American Holidays

American Holidays

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American Holidays is an introductory survey of the historical and social background ofAmerican holidays.
People in every culture celebrate holidays. Althoughthe word «holiday» literally means «holy day,» mostAmerican holidays are not religious, but commemorative in nature and origin.Because the nation is blessed with rich ethnic heritage it is possible to tracesome of the American holidays to diverse cultural sources and traditions, butall holidays have taken on a distinctively American flavor. In the United States,the word «holiday» is synonymous with «celebration! »
In the strict sense, there are no federal (national)holidays in the United States. Each of the 50 states hasjurisdiction over its holidays. In practice, however, most states observe thefederal («legal or public «) holidays, even though the President andCongress can legally designate holidays only for federal government employees.The following ten holidays per year are proclaimed by the federal government.
Holidays, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day (July 4), Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas.

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American Holidays
American Holidays is an introductory survey of the historical and social background ofAmerican holidays.
People in every culture celebrate holidays. Althoughthe word «holiday» literally means «holy day,» mostAmerican holidays are not religious, but commemorative in nature and origin.Because the nation is blessed with rich ethnic heritage it is possible to tracesome of the American holidays to diverse cultural sources and traditions, butall holidays have taken on a distinctively American flavor. In the United States,the word «holiday» is synonymous with «celebration! »
In the strict sense, there are no federal (national)holidays in the United States. Each of the 50 states hasjurisdiction over its holidays. In practice, however, most states observe thefederal («legal or public «) holidays, even though the President andCongress can legally designate holidays only for federal government employees.The following ten holidays per year are proclaimed by the federal government.

Martin Luther King Day
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a blackclergyman who is ranked among the greatest of black Americans because of hiscrusade to win full civil rights for his people. Preaching nonviolence, much inthe same way as had Mahatma Gandhi of India,Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and campaigned tirelessly to rid the United Statesof traditions and laws that forced on black Americans the status ofsecond-class citizens. Among these laws were those in some states whichrequired black people to take back seats in buses or which obstructed voting byblacks.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans,led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., used boycotts, marches, and other forms ofnonviolent protest to demand equal treatment under the law and an end to racialprejudice. A high point of this civil rights movement came on August 28, 1963,when more than 200,000 people of all races gathered in front of the LincolnMemorial in Washington, D.C., to hear King say: «I have a dream that oneday on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons offormer slaveholders will be able to sit down together at the table ofbrotherhood….I have a dream that my four little children will one day live ina nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by thecontent of their character.»
Not long afterwards the U.S. Congress passed lawsprohibiting discrimination in voting, education, employment, housing, andpublic accommodations.
The world was shocked when Dr. King was assassinatedin 1968. Ever since, special memorial services have marked his birthday onJanuary 15. By vote of Congress, the third Monday of every January, beginningin 1986, is now a federal holiday in Dr. King’s honor.
Presidents’ Day
Until the mid-1970s, the February 22 birthday of GeorgeWashington, hero of the Revolutionary War and first president of the United States,was a national holiday. In addition, the February 12 birthday of AbrahamLincoln, the president during the Civil War (1861-1865), was a holiday in moststates.
In the 1970s, Congress declared that in order to honorall past presidents of the United States, a single holiday, to be calledPresidents’ Day, would be observed on the third Monday in February. In manystates, however, the holiday continues to be known as George Washington’sbirthday.

Memorial Day
This holiday, on the fourth Monday of every May, is aday on which Americans honor the dead. Originally a day on which flags andflowers were placed on graves of soldiers who died in the American Civil War,it has become a day on which the dead of all wars and all other dead areremembered the same way.
In 1971, along with other holidays, President RichardNixon declared Memorial Day a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. Citiesall around the United Stateshold their own ceremonies on the last Monday in May to pay respect to the menand women who have died in wars or in the service of their country. In manycommunities, special ceremonies are held in cemeteries or at monuments for thewar dead by veterans of military services. Some hold parades and others holdmemorial services or special programs in churches, schools or other publicmeeting places.
Memorial Day is not limited to honor only thoseAmericans from the armed forces. It is also a day for personal remembrance.Families and individuals honor the memories of their loved ones who have died.Church services, visits to the cemetery, flowers on graves or even silenttribute mark the day with dignity and solemnity.
On Memorial Day, the President or Vice President ofthe United Statesgives a speech and lays a wreath on the tombs. Members of the armed forcesshoot a rifle salute in the air. Veterans and families come to lay their ownwreaths and say prayers. It is a day of reflection.
However, to many Americans the day also signals thebeginning of summer with a three-day weekend to spend at the beach, in themountains or at home relaxing.

