American Holidays and Celebrations
American employees, unlike their French counterparts, do not have long vacations, generally only 2-3 weeks, so public holidays and long week-ends take on added importance.
Strictly speaking, the United States does not have national holidays (i.e. days where all employees in the U.S. receive a day free from work and all business is halted). The U.S. Federal government can only recognize national holidays that pertain to its own employees. These days are called “federal holidays.” Many federal holidays are observed on a Monday to give federal employees and the general population a long week-end, with the exception of New Year's Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, holidays. There are other important holidays in the United States for which federal organizations do not close. These days are called “federal observances” and include Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and Halloween. In the U.S., most retail businesses close on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but remain open on all other holidays. Private businesses often observe only the "big six" holidays (New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas). Some also add the Friday after Thanksgiving, or one or more of the other federal holidays.
This is a partial list of some of the most significant federal holidays and observances to give you an idea of what to expect upon your arrival in the United States:
The holiday season in the winter traditionally runs between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, which encompasses the Winter solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa (Christmas as celebrated by some African-Americans.) Summer traditionally (though unofficially) runs between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
New Year’s Day: (January 1 – federal holiday)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: (third Monday in January – federal holiday)
Honors the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leading Civil Rights Activist in America during the 1960’s. Dr. King’s birthday is on January 15.
President’s Day: (third Monday in February – federal holiday)
Honors of the birthday of George Washington, the first President of the United States and a leading General of the Revolutionary War. Washington’s actual birthday is on February 22.
Labor Day (first Monday in September-federal holiday)
The holiday originated in 1882 as the Central Labor Union (of New York City) sought to create "a day off for the working man".
Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May)
Celebrates mothers and motherhood. Typical activities include gift-giving, special dinners for mothers, and family-oriented activities.
Memorial Day: (last Monday in May – federal holiday):
Honors citizens who have died in wars. This is also the unofficial beginning of the summer.
Father’s Day (third Sunday in June)
Honors fathers and fatherhood; the complement to Mother’s Day.
July 4 (federal holiday)
Also called the “Fourth of July,” this holiday celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document declared that the thirteen American colonies were independent from Great Britain, and so July 4 is considered the “birthday” of the United States. Typical American activities for this day include picnics, barbeques, parades, and fireworks.
Columbus Day: (second Monday in October – federal holiday)
Honors Christopher Columbus, traditionally considered to have “discovered” the Americas. Some areas also use this day to celebrate Native American life and culture
Halloween (October 31)
Celebrates all things scary and goulish. Children celebrate by dressing up in costumes and going “trick-or-treating:” They walk up to doors, say “trick or treat” and receive small candies or sweets. This holiday is widely practiced; it is a good idea to buy some candy in case you receive visitors on this day.
Veteran’s Day (November 11 – federal holiday)
Honors all of the Veterans in the United States armed forces.
Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November – federal holiday)
Traditionally celebrates the giving of thanks for the autumn harvest. Typical celebration includes consumption of a large “Turkey dinner,” complete with stuffing and cranberry sauce. This is also considered to be the start of the “holiday season.” (Note: Thanksgiving is not celebrated in the U.S. on the same day in Canada).
Christmas Day: (December 25 – federal holiday)