Federal holidays in the United States

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In the United States, a federal holiday is an authorized holiday which has been recognized by the US government. Every year on a US federal holiday, non-essential federal government offices are closed, and every federal employee is paid for the holiday. Private-sector employees required to work on a legal holiday may receive holiday pay in addition to their ordinary wages.

Federal holidays are designated by the United States Congress in Title V of the United States Code (5 U.S.C. § 6103).[1] Congress has authority to create holidays only for federal institutions (including federally owned properties) and employees, and for the District of Columbia. However, as a general rule other institutions, including banks, post offices, and schools, may be closed on those days. In various parts of the country, state and city holidays may be observed in addition to the federal holidays.


The history of federal holidays in the United States dates back to June 28, 1870, when Congress created federal holidays "to correspond with similar laws of States around the District ... and ... in every State of the Union."[2] Although at first applicable only to federal employees in the District of Columbia, Congress extended coverage in 1885 to all federal employees.

The original four holidays were:

  • New Years Day
  • Independence Day
  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Christmas Day

George Washington's Birthday became a Federal holiday in 1880. In 1888 and 1894, respectively, Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) and Labor Day were created. In 1938, Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) was created to mark the end of World War I. The scope and the name of the holiday was expanded in 1954 to honor Americans who fought in World War II and the Korean conflict.

In 1968, the Monday Holiday Act of 1968 set shifted several holidays to always fall on a Monday and saw the establishment of Columbus Day.

In 1983, the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. became the nation's most recently established holiday. [3]

List of federal holidays[edit]

Most of the ten U.S. federal holidays are also state holidays. A holiday that falls on a weekend is usually observed on the closest weekday.[4] The official names came from the laws that define holidays for federal employees.

Date Official Name Percentage of Americans celebrating Remarks
January 1 (Fixed) New Year's Day[5] 72%[6] Celebrates beginning of the Gregorian calendar year. Festivities include counting down to 12:00 midnight on the preceding night, New Year's Eve, often with fireworks display and party. The ball drop at Times Square in New York City has become a national New Year's festivity. Traditional end of Christmas and holiday season.[7]
Third Monday in January Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. 26%[8] Honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights leader, who was actually born on January 15, 1929; combined with other holidays in several states. Some cities and municipalities hold parades; and more recently, the 1994 King Holiday and Service Act, which was passed to encourage Americans to transform the King Holiday into a day of citizen action volunteer service, has gained in popularity (sometimes referred to as a National Day of Service).
Third Monday in February (Presidents' Day) Washington's Birthday 52%[9] Washington's Birthday was first declared a federal holiday by an 1879 act of Congress. The Uniform Holidays Act, 1968, shifted the date of the commemoration of Washington's Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February (between February 15 and 21, meaning the observed holiday never falls on Washington's actual birthday). Because of this, combined with the fact that President Lincoln's birthday falls on February 12, many people now refer to this holiday as "Presidents' Day" and consider it a day honoring all American presidents. However, neither the Uniform Holidays Act nor any subsequent law changed the name of the holiday from Washington's Birthday to Presidents' Day.[10]
Last Monday in May Memorial Day 21%[11] Honors the nation's war dead from the Civil War onwards; marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season. (traditionally May 30, shifted by the Uniform Holidays Act 1968)
July 4 (Fixed) Independence Day 79%[12] Celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from British rule, also called the Fourth of July. Fireworks celebration are held in many cities throughout the nation.
First Monday in September Labor Day 53%[13][14] Celebrates the achievements of workers and the labor movement; marks the unofficial end of the summer season.
Second Monday in October Columbus Day 8%[15] Honors Christopher Columbus, traditional discoverer of the Americas. In some areas it is also a celebration of Indigenous Peoples, or Italian culture and heritage. (traditionally October 12)
November 11 (Fixed) Veterans Day 43% [16] Honors all veterans of the United States armed forces. It is observed on November 11 to recall the end of World War I on that date in 1918 (major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the Armistice with Germany went into effect).
Fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving Day 87%[17] Traditionally celebrates the giving of thanks for the autumn harvest. Traditionally includes the sharing of a turkey dinner.
December 25 (Fixed) Christmas 90%–95%[18][19] The most widely celebrated holiday of the Christian year, Christmas is observed as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

