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

List of federal holidays[edit]

Most of the eleven 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 Remarks
January 1 New Year's Day Celebrates beginning of the Gregorian calendar year. Festivities usually start the previous evening.
Third Monday of January Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Honors Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader, born January 15, 1929. Has been renamed or combined with other holidays in some states, for example Lee–Jackson–King Day in Virginia (now split into two holidays).
January 20 (every 4th year, or the 21st if the 20th is a Sunday) Inauguration Day Inauguration of President of the United States and other elected federal officials. Observed only by federal employees who work in Washington, D.C., Montgomery or Prince George's counties in Maryland, or Arlington or Fairfax counties or the cities of Alexandria or Falls Church in Virginia. When this observance is the same day as the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, employees who normally receive a holiday for Inauguration Day are not entitled to an in-lieu-of holiday.[5]
Third Monday of February Washington's Birthday Honors George Washington, born February 22, 1732. Sometimes labeled "Presidents Day" by state and local governments, in recognition of other American presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln, born February 12. The legal name of the federal holiday, however, remains "Washington's Birthday". It was historically observed on February 22, prior to passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act by Congress.
Last Monday of May Memorial Day Also known as "Decoration Day". Originated in the 19th century as a day to decorate the graves of soldiers who gave their lives in the American Civil War. As the end of May coincides (in many areas) with the end of the school year, Memorial Day is unofficially considered the beginning of the summer recreational season in America. It was historically observed on May 30, prior to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
July 4 Independence Day Celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Popularly known as the "Fourth of July".
First Monday of September Labor Day Celebrates achievements of workers and the labor movement. As Labor Day coincides (in many areas) with the beginning of the school year, Labor Day is unofficially considered the end of the summer recreational season in America.
Second Monday of October Columbus Day Marks the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, when he landed in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492 (according to the Julian calendar). It has been celebrated since 1792 in New York City.[citation needed] Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set aside Columbus Day in 1934 as a federal holiday at the request of the Knights of Columbus.[citation needed] Historically observed on October 12, prior to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
November 11 Veterans Day Also known as Armistice Day, and (although rarely in the U.S.) occasionally called "Remembrance Day", Veterans Day is the American name for the international holiday which commemorates the signing of the Armistice ending World War I. In the United States, the holiday honors all veterans of the United States Armed Forces, whether or not they have served in a conflict; but it especially honors the surviving veterans of wars.[citation needed] The American holiday was briefly moved to the fourth Monday in October under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, but the change was greatly disliked and soundly criticized – among other reasons, because it put Veterans Day out of sync with international observance; so it was restored to November 11.[citation needed]
Fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day Many Americans have a turkey dinner in honor of the dinner shared by Native Americans and the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Historically, Thanksgiving Day was observed on various days, although by 1863 it was observed on the last Thursday of November. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the third Thursday of November (known as Roosevelt Thanksgiving), at the request of numerous powerful American merchants. A sizable portion of the public and a large number of state officials protested the change, however, and on December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a joint Congressional resolution that changed Thanksgiving Day back to the Fourth Thursday of November. (Many Americans also receive the Friday following Thanksgiving Day off work, and so many people begin their Christmas shopping on that Friday. However, the Friday following Thanksgiving is not a federal holiday.)
December 25 Christmas Day A worldwide holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. Popular aspects of the holiday include decorations, emphasis on family togetherness, and gift giving. Designated a federal holiday by Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870 (16 Stat. 168), however this only applied to federal employees in Washington D.C. The holiday did not apply to all federal employees until 1968 [6] (Pub.L. 90–363, 82 Stat. 250-251).[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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).[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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, criticism, and social views[edit]

Some people have objected to honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Christopher Columbus with holidays. In particular, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina opposed the creation of Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.[13]

Columbus Day[edit]

Main article: Columbus Day

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.[14] 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." [15]

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.[16]

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.[17]
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[18]
Third Monday of May Malcolm X Day The holiday was proposed in H.R. 323 in 1993 and 1994 by Congressman Charles Rangel.[19]
June 14 Flag Day Proposed several times, but only to become a national observance when President Harry Truman signed it into law as such.[20]
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."[21]
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.[22]

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. ^ "Federal Holidays". Opm.gov. Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  6. ^ http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/STATUTE-82/pdf/STATUTE-82-Pg250-3.pdf
  7. ^ Stathis, Stephen. "Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application" (PDF). CRS Report for Congress. Retrieved May 9, 2013. 
  8. ^ Federal Holidays Calendars from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
  9. ^ https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/holidays.html
  10. ^ https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ref/abouttx/holidays.html
  11. ^ The War of 1812, Produced by the Northeast Regional Office, US National Parks Service, Eastern National, published in 2013, esp. p. 147
  12. ^ "Where they still celebrate Victory over Japan". 
  13. ^ Church, George (October 31, 1983). "A National Holiday for King". Time (Time Inc). Retrieved January 21, 2013. 
  14. ^ Cristogianni Borsella. On Persecution, Identity, and Activism. 
  15. ^ "Abolish Columbus Day". 
  16. ^ "What does it take for a federal holiday". 
  17. ^ "H.R. 655 - Susan B. Anthony Birthday Act". 
  18. ^ "Barack Obama calls for National Holiday for Cesar E. Chavez". 
  19. ^ "H.J.RES.323". 
  20. ^ "National Flag Day". 
  21. ^ "A History of National Native American Heritage Month: The Nation’s Efforts to Honor American Indians and Alaska Natives". 
  22. ^ "Should Election Day be a Holiday?". 

External links[edit]