USA Holidays Info

USA Holidays

An Overview of U.S. Holidays - Our nation's history

Nations and religious denominations set aside a number of days to commemorate special events, persons or public occasions. These holidays are typically marked by a general suspension of work and business activity, and by public and/or religious ceremonies.

Technically, the United States does not celebrate national holidays, but Congress has designated ten "legal public holidays," during which most federal institutions are closed and most federal employees excused from work. While the individual states and private businesses are not required to observe these, in practice all states, and nearly all employers, observe the majority of them.

At present, Congress has designated ten legal holidays. Since 1971, a number of these have been fixed on Mondays rather than on a particular calendar date so as to afford workers a long holiday weekend:

* New Year's Day (January 1)

Americans celebrate the new year at home, with friends, and in gatherings from the Tournament of Roses Parade in California to the giant gathering in New York’s Times Square.

* Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. (third Monday in January)

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing a legal holiday honoring the civil rights leader (born January 15). By 1999, all fifty states observed the holiday.

* Washington's Birthday (third Monday in February)

The birthday of George Washington, military leader of the American Revolution and first President of the United States, has been a legal holiday since 1885. It was originally celebrated each February 22. The Uniform Holidays Act, passed by Congress in 1968 to take effect in 1971, fixed the holiday on a Monday. As a number of states also celebrated the February 12 birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President, some legislators advocated combining the two events into a single holiday. The final legislation retained the Washington's Birthday holiday but many Americans now call the holiday "Presidents' Day," believing the change to Mondays was intended to honor both Washington and Lincoln or all Presidents.

* Memorial Day (last Monday in May)

Beginning after the 1861–65 Civil War, many states observed a May 30 holiday (known as "Decoration Day") honoring the lives lost in that conflict, often by decorating their graves with flowers. After the First World War, these ceremonies typically were expanded to include the nation’s war dead in every conflict. The Uniform Holidays Act established a federal legal holiday, fixed on a Monday, beginning in 1971. All 50 states observe the holiday.

* Independence Day (July 4)

The Independence Day holiday commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The holiday was already widely observed throughout the nation when Congress declared it a federal legal holiday, in 1870.

* Labor Day (first Monday in September)

First observed in New York City in September 1882, the Labor Day holiday commemorates the contributions of working men and women. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation establishing the federal holiday. Labor union participation in annual parades remains common, while for many Americans the holiday demarks the unofficial end of summer and beginning of the school year. An annual Labor Day telethon raises tens of millions of dollars for the benefit of Muscular Dystrophy research.

* Columbus Day (second Monday in October)

Commemorates Christopher Columbus's first landing in the Americas, October 12, 1492. Beginning in the late 19th century, Italian-Americans began to celebrate the holiday as a celebration of their heritage, as Columbus is widely believed to be of Italian origin. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the federal holiday, which the Uniform Holidays Act subsequently fixed on a Monday.

* Veterans Day (November 11)

The Veterans Day holiday is derived from Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the First World War, November 11, 1918. Many states began quickly began to observe this holiday, and Congress proclaimed a federal holiday in 1938. In 1954, Congress changed the holiday’s name to Veterans Day, in recognition of those who served during the Second World War and the Korean conflict. Today it recognizes all members of the armed forces, living and dead, who served during times of peace or war. (Memorial Day, by contrast, honors those who gave their lives.) While Veterans Day was among the holidays moved to Mondays beginning in 1971, Congress in 1978 restored the holiday to its original November 11 date. Among the annual ceremonies is one at the Tomb of the Unknowns at the Arlington National Cemetery.

* Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November)

A variant of the harvest festivals celebrated in many parts of the world, Thanksgiving is popularly traced to a 1621 feast enjoyed by the English Pilgrims who founded the Plymouth Colony (located in present day Massachusetts) and members of the Wampanoag Native American tribe. Over the years that followed, state and federal governments declared numerous days of Thanksgiving to mark important public events. In 1817, New York became the first state to declare an annual Thanksgiving Day. President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the federal holiday in 1863. In 1941, Congress moved the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, in hopes of stimulating the economy by lengthening (in some years) the Christmas shopping season. The holiday is typically celebrated at home and remains the occasion for a large and festive meal, and for expressing thanks for that bounty.

* Christmas Day (December 25)

Most Protestants and Roman Catholics and some Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. Before the 19th century, many Americans worked on Christmas, but in the industrial era the holiday began also to honor universal values, such as home, children and family life, and to incorporate secular customs like exchanging gifts and cards, and the decoration and display of evergreen "Christmas Trees." Congress proclaimed Christmas a federal holiday in 1870. In 1999, a federal court acknowledged these secular aspects in rejecting a claim that the holiday impermissibly endorsed and furthered a particular religious belief.

States and private employers are free to adopt their own holidays. Six of the federal legal holidays—New Year's Day; Washington's Birthday/Presidents' Day; Memorial Day; Independence Day; Labor Day; Thanksgiving and Christmas—are observed nearly universally throughout the public and private sectors. States sometimes observe holidays not recognized by the federal government. New Jersey, for instance, observes Lincoln's Birthday, Good Friday and Election Day; Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson Day, honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan ("Stonewall") Jackson, and the Day after Thanksgiving, affording state employees a four-day holiday weekend.


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