Home page

Last update:
  Mike Todd

American holidays & occasions

The President and Congress can only specify holidays for the District of Columbia and for federal employees and so it is up to individual states to legislate for their own legal holidays. These state holidays are often include some or all of the federal holidays, but may also include local legal holidays too. However, Congress can "declare" a particular holiday as a "national holiday" which basically tells states that they should include that holiday in the state's legal holidays.

There are basically 10 federal holidays, and on these days federal agencies throughout the USA will be closed. Where this doesn't coincide with a state holiday, only the federal agencies (like the post offices) will be closed. There's actually an additional "federal holiday", but it only applies to the District of Columbia, and this is Inauguration Day.

In the following table the holidays marked as F are those that are specified as federal legal holidays (that is, for federal employees). In general, if a fixed-day holiday falls on a Saturday, it will be observed on the Friday and if on a Sunday, it will be observed on the Monday following. And occasionally, if one of the big holidays (such as Independence Day) fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, the Monday or Friday is sometimes declared as an additional holiday to make a 4-day weekend.

New Years Day F Initially (in 1870) this was designated a federal holiday only in Washington DC, but in 1885, it was extended to all federal employees.
Inauguration Day   This is the day, since 1937 (prior to then it was 4 March), when the President is sworn in. It is a federal holiday only in Washington DC, and is not observed around the country. And if the President's inauguration takes place on a Sunday, the holiday is observed the following day.
3rd Monday
Martin Luther King Day F In 1983, Congress set this day aside to celebrate King's life and accomplishments. It was first observed in 1986.
Lincoln's Birthday   Although this was a commonly recognised holiday from 1866, it was never a federal holiday (despite what a number of references say). However. the state of Illinois recognised it as an official state holiday from 1892.
3rd Monday

Washington's Birthday
Presidents' Day)


Washington's birthday (22 Feb) was first observed as a holiday in 1782, but only became a federal holiday in 1880 (initially only for DC, but from 1885 it was observed by federal offices across the country).

It moved from 22 Feb in 1968, when the Monday Holiday Law was encated to rationalise federal holidays, and moved it to the 3rd Monday in February (possibly in error since this is a day on which Washington's birthday would never actually fall!)

It is still officially called Washington's Birthday, even though it is more commonly called President's Day.

Lincoln's birthday had been observed since 1866, and in 1892 the state of Illinois was the first to recognise it as an official holiday, but it was never given "federal" status. Instead, Washington's Birthday is commonly called President's Day, recognising the fact that it falls between Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays (some states refer to it as Washington-Lincoln Day)

In 1971, Washington's birthday holiday was moved to the 3rd Monday and eventually became known as "Presidents' Day", reflecting the fact that it was close to both Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays.

Arbor Day   First celebrated in 1872, this is a day for celebrating trees and nature in general. Although many people observe the day (by planting trees for instance), it is a legal holiday only in Nebraska.
  Good Friday   A holiday in some states, although some only observe a half or part of a day. It is not a federal holiday (just as it isn't a Bank Holiday in the UK)
last Monday
(see note)
Memorial Day
(originally Decoration Day)

This holiday honours all soldiers who have fallen in battle. It started during the Civil War, and is marked with parades and memorial services. Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day when it was first a federal holiday in 1888.

It is seen as the unofficial start of summer, since many facilities in the US open for their summer season between Memorial Day and Labor Day (or Thanksgiving Day).

Some southern states continue to call it Decoration Day, based on the practice of decorating the graves of those members of the family who died during the war.

It was observed on 30 May until the Monday Holiday Law in 1968 changed it to the last Monday. However, some states still observe Memorial Day on 30th May rather than the federal holiday of the last Monday.

Independence Day F

Probably the best known of US holidays, it celebrates the Declaration of Independence on 4th July 1776, and has been observed ever since. It is marked by parades, fireworks and a whole lot more.

Initially (in 1870) this was designated a federal holiday only in Washington DC, but in 1885, it was extended to all federal employees.

1st Monday
Labor Day F

Started in 1894, it was the idea of Peter J McGuire, who was the president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. It officially celebrates the American worker, and marks the unofficial end of summer.

Citizenship Day  

Not a legal holiday, but a day used to recognise the duties of an American citizen, particularly those applying for citizenship, who will often take their oath on this day. It was first recognised in 1952.

2nd Monday
Columbus Day
(Discoverers' Day or
Pioneers' Day)

Celebrates the first landing of Columbus in the Bahamas on 12th October 1492. It was first celebrated as a holiday 300 years later, but wasn't an official holiday until 1909. It is celebrated mainly by Italian-Americans, but is also a proper holiday in some areas.

1st Tuesday
1st Monday
Election Day   Designated each year as an election day, the actual elections that take place depend on which year.
Veterans Day F It used to be Armistice Day, a celebration of the end of World War I, and first observed as a legal holiday in 1938. However, in 1954 it became Veterans Day to honour all American war veterans.
4th Thursday
Thanksgiving Day F

Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts first gave thanks for their first harvest, and for the new land that they had colonized, in 1621.

It was Lincoln who made this a national observance in 1863, to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. In 1870 it was designated a federal holiday, butonly in Washington DC, and in 1885 it was extended to all federal employees.

In an attempt to increase the retail opportunities up to Christmas, FD Roosevelt brought it forward to the 3rd Thursday in 1939. However, it wasn't a success, and he fixed it once and for all as the 4th Thursday from 1942.

Christmas Day F Initially (in 1870) this was designated a federal holiday only in Washington DC, but in 1885, it was extended to all federal employees.
Boxing Day   Not a holiday in the US, but included here to make the point that Americans actually don't know anything about Boxing Day. It is a particularly British holiday, and you'll find few Americans understand you if you mention it!