New Year's Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Christmas Day are observed on the same calendar date each year. Holidays that fall on a Saturday are observed by federal employees who work a standard Monday to Friday week on the previous Friday. Federal employees who work on Saturday will observe the holiday on Saturday; Friday will be a regular work day. Holidays that fall on a Sunday are observed by federal workers the following Monday. The other holidays always fall on a particular day of the week.[20]

Although many states recognize most or all federal holidays as state holidays, Federal law cannot compel them to do so. Furthermore, states can recognize other days as state holidays. As an example, the State of Texas recognizes all federal holidays except Columbus Day, and in addition recognizes the Friday after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and the day after Christmas as state holidays.[21] Furthermore, Texas does not follow the federal rule of closing either the Friday before if a holiday falls on a Saturday, or the Monday after if a holiday falls on a Sunday (offices are open on those Fridays or Mondays), but does have "partial staffing holidays" (such as March 2, which is Texas Independence Day) and "optional holidays" (such as Good Friday).[22]

Private employers also cannot be required to observe federal or state holidays, the key exception being federally-chartered banks. Some private employers, often by a union contract, pay a differential such as time-and-a-half or double-time to employees who work on some federal holidays. However, most non-unionized private sector employees only receive their standard pay for working on a federal holiday if it is not a designated holiday at their company.[citation needed]

Former federal holidays[edit]

Date Official Name Remarks
January 8 The Eighth Celebrates the U.S. victory in the Battle of New Orleans. Was in place 1828 to 1861.
Third Monday of August Victory Day Celebrates the U.S. victory against Japan in the conclusion of World War II. Was in place 1948 to 1975.

Over the course of U.S. history, federal holidays were created and then abolished over time as their significance wanes over time. Two holidays, the Eighth and Victory Day were once celebrated. Between 1828 and 1861, "The Eighth" was a holiday that marked the U.S. victory in the Battle of New Orleans on January 8th, 1815, with Tennessee's Andrew Jackson leading a successful battle against regular British soldiers and freed slaves. Following Jackson's Election as US President, the day earned official national recognition. The Eighth continued as an official National Holiday from 1828 until the advent of the US Civil War.[23] Victory Day marked the "Victory over Japan" and had remained a national holiday until 1975. While both holidays remains largely forgotten by the American public, the U.S. state of Rhode Island still officially observes Victory Day with public offices and schools being closed.[24]

Legal holidays due to presidential proclamation[edit]

Federal law also provides for the declaration of other public holidays by the President of the United States. Generally the president will provide a reasoning behind the elevation of the day, and call on the people of the United States to observe the day "with appropriate ceremonies and activities." Examples of Presidentially-declared holidays were the days of the funerals for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford; federal government offices were closed and employees given a paid holiday.

Controversy and criticism[edit]

Some individuals and organizations have objected to the federal status of certain holidays, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Columbus Day. In particular, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina opposed the creation of the federal holiday for the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr in 1983.[25]

Columbus Day[edit]

Wide protests by the Native American community as well as some Italian Americans support the abolition of Columbus Day, mainly due to its ideology in "forcefully" conquering and converting whole populations with another and encouraging "imperialism" and "colonization."[26] Glenn Morris of the Denver Post wrote that Columbus Day "... is not merely a celebration of Columbus the man; it is the celebration of a racist legal and political legacy - embedded in official legal and political pronouncements of the U.S. - such as the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny." [27]

Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, and South Dakota are U.S. states that do not recognize Columbus Day at all, though Hawaii and South Dakota mark the day with an alternative holiday or observance. South Dakota is the only state to recognize Native American Day as an alternate. Hawaii recognizes Discover's Day.

Christmas Day[edit]

Christmas Day as a federal or public holiday is also sometimes objected to by various sources,[28][29][30] usually due to its ties with the Christian religion. In December 1999, the U.S. District Court, in the case Ganulin vs. United States, denied the charge that Christmas Day's federal status violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, ruling that "the Christmas holiday has become largely secularized", and that "by giving federal employees a paid vacation day on Christmas, the government is doing no more than recognizing the cultural significance of the holiday".[31][32]

Proposed federal holidays[edit]

Many proposed federal holidays have come up over time. According to an article from CBS, federal holidays are generally "expensive" and they only allow federal workers to take the day off. As the U.S. federal government is a large employer, the holidays are expensive. If a holiday is controversial, opposition will generally cause bills that propose such holidays to die. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, for example, was one that took much effort to pass. And once it did pass, it took more effort for all states to eventually recognize it.[33]

The following list is an example of holidays that have been proposed and have reasons why they are not observed at the federal level today. Some of these holidays are observed at the state level.

