US Holidays

So in my last post I mentioned that the Americans have 10 or 11 national holidays, and mentioned Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day and Veterans Day. I’m sure some people have been trying to work out what the others might be, so here’s a list of holidays and my understanding of what they mean. I’ve also included a couple of other days that are significant, but not important enough to merit a day off work.

New Year’s Day. Celebrated on January 1. As in the UK it’s mainly a chance to recover after the celebrations of New Year’s Eve.

Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Commonly known as Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. Observed on the third Monday of January as this is around MLK’s birthday (January 15). I didn’t experience much cultural activity around this in my area, but there was a wreath laying event at the Martin Luther King memorial, a peace walk and parade in Southeast DC and musical tributes at the National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center.

George Washington’s Birthday. Sometimes known as Presidents’ Day as the holiday is usually observed on a day which falls between the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, but DC obviously prefers the official title. Observed on the third Monday of February, which is around Washington’s birthday (February 22). I’ve not experienced this holiday yet, but I’m informed that his hometown in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, marks the occasion with parades and other cultural events. Washington is one of America’s heroes – the general that won the Revolution and then went home to his farm, returning power to the civil government until they asked him back to become President.

[This might be a good place to point out that quite a few of these holidays are observed on a Monday, resulting in some nice long-weekends. This was not always the case – up until the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect these holidays were just observed on whichever day of the week they happened to fall, as is still the case for Veterans Day and the next holiday on our list, which is:]

Emancipation Day. This day is actually not a federal holiday I have now found, but is celebrated at different times of the year in different states, depending on when the slaves of those states learnt that they were free. In DC it is celebrated on April 16, which was the date that Lincoln signed the DC Compensated Emancipation Act (so named because in DC, exceptionally, the federal government compensated the former owners of slaves). This is a fun holiday with parades, music and probably fireworks.

Memorial Day. Not to be confused with Veterans Day. Observed on the last Monday in May and traditionally marks the beginning of the summer season. Parades celebrate those who died in all America’s wars and people dress up in period costume. Last year in DC the parade also featured Buzz Aldrin, which was quite exciting.

Independence Day. Observed, famously, on July 4, but which Americans unusually refer to as ‘4th of July’ – they never use this date formation, and we’re quite confused about it. This year ‘the 4th’ falls on a Saturday, so the federal holiday is being observed on the Friday. This is a good time of year in DC, so there’s rooftop partying, grilling (barbecuing), and a firework display on the mall.

Labor Day. Traditionally marks the end of the summer season (which is why there’s no wearing white after Labor Day). Observed first Monday of September, so to those of us from the UK it sometimes feels like the British August bank holiday. Officially this day celebrates workers, like the international workers’ day of May 1. There are parades, but mainly this holiday is about shopping at the sales.

Columbus Day. Observed on the second Monday in October. Most people are a bit confused by this day. In my experience this anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America leads to awkward conversations about who gave syphilis to whom (apparently the Native Americans to the sailors) and whether the day should in fact be a day of national mourning for America’s crimes against the indigenous population.

Veterans Day. Observed on November 11. While in the UK this is a sober Day of Remembrance, dedicated to those who have fallen in war (like the US’s Memorial Day), this is a more exuberant celebration of America’s troops – all who have served whether they lived or died. In DC this year there was a big concert and party on the mall. America’s respect for its Veterans can sometimes tip over into jingoism though, and this is one holiday where I feel very much like a foreigner.

Thanksgiving Day. Observed November 26. See my previous post about the Christmas season – it’s the holiday dedicated to turkey, family and giving thanks.

Christmas Day. Observed December 25. Again, see previous post. This is the only federal holiday associated with a religious festival.

Not Holidays:

Groundhog Day. Observed February 2. This is not, as I thought, when the day replays again and again, as in the film. It is the day when people gather to watch a groundhog come out of its burrow and predict whether there will be six more weeks of winter based on whether it sees its shadow or not. The ‘official’ predicting groundhog is called Punxsutawny Phil (from Punxsutawny Pennsylvania) and this year he saw his shadow, so we’re in for more cold weather.

Super Bowl Day. Not just a sporting event, but a cultural tradition with specific associated foods. There is a debate raging between the wings and nachos party and the pizza party. But everyone agrees that there has to be buckets of guacamole. Apparently Mexico and California have to time their harvest of avocados so as to fulfil the insane demand created by this day – the guys at Harris Teeter told me they had sold out of 1000 crates of avocados that week. People host parties, bars deliver snacks to your home, the streets outside are deserted – much like workplaces the next day.

Overall, I still don’t think that federal holidays make up for an insufficient amount of discretionary leave, but at least some of them are enjoyable.


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