Independence Day (July 4)
Independence Day is regarded as the birthday of the United Statesas a free and independent nation. Most Americans simply call it the»Fourth of July,» on which date it always falls.
The holiday recalls the signing of the Declaration ofIndependence on July 4, 1776.At that time, the people of the 13 British colonies located along the easterncoast of what is now the United Stateswere involved in a war over what they considered unjust treatment by the kingand parliament in Britain.The war began in 1775. As the war continued, the colonists realized that theywere fighting not just for better treatment; they were fighting for freedomfrom England’srule. The Declaration of Independence, signed by leaders from the colonies,stated this clearly, and for the first time in an official document thecolonies were referred to as the United States of America.
It is a day of picnics and patriotic parades, a nightof concerts and fireworks. The flying of the American flag (which also occurson Memorial Day and other holidays) is widespread. On July 4, 1976, the 200th anniversary ofthe Declaration of Independence was marked by grand festivals across thenation.
Independence Day 2001 commemorated the 225thanniversary of the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Labor Day
This holiday, which always is observed on the firstMonday of September has been a federal holiday since 1894, but was observed insome places before that day as a result of a campaign by an early organizationof workers called the Knights of Labor. Its purpose is to honor the nation’sworking people. In many cities the day is marked by parades of working peoplerepresenting the labor unions.
Most Americans consider Labor Day the end of thesummer, and the beaches and other popular resort areas are packed with peopleenjoying one last three-day weekend. For many students it marks the opening ofthe school year.
Columbus Day
This day commemorates Italian navigator ChristopherColumbus’ landing in the New World on October 12, 1492. Mostnations of the Americasobserve this holiday on October 12, but in the United States, annual observances takeplace on the second Monday in October. The major celebration of the day takesplace in New York City,which holds a huge parade each year.
Veterans Day
Originally called Armistice Day, this holiday wasestablished to honor Americans who had served in World War I. It falls onNovember 11, the day when that war ended in 1918, but it now honors veterans ofall wars in which the United States has fought.
Veterans’ organizations hold parades or other specialceremonies, and the president customarily places a wreath on the Tomb of theUnknowns at Arlington National Cemetery,across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving Day is the fourth Thursday in November,but many Americans take a day of vacation on the following Friday to make afour-day weekend, during which they may travel long distances to visit familyand friends.
The holiday dates back to 1621, the year after thePuritans arrived in Massachusetts,determined to practice their dissenting religion without interference. After arough winter, in which about half of them died, they turned for help toneighboring Indians, who taught them how to plant corn and other crops. Thenext fall’s bountiful harvest inspired the Pilgrims to give thanks by holding afeast.
The Thanksgiving feast became a national tradition —not only because so many other Americans have found prosperity but also becausethe Pilgrims’ sacrifices for their freedom still captivate the imagination.
To this day, Thanksgiving dinner almost alwaysincludes some of the foods served at the first feast: roast turkey, cranberrysauce, potatoes, pumpkin pie. Before the meal begins, families or friendsusually pause to give thanks for their blessings, including the joy of beingunited for the occasion.
Christmas
Christmas is a most important religious holy day forChristians, who attend special church services to celebrate the birth of Jesusof Nazareth. Because it is a religious holiday, it is not an official holiday.However, since most Americans are Christian, the day is one on which mostbusinesses are closed and the greatest possible number of workers, includinggovernment employees, have the day off. Many places even close early on the daybefore.
Naturally Christians observe Christmas according tothe traditions of their particular church. Besides the strictly religioustraditions, however, other common Christmas practices are observed by peoplewho are not religious or who are not Christian. In this way, some Christmastraditions have become American traditions.
Gift-giving is so common at Christmas time that formost stores it means a sharp increase in sales. Stores, in fact, are full ofshoppers from Thanksgiving time in late November until the day beforeChristmas. This situation has caused many religious people to complain that thereligious meaning of Christmas is being subverted, that Christmas has become»commercial.» Despite the criticism, Christmas shopping is a majoractivity of many Americans in the month of December. Gifts are given tochildren, members of the family and close friends. They are given to people whohave done favors to others or who work for them. Some people bake cookies ormake candies or other special food treats for friends and neighbors. Manybusinesses give their workers a Christmas «bonus» — gifts of extramoney — to show appreciation for their work. Christmas is also a time when mostAmericans show great generosity to other less fortunate than they. They sendmoney to hospitals or orphanages or contribute to funds that help the poor.
Most Americans send greeting cards to their friendsand family at Christmas time. Some people who are friends or relatives and livegreat distances from each other may not be much in contact with each otherduring year — but will usually exchange greeting cards and often a Christmasletter telling their family news.
The decorating of homes for Christmas is very common.Most American who observe Christmas have a Christmas tree in their homes. Thismay be a real evergreen tree or an artificial one. In either case, the tree isdecorated and trimmed with small lights and ornaments. Other decorations suchas lights and wreaths of evergreen and signs wishing a «MerryChristmas» can be found inside and outside of many homes.

In 1971, the dates of many federal holidays wereofficially moved to the nearest Monday by then-President Richard Nixon. Thereare four holidays which are not necessarily celebrated on Mondays: ThanksgivingDay, New Year’s Day, Independence Day and Christmas Day. When New Year’s Day,Independence Day, or Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, the next day is also aholiday. When one of these holidays falls on a Saturday, the previous day isalso a holiday. Federal government offices, including the post office, arealways closed on all federal holidays. Schools and businesses close on majorholidays like Independence Day and Christmas Day but may not always be closed,for example, on Presidents’ Day or Veterans’ Day.
Federal holidays are observed according to thelegislation of individual states. The dates of these holidays, and others, aredecided upon by each state government, not by the federal (national)government. Each state can agree on the same date that the President hasproclaimed, such as Thanksgiving Day. State legislation can also change the dateof a holiday for its own special commemoration. Cities and towns can decide notto celebrate a federal legal holiday at all. However, the majority of thestates (and the cities and towns within them) usually choose the date or daycelebrated by the rest of the nation. There are other «legal» or»public» holidays which are observed at the state or local level. Theclosing of local government offices and businesses will vary. Whether citizenshave the day off from work or not depends on local decisions.

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