10 Federal U.S. Holidays and Plenty of Other Reasons to Celebrate

Perhaps some of you have American friends, or in your pursuit to study English you have come across through conversation, reading about, or in your travels some holidays that are celebrated in the United States.  It can be helpful to learn about holidays celebrated by other cultures especially if you plan to travel or work in those particular countries and if you have friends who live in other countries.

I always enjoyed learning about other holidays.  It was fun to join in these holiday celebrations and also helpful to have some background about a few important holidays to better understand the culture when I traveled and taught overseas. So I hope to share with you a brief overview of the US federal holidays and some commonly observed celebrations in the US. There is also a mention of some ethnic and religious holidays.

Most government offices in the US are closed on federal holidays, however private businesses can choose to close or remain open.  If the holiday falls on the weekend or midweek, the observance may be held the following Monday.

First, let’s look at federal American holidays:

New Year’s Day is January 1st, the first day of the new year.  The celebration begins the night before as Americans gather to wish each other a happy new year. There is partying and singing of Auld Lang Syne.  On New Year’s Eve, there is a countdown beginning right before clock strikes midnight and firework displays. New Year’s resolutions are made by many Americans.  Basically, these are goals that people want to reach during the year.  Typical resolutions include losing weight and exercising; paying off debt and saving money; maybe finishing that college degree or getting a new job; finding a love interest or repairing a relationship, etc.

Martin Luther King (MLK), Jr. Day is celebrated on the third Monday in January.  King was an African-American reverend who worked to promote civil rights for all people. His famous I Have a Dream speech talks about his wish that one day white and black people will be true friends and be treated equally.  There are memorial services with speeches and songs in honor of King and awards given to community members who have continued King’s important work with civil rights.

George Washington, the first President of the US, is honored on the third Monday of February.  This date is traditionally called Presidents’ Day.  Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President who worked tirelessly against slavery and other past presidents are also honored on this date.  There may be parades and other celebrations held. School children study the presidents and put on plays about the presidents’ contributions to American history.

Memorial Day is the last Monday of May.  At first this holiday was intended to honor the people killed in the American Civil War.  Today, it is a day set aside to remember Americans who served in any wars and in any branches of the armed services.  There are parades and graveside memorial services. People wear red, white and blue and display flags outside their homes and places of business.

Fourth of July is a holiday to celebrate the birth of the US when the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4th, 1776.  Americans celebrate this summer holiday with parades, band concerts, picnics and an evening of fireworks.  Friends and family members gather together to remember how America became the country of freedom it is today. Children enjoy the sparklers they twirl with different colors of light.

Labor Day is the first Monday in September.  Usually there are parades in honor of the working people of America.  This day also marks the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.  Many schools in the US start after Labor Day.  The tourist season of summer is over and fall is right around the corner.

Columbus Day is the second Monday in October.  In honor of Italian navigator Christopher Columbus who landed in the New World on October 12, 1492, people hang out flags.  There may be smaller ceremonies held in his honor at schools and in towns.  Children are taught about how America was discovered.

Veterans Day is celebrated on November 11th with the original idea to honor Americans who served during World War I.  Today, this holiday honors all veterans of all wars fought by the US.  There are parades held in many cities.  The current US President places a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. This tomb refers to a monument that dedicates the services of an unidentified soldier which represents the memories of all soldiers killed in any war.

Thanksgiving Day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November to honor the Pilgrims who celebrated their first bountiful harvest with a three-day feast.  This day was spent with Native Americans who came with foods to share for the feast.  Today, the Thanksgiving feast is a US tradition and many Americans eat the traditional foods of roast turkey, dressing, corn, potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce and that tasty pumpkin pie.

Christmas Day on December 25th is a Christian holiday that honors the birth of Jesus Christ.  People decorate their homes with lights and fir trees, send Christmas cards and give gifts.  A traditional belief that Santa Claus will come on his sleigh pulled by reindeer, and bring gifts down the chimney to “good boys and girls” is a practice that continues with children leaving cookies and milk for Santa and sugar for the reindeer on Christmas Eve.  Santa keeps a list of how the children behaved during the year and children send him their own letters of their most wanted toys.

