Teri Silver is a journalist, commercial copywriter, editor, broadcast anchor, and Public Relations Specialist.
American Holidays and Observances
Whether dramatically patriotic, noteworthy or commemorative, American observances include and expand on federally-recognized holidays. Popular holidays such as Independence Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day stem from historical events or eras, but the United States has noted calendar days and months to celebrate so many things, such as the Constitution, citizenship, women’s rights, the earth, immigrants and black history -- just to name a few. Even groundhogs get a special day! In addition to national holidays, most states have their own various and noted celebrations and observances.
Federal holidays in the United States are designated by Congress (Title 5, USC§6103). Technically, Congress may only establish holidays for federal entities, properties, employees and the District of Columbia. But state and city governments, schools, banks and post offices institute their own holidays to coincide with the federal schedule. Thus, most of the country’s federal holidays are noted in all 50 of the United States. The 11 federal holidays are: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, George Washington’s birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
America’s Patriotic Holidays and Noteworthy Calendar Days
(And a few others, too).
Along with the “standard” January holiday -- New Year’s Day --, Americans celebrate the birthday of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the third Monday of the month. King’s actual birth date is January 15th (1929). Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi combine MLK Jr. Day with Robert E. Lee Day, to mark the birth date of the confederate general (whose actual birthday was on January 19, 1807). Florida and Georgia also celebrate Robert E. Lee Day (on January 19th). The Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was signed in to law in 1983, becoming effective in 1986.
January 20th; following a U.S. presidential election is Inauguration Day, when the president and vice president are sworn into office. But when the 20th falls on a Sunday, the public inauguration ceremony takes place the next day. Originally, Inauguration Day was March 4th but the 12th Amendment, ratified on January 23, 1933, set the new date in January. The last president to be sworn into office on March 4th was Franklin D. Roosevelt. On Inauguration Day, some federal government employees who work in Washington D. C. and nearby areas of Virginia and Maryland are given the day off, in order to lessen traffic congestion in ceremonial areas.
George Washington was born on February 22nd -- his birthday was noted as a federal holiday from 1879 until 1971. Although the “legal” name is still “Washington’s Birthday,” celebration of this day now takes place on the third Monday in February because in 1968, Congress created the Uniform Holiday Act. The Uniform Holiday Act went into effect in 1971, allowing holidays to be commemorated on fixed dates so that weekends can be lengthened through to Mondays.
Although there has never been a federal holiday honoring Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12th, some state governments and schools have observed (or still do) his birthday. Presidents’ Day is not an official holiday, nor is the observance of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on the third Monday in February. However, because the two presidents’ actual birthdays fall closely together and Washington’s is commemorated on the third Monday of the month, they are often celebrated as one. Presidents' Day, in later years, has become an observance to honor all United States presidents. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Memorial Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day are also celebrated on Mondays, regardless of their actual dates.
Various patriotic state holidays including; Texas Independence Day (March 2, 1836), when Texas separated from Mexico (Texas became a U.S. state in December of 1845); Massachusetts Evacuation Day (March 17, 1776), when British troops left Boston in what may be considered as the first American military victory in the American Revolutionary War); Maryland Day (March 25, 1634), to commemorate the settlers who came to colonize St. Clement’s Island; and, on the last Monday in March, Seward Day commemorates 1867’s purchase of Alaska (by the United States from Russia). Seward Day is named for U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, who inked the 7.2 million dollar deal with Russia on March 30, 1867.
Not a federal holiday but, since 1970, Americans have observed Earth Day on April 22nd (although the date was originally set to coincide with the spring equinox on March 20th). Earth Day promotes ecology, pollution control and protection of the environment. Similarly, Arbor Day is on the last Friday of April. Plant some trees!
Memorial Day, on the last Monday in May, is more than just the start of the summer picnic season. Once known as Decoration Day, the holiday was created to remember those killed in the American Civil War. However, Memorial Day now honors all American soldiers and civilians who have died in United States’ wars and conflicts. Religious services, parades, graveyard tending and storytelling help to commemorate the day. The actual date of Memorial Day is May 30th.
