Question Background Information


There are ten national holidays in the United States today.  They are also known as “federal holidays” or “bank holidays” because on those days, most federal offices are closed, including banks and the Post Office.

The first day of the year, New Year’s Day is traditionally spent with friends and family. There are football games on, and many people mark the day with a traditional dinner. 

Not all holidays have a single, set date. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is on the third Monday of January. King was a Christian minister and civil rights leader. He is most remembered for helping ensure the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as his “I Have a Dream” speech calling for Americans to follow through on the promises of equality found in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Christian beliefs of most of the country, but which were being widely denied to black Americans. King’s advocacy of nonviolent protest in pursuit of these goals led to him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Formerly celebrated as “Washington’s Birthday,” Presidents’ Day is observed on the third Monday in February. It is typically considered a day to honor Presidents Washington and Lincoln, both of whom have a birthday in February and are often considered two of the greatest presidents in history.  Many schools and organizations use the day to celebrate Washington and Lincoln, stage historic reenactments, or learn more about the presidents.

On the last Monday in May is Memorial Day, a day in which the nation honors the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who died while serving their country.  Its original name was “Decoration Day,” as tradition involved placing flowers on soldiers’ graves. Decoration Day began after the Civil War, and the first national celebration of the day took place at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868.  The tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves continues today at Arlington when the Army’s ceremonial unit, the “Old Guard,” places over 200,000 flags on each grave marker.

On July 2, the Second Continental Congress voted to proclaim independence from England. The Declaration of Independence was formally adopted on July 4, which is the day that we now celebrate independence. Independence Day, also called the “4th of July,” is traditionally observed by picnics, parades, concerts, and fireworks displays. 
Just as Memorial Day is the informal beginning of summer, Labor Day is the informal end. Observed on the first Monday of September, it was made a federal holiday in 1894, and arose out of earlier efforts by unions and state governments to celebrate the contributions of labor.  

Columbus Day, originally celebrated on October 12, marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the Americas.  The first celebration was in 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing.  Today, rather than have a fixed date, Columbus Day falls on the second Monday in October.  Because Columbus was Italian, the day often turns into a celebration of Italian American heritage, and was added as a national holiday during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Some have argued to change the holiday to “Indigenous Peoples Day.”

On November 11, Veterans Day, the nation honors those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces.  It is held on November 11th of each year.  The choice of the 11th is symbolic, for, in 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the armistice ending World War I was signed.  It was originally known as “Armistice Day.”  

Thanksgiving Day, held on the fourth Thursday each November, is traditionally spent with family and friends. It merges two Pilgrim celebrations: a day of giving thanks to God, and a fall harvest celebration when the colonists and the Wampanoag tribe feasted together in Plymouth in 1621. Thanksgiving was initially proclaimed a federal holiday by George Washington, who called for a day for Americans to thank God for the blessings rendered to the republic, a sporadic practice which was made permanent by President Abraham Lincoln, his successors, and Congress.

The final national holiday of the year is Christmas Day. It is celebrated on December 25 and marks the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christian believe to be the Son of God.  It is not a celebration that is exclusive to Christians, but includes many secular or secularized traditions such as gift giving, family gatherings, and Christmas trees.

Additional Content

Discussion Prompts


There are ten national, or federal, holidays on the calendar, and on these days, non-essential federal offices such as banks and the U.S. Post Office, are closed. While Christmas is a religious holiday and New Year’s Day is a cultural one, many federal holidays commemorate major events, celebrate famous people in U.S. history, and honor those who have sacrificed for and contributed to the United States.

Prompt 1 

In the U.S. there are ten national holidays.  These are federally recognized holidays, meaning that all federal offices close on these days.  Can you name three national holidays in the U.S.?  Can you name the other seven?

Prompt 2

Adding federal holidays has often been contentious—and some have argued we should remove one or more of the current holidays. How should we decide what should count as a federal holiday? Support your answer with reference to current events or history.