In addition to the Federal holidays, there are many commonly observed celebrations in the US. Some of the more popular ones include:

Groundhog’s Day on February 2nd where people gather in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (an eastern state) to see if the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow after coming out of his burrow.  If he does, then the superstition says there will be 6 more weeks of winter. If not, then spring comes!

February 14th marks Valentine’s Day, a holiday named after an early Christian martyr.  Today, Americans give cards, candy and flowers to the ones they love.  Children exchange valentines and candy treats with the entire class of students at school. The colors of red, white and pink are often worn on this day.

On April 22nd, Earth Day is celebrated to encourage any measures to help keep the earth clean from further land, air and water pollution.  There may be gatherings to promote ecology and lectures, etc. for people to learn more about what they can do to preserve the earth.  Communities work on projects to keep their cities, waterways and highways clean.

Arbor Day began about 150 years ago when settlers and homesteaders in Nebraska (a midwestern state) were encouraged to plant trees on the large treeless plains.  Today, trees are planted on this day in many cities throughout the US. Sometimes they are planted in honor of people who have made a considerable difference to that community. School children are often given small seedlings to plant at home and are taught about the importance of planting trees and their role in our lives.The second Sunday of May is set aside as Mother’s Day to honor all mothers.  Children make homemade cards and gifts for their mothers. Flowers are presented. Serving breakfast and taking their mothers out to eat are popular practices.

Flag Day is celebrated on June 14th throughout the US with many Americans displaying flags outside their homes and businesses to honor the history of the American flag. There are parades held throughout the US to honor what the flag represents. The flag colors of red, white and blue are everywhere from clothing worn that day to decorations in restaurants and stores, etc.

Father’s Day is the third Sunday in June.  Similar to Mother’s Day, fathers are honored with gifts and cards for their contribution to families.

September 11th is the day that commemorates the nearly 3000 people who died as a result of the terrorists who hijacked four airliners and targeted the US.  Memorial services are held in honor of these victims.  People may visit the sites in New York to offer condolences to the families of those that were killed.

October 31st celebrates Halloween.  Children dress up in costumes either funny or scary to “trick or treat” around neighborhoods to get candy.  The time of “trick or treating” is decided by individual cities and lasts 2-3 hours in the late afternoon or evening.  Households turn on outside lights so children know that they can knock on the doors of these homes.  They shout “trick or treat” after the person opens the door.  Most often there are “treats” of candy or money that children are given.  The children carry plastic pumpkin-shaped containers or bags to gather the candy.  Oftentimes, businesses will have additional time for children to come and “trick or treat” there, as well.  People often wear orange and black on this day, or don a costume. Traditional costumes are a witch, ghost or skeleton. Famous people are also popular.  Often there are costume contests to select the most creative costumes.  Children look forward to a special costume and all of that candy.

Pearl Harbor Day is on December 7th, a national observance to honor the more than 2400 military service personnel who died on this date in 1941.  This was the day of the surprise attack in Hawaii by Japanese forces which triggered the US to enter World War II.

Birthdays are celebrated every year with parties, birthday cake, cards of good wishes, and presents.  Birthday parties are common and may include friends, relatives and friends.  Children bring cupcakes or cake to school to share with their classmates.  Candles are lit on the birthday cake and the song Happy Birthday is sung, after which the candles are blown out by the birthday honoree.  If all the candles go out, then the birthday wish that was made comes true.  If not, then the wish is said not to come true. And the remaining lit candles indicate the number of boyfriends or girlfriends the birthday honoree has (if male, then girlfriends; if female, then boyfriends).  It is a way to tease younger children and young teens.  Surprise birthday parties are quite common, too.  Friends and family gather to “surprise” the honoree on this day.  People go to great lengths to keep the surprise party a true surprise. As people get older, it is still tradition to honor their birthdays, however it is not necessarily polite to ask the age of the women who like to remain youthful-looking.

There are many ethnic and religious holidays celebrated in America, too.  For example, African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa (a harvest celebration for families and communities); Muslims celebrate Ramadan (the ninth month and a holy month of fasting); Jews observe several holy days in September (Rosh Hashanah –Jewish New Year; Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement; Sukkot – Feast of Tabernacles; Shmini Atzeret – Eighth Day of Assembly; and Simchat Torah – Day of Celebrating the Torah); and Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.

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