June 14th is Flag Day, celebrating the adoption of the U.S. flag in 1777. On June 14, 1777, the second Continental Congress from America’s original 13 colonies established an army to rebel against the rule of King George III and Great Britain. The battles at Lexington and Concord had taken place in April of that year and the American Revolutionary War would soon follow. Although not an official federal holiday, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation in 1916, declaring June 14th to be Flag Day. In 1949, Congress voted to call it National Flag Day.
Independence Day on July 4th celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, following the American Revolution. “… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”
In 1870, congress created an Independence Day holiday for federal employees but it wasn’t until 1938 that full-time workers received the day off with pay.
July 27; National Korean War/Armistice Day/Armistice Day: in memory and honor of those who served in the Korean War from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953.
National Airborne Day; on August 16th, recognizes a (1940) platoon of army soldiers who first volunteered to parachute from aircraft behind enemy lines during combat. The mission led to the creation of several paratrooper airborne divisions operating in World War II.
Women’s Equality Day; is celebrated on August 26thto commemorate the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote (1920). Since 1971, Women’s Equality Day, says The National Women’s History Project, promotes women’s efforts for “the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States” (Joint Resolution of Congress; Bella Abzug, D-NY; 1971).
Labor Day, the first Monday in September, honors American workers. Before Labor Day became an official federal holiday in 1894, more than half of the country was already celebrating it. But President Grover Cleveland signed the bill into law shortly after the end of the Pullman Strike, which occurred when non-unionized railroad employees faced off against the area’s train car manufacturing company. The company laid off workers and lowered wages but did not lessen the amount of money employees had to pay in rent for company-owned housing or for products purchased in company stores.
September 11; Patriot Day/National Day of Service and Remembrance is a joint resolution of Congress originally passed in December of 2001. The resolution officially mourns and remembers American (and International) citizens and visitors lost in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Each year on Patriot Day, Americans are asked to lower flags to half-staff and to observe a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m. -- the time when the first plane slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Also known as Patriots Day, Patriot's Day and Patriots' Day.
September 17; Citizenship Day and Constitution Day/Week: the decree “officially” recognizes the United States Constitution and newly sworn American citizens. The U.S. Constitutional Convention signed the document on September 17, 1787.
Columbus Day is the second Monday of October. A federal holiday since 1937, Columbus Day commemorates navigator Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas; his arrival noted on October 12, 1492.
Veterans Day on November 11th honors men and women who currently serve and have previously served in America’s armed forces. Unlike Memorial Day, which remembers those who died during their service, Veterans Day recognizes the efforts of all military personnel. Originally called Armistice Day when President Woodrow Wilson signed the law in 1919, Congress updated the act in May of 1938 to make it a legal holiday. The holiday was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
First Tuesday after the first Monday of November is Election Day. The federal government, as well as state and municipal entities, observes this day for the election of public officials. Voters elect federal officials on even-numbered years; presidential elections are held every four years but congressional elections come every two years. States and municipalities may hold elections on Election Day or during some other months of the year, depending on their state or local government rules. Most states now allow for early voting or ballots by mail.
The Fourth Thursday of November is Thanksgiving Day for the United States. Canada celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.
Fourth Friday of November is Native American Heritage Day, set up to pay tribute to Native American contributions to the United States. The law became official in October of 2008.
National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is December 7th. On that Sunday morning in 1941, Japan’s forces launched a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, the United States “suffered 3,435 casualties and loss of or severe damage to 188 planes, 8 battleships, 3 light cruisers and 4 miscellaneous vessels."
In his speech to Congress on December 8th, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said that December 7, 1941 is “a date which will live in infamy". The United States declared war on Japan on December 8th. Three days later, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States, dragging the previously and mainly neutral country into World War II.
December 25; Christmas Day is a federal holiday.
Presidential Decrees, Proclamations and lesser-known holidays include:
- Religious Freedom Day
January 16th; the anniversary of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom passage that was introduced by Thomas Jefferson in 1786.
