Episode 20 (formerly 1608): US Federal Holidays

America has ten annual federal holidays, also called public holidays, national holidays or bank holidays. If a holiday is federal, it means that non-essential government offices such as the post office are closed, and employees are paid for the time off. Although it isn’t required, state government offices usually close, too. Many private businesses such as banks also close, but that’s up to the individual companies. Non-government employees don’t automatically get paid for the day off; if they do, it’s part of the company’s benefits package.

Congress must approve a proposal for a federal holiday, and the president must sign it into law. There have been, and still are today, many proposals for federal holidays, but it is a long process for them to be approved and signed into law. Most proposals don’t become official holidays.

Congress declared the first federal holidays in 1870, and they applied only to federal workers in the District of Columbia. The list consisted of only four holidays: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. However, the law allowed for more holidays to be added in the future. Later, all government employees in the country were included in the holiday benefit and, of course, more holidays were added.

The current federal holidays are as follows:
New Year’s Day – January 1
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday – third Monday in January
Washington’s Birthday – third Monday in February
Memorial Day – last Monday in May
Independence Day – July 4
Labor Day – first Monday in September
Columbus Day – second Monday in October
Veterans Day – November 11
Thanksgiving Day – fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day – December 25

In most instances, a federal holiday has a rather long history of being an official observance at state or local levels first. Let’s take Veterans Day for example. It was celebrated as Armistice Day by presidential proclamation starting in 1919 to honor World War I veterans. It expanded to include World War II veterans in 1945. Then, a U.S. Representative introduced a bill into Congress to make the holiday federal. After passing both houses of Congress, President Eisenhower signed the bill into law in 1954.

Notice that three federal holidays occur on a Monday near the actual date of the historic event celebrated. This is to ensure a three-day weekend for federal employees. However, the holiday is scheduled near the actual event. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is January 15 and the official holiday is the third Monday of that month. Similarly, Washington’s actual birthday was February 22 and Columbus sighted land in North America on October 22.

The remaining holidays are celebrated on the dates listed. However, if they fall on a Saturday or Sunday when business offices are normally closed, the day off occurs on the following Monday.

Another thing you might notice is that the federal holidays are not religious holidays, with the exception of Christmas. Since the USA officially encourages religious freedom, there are some that think Christmas should not be a federal holiday. However, the nation’s founders were Christian and Christmas is so entrenched in the culture of the USA that eliminating it from the federal holiday roster is not likely.

That said, other ethnic groups and religions are free to celebrate days with special meaning to them without the government’s approval. Often, companies allow members of those groups to take paid days off because of their affiliations. Examples include Easter for Christians, the High Holy Days for Jews, Ramadan for Muslims, Day of Vesak for Buddhists, and Diwali for Hindus.

There are many other non-federal, secular observances as well, such as Valentine’s Day, Earth Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Flag Day and Halloween. For these, there are celebrations and traditions carried out but usually no closed businesses or paid time off.

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Episode 17 (formerly 1605): Memorial Day


Every year on the last Monday in May, Americans observe the Memorial Day holiday. It is a federal holiday that honors the fallen soldiers from wars fought by the USA.

Memorial Day began as a remembrance of soldiers who died in the Civil War. However, since World War I, Memorial Day has been a day of respect for soldiers who died in any conflict protecting the USA.

Historically, many communities had designated a day to appreciate those who were killed in battle. However, Waterloo, New York, is officially recognized as the birthplace of Memorial Day. On May 5, 1866, the townspeople there held solemn ceremonies and decorated soldiers’ graves with flowers.

In 1868, the leader of US military forces made a formal declaration that May 30th would be a day set aside for honoring soldiers who died in service by decorating their graves with flowers. Therefore, the day was named Decoration Day.

Nevertheless, it was not yet an official federal holiday. Instead, individual states could choose to have Decoration Day on May 30th or not. All of the states eventually designated a Decoration Day, but some states chose a different date. It was not until after World War I that most of the states conformed to the May 30th date.

And it wasn’t until 1971 that Decoration Day became a federal holiday. At the same time, the name was changed to Memorial Day, and the date was changed from May 30th to the last Monday in May. That way, federal workers could have a three-day weekend.

Today, Memorial Day is a very big deal. The president or vice-president lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. A small American flag is placed on each soldier’s grave there as well.

A major tradition you will see on Memorial Day is members of veterans organizations collecting donations on street corners and outside shops to help disabled veterans. In return for a donation, you get a small, red poppy made by a disabled vet. These little flowers are worn proudly that day.

At 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day, there is a national moment of silence to remember and honor the fallen soldiers. There is a national parade in Washington, D.C., and a big concert. In most communities across the nation, soldiers’ graves are decorated with flags or flowers, and there are parades, concerts, fireworks and celebrations on a smaller scale.

Nowadays, retailers use Memorial Day as an opportunity to have big sales. Families and friends gather on that weekend to have barbecues and parties. The Indianapolis 500 car race is held on Memorial Day weekend. It is unofficially regarded as the beginning of summer, and people make the most of the long weekend.

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