of fun, historical coincidences shaping our present-day customs. In 1896, the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, which helped to revive interest in certain athletic events, like the marathon. The Boston Athletic Association took notice of the marathon event and, a year after the first modern Olympics, announced its intention to hold a marathon in Boston.
The marathon route, which is meant to emulate the path revolutionaries like Revere and the militiamen took, further emphasizes this connection between the Athenian and American fights for liberty. With this in mind, it only made sense to stage the Boston Marathon in conjunction with Patriots’ Day, emphasizing that the run is more than a world-renowned athletic event, but a celebration of democracy and the American Revolution.
While the Boston Marathon was cancelled in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, plans to hold the race are still on for 2021. While the race may not coincide with Patriots’ Day this year, Bostonians — and runners eager to partake in the event — will have the chance to celebrate “Marathon Monday,” and the 125th Boston Marathon, on Monday, October 11, 2021.