Date Official Name Remarks
Third Monday of February Susan B. Anthony Day The holiday was proposed by Carolyn Maloney in a H. R. 655 on February 11, 2011. It falls on the same day as Washington's Birthday.[34]
Last Monday of March Cesar Chavez Day The holiday was proposed by California Democrat Joe Baca in H.R. 76 and was further endorsed by President Barack Obama[35]
Third Monday of May Malcolm X Day The holiday was proposed in H.R. 323 in 1993 and 1994 by Congressman Charles Rangel.[36]
June 14 Flag Day Proposed several times, but only to become a national observance when President Harry Truman signed it into law as such.[37]
Third Monday of September Native Americans' Day The holiday was petitioned for multiple times and was introduced into Congress multiple time, but was unsuccessful. The proclamation exists today as the "Native American Awareness Week."[38]
First Tuesday of November Election Day There have been multiple movements for this holiday to be official, with the last happening in with the "1993 Motor Voter Act", mainly to boost voter turnout.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cornell University Law School: US Code Collection. 6103". Law.cornell.edu. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  2. ^ "Federal Holidays: Evolution and Current Practices" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. Retrieved June 15, 2015. 
  3. ^ "Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application - U.S. Senate" (PDF). 
  4. ^ "2010 Federal Holidays". Opm.gov. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  5. ^ "5 U.S. Code § 6103 - Holidays | LII / Legal Information Institute". Law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  6. ^ "Survey: Most Americans not celebrating New Years Eve". 
  7. ^ "New Year's Traditions". Infoplease.com. 2004-12-16. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  8. ^ "Making of the King holiday". 
  9. ^ "hhgregg Celebrates President's Day with Deals Inspired by America's First Ladies". 
  10. ^ "5 U.S. Code § 6103 - Holidays | LII / Legal Information Institute". .law.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2014-03-03. 
  11. ^ "Memorial Day". 
  12. ^ "Independence day". 
  13. ^ "Five Things Labor Unions Do To Celebrate Labor Day". 
  14. ^ "Labor Day". 
  15. ^ "Should We Still Celebrate Columbus Day?". 
  16. ^ "43 percent will do something special to honor Veterans Day". 
  17. ^ "13 percent Americans don't plan to celebrate Thanksgiving.". 
  18. ^ "Ever popular: 90 percent of all Americans celebrate Christmas". 
  19. ^ "Christmas Strongly Religious for Half in U.S. Who Celebrate It". Gallup, Inc. 
  20. ^ Federal Holidays Calendars from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  21. ^ https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/holidays.html
  22. ^ https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/holidays.html
  23. ^ The War of 1812, Produced by the Northeast Regional Office, US National Parks Service, Eastern National, published in 2013, esp. p. 147
  24. ^ "Where they still celebrate Victory over Japan". 
  25. ^ Church, George (October 31, 1983). "A National Holiday for King". Time (Time Inc). Retrieved January 21, 2013. 
  26. ^ Cristogianni Borsella. On Persecution, Identity, and Activism. 
  27. ^ "Abolish Columbus Day". 
  28. ^ Robin, Marci (December 9, 2014). "Christmas Should Not Be a National Holiday". TIME. Retrieved September 7, 2015. 
  29. ^ Gaylor, Annie (April 19, 2013). "Let's Observe Dec. 25, but not as Christmas". The New York Times. Retrieved September 7, 2015. 
  30. ^ "Why Should the Federal Government Celebrate the Birth of a God". Daily Kos. December 10, 2011. Retrieved September 7, 2015. 
  31. ^ Ganulin v. U.S.: Court Rules U.S. Government Can Recognize Christmas as Official Paid Holiday
  32. ^ Ganulin v. US | Leagle.com
  33. ^ "What does it take for a federal holiday". 
  34. ^ "H.R. 655 - Susan B. Anthony Birthday Act". 
  35. ^ "Barack Obama calls for National Holiday for Cesar E. Chavez". 
  36. ^ "H.J.RES.323". 
  37. ^ "National Flag Day". 
  38. ^ "A History of National Native American Heritage Month: The Nation’s Efforts to Honor American Indians and Alaska Natives". 
  39. ^ "Should Election Day be a Holiday?". 

External links[edit]