- Loyalty Day
May 1st; originally called “Americanization Day” in 1921 as a reaction to Russia’s Labor Day. Loyalty Day is a legal holiday, declared by Congress in 1958.
- National Defense Transportation Day
Third Friday in May; first enacted in 1962 to urge “labor, management, users, and investors" ... "in all communities served by the various forms of transportation" ... "to serve the United States in times of peace and in national defense."
- Honor America Days
Honor America Days run from June 14th to July 4th -- 21 days of American celebration.
And More ...
- National POW/MIA Day
Third Friday in September; to honor former (and current) Prisoners of War and soldiers who are Missing in Action. The American Legion continues its search efforts for information on unresolved cases.
- Casimir Pulaski
October 11th; honoring and remembering Casimir Pulaski, a Polish soldier who died in the American Revolution. Various cities hold regional celebrations and parades.
- United Nations Day
October 24; American presidents have recognized U.N. Day through proclamation since 1946.
- World Freedom Day
November 9th; U.S. observance to note 1989’s falling of the Berlin Wall in Germany.
- Human Rights Day
December 10th; the United States recognition of the United Nation’s efforts to quell negative political, civil and social causes such as human trafficking, slavery, poverty, sickness and freedom of opinion and expression.
- Bill of Rights Day
December 15th; in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law a bill that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution. The anniversary is noted every year.
State governments have various holidays and commemorative observances. For example, Florida and Wisconsin celebrate women’s rights suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony Day on February 15th -- West Virginia’s observances are on even-numbered Election Day years. In Maine and Massachusetts on the third Monday in April, Patriot’s Day (also called Patriots’ Day) commemorates the battles at Lexington and Concord that took place at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Several dates in May or June are noted as Jefferson Davis Day, to honor the American Civil War’s Confederacy president.
State and local observances and holidays include (but are not limited to) those that commemorate war battles and participants, civil rights and political leaders, pioneers, presidential histories, cultural diversities and Native American heritage. Similar to the federal government, states may also note various religious and nondenominational celebrations, holidays and events. United States territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands celebrate all American holidays, as well as secular and religious ones noted by local governments.
Americans have recognized “months” to publicize various topics, events and causes. For example, American Heart Month and Black History Month are in February. Other month-noted commemorations include; National Nutrition (March), Confederate History, Cancer Control and Child Abuse Prevention (April), Asian Pacific American Heritage and Steelmark (May), Gay and Lesbian Pride (June), National Hispanic Heritage (mid-September to mid-October), Breast Cancer Awareness (October), National Disability Employment Awareness (November) and Native American Heritage Month in November.
Also in February, March and April … Fun, But Not All That Patriotic
- February 2nd; Groundhog Day. Dating back to 1887, people visit Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to watch “Punxsutawney Phil” the groundhog. Legend has it that, when the little critter pokes his head above ground and if he sees his shadow, it means 6 more weeks of winter. Some other states have their own groundhog weather predictors.
- February 14th; Valentine’s Day. Chocolate, love, chocolate, flowers, chocolate, cards, chocolate, presents … Love, Love, Love.
- Mardi Gras (or “Carnival Season”) allows for celebrations from the end of Epiphany until the end of Fat Tuesday, which marks the Christian Lenten season that begins on Ash Wednesday. Theoretically, Mardi Gras is a religious commemoration -- not a national holiday -- but people enjoy the season for its frivolity. The biggest U.S. parties and parades are in New Orleans, Louisiana but other areas have them too. The calendar dates for Mardi Gras vary in February and March.
- March 17th; St. Patrick's Day for one of the most recognized patron saints of Ireland. Although St. Patrick’s Day is a Catholic holiday, it’s now day when everyone is Irish. And they drink a lot of beer.
- Let’s not forget April Fools’ Day on April 1st! The day is not an actual holiday but people in the United States and around the world play tricks on each other. Theories exist as to how this tradition got started, but nothing is, apparently, publicly or easily available to credibly substantiate them.
© 2013 Teri Silver