Holidays in the United States can be categorized in many different ways: religious vs. secular, national (“bank holidays”) vs. private, indigenous vs. “imported,” to name just a few distinctions. However, these categories do overlap in many ways. Some traditionally religious holidays like Christmas and Easter are recognized by the government as national holidays, or holidays on which banks and most government agencies are closed. Also, because the United States began as colonies, Americans celebrate a number of “imported” holidays, or those that their ancestors brought over from their native lands, such as Halloween, Cinco de Mayo, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and so on. “Indigenous” American holidays are those that have originated in the United States. These include the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Veteran’s Day.
This discussion will attempt to focus on those holidays traditionally celebrated by the majority of Americans, most of which are also nationally recognized holidays: New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, President’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the Fourth of July/Independence Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Also included will be some light-hearted holidays that many Americans celebrate just for fun, such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day/Mardi Gras, April Fool’s Day, Groundhog’s Day, and Halloween.
Americans traditionally begin the New Year on 1 January, according to the Gregorian calendar adopted by the American colonies in 1752, with great celebration. Traditionally, the celebration begins the night before 1 January, on 31 December, also known as “New Year’s Eve.” Many Americans plan parties for this evening that last through the night and into the next day, the New Year. Guests generally spend the evening laughing, visiting, eating and drinking, playing games, reminiscing about the past year and looking ahead to the new. At many parties and in many homes, the television will be turned on to one of several channels that broadcast the events at Times Square in New York City where, every new year at midnight, a giant ball descends as people count down the last minute of the old year. The ball stops exactly at midnight and the New Year sign lights up, signaling the moment for hugging and kissing and wishing loved ones a “Happy New Year.”
The New Year’s kiss has become somewhat of a tradition among couples. It supposedly brings good luck to the relationship if lovers share the first kiss of the New Year with each other. Making New Year’s resolutions is another common way to observe this holiday. Many people regard the New Year as a fresh start, a chance to start over, leaving behind old habits and conflicts. New Year’s resolutions often focus on being a better person and improving relationships with others.
New Year’s Day is often full of family - with relatives dropping in to wish each other the best of the New Year - and food. The television also continues to play a large role in the celebration of the New Year and many families keep it turned on for the extravagant Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California, followed by the Rose Bowl (football game). New Year’s Day has become an important day for American college football as the intercollegiate season culminates in the “Bowl games.” The Rose Bowl is joined by the Orange Bowl in Florida, the Cotton Bowl in Texas, and the Sugar Bowl in Louisiana.
Ways of celebrating the New Year in America are as diverse as they are across the globe. Americans bring New Year traditions and customs from many different religious and national backgrounds. In spite of this diversity, for all peoples across the country, it is a time for joyful new beginnings.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is also a day celebrated in honor of new beginnings, specifically new beginnings championed by the civil rights activist for whom the holiday is named. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in 1983, establishing Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January. This holiday is rather unusual in that it is neither patriotic or religious. Martin Luther King Jr. Day can be considered a truly American holiday because it is not imported from one of the many rich cultures from which the ancestors of American citizens came.
President’s Day is another example of a truly “indigenous” American holiday. In 1968, Congress officially recognized Washington’s Birthday as a federal holiday and shifted its celebration to the third Monday in February in order simplify the yearly calendar and give federal employees an established three-day weekend. Since then, the significance of the day has expanded to honor the memory of Lincoln and the many other men who have served the United States as president and has thus become popularly referred to as “President’s Day.”
The next national holiday falls on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after 21 March, always between 22 March and 25 April. Though its name, “Easter,” is derived from the spring festival of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre and some customs currently associated with it have pagan origins, this holiday is the most important holy day of he Christian religion and is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story of Easter comes from the Bible and can be found in each of the four gospels, the biblical books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is the miraculous account of Jesus Christ coming back to life (three days after having been crucified and buried in a tomb), appearing to his disciples, and commissioning them to go and tell the world about what they had seen and heard before disappearing into heaven.
For many religious Americans, Easter is nearly a week-long observance. Also known as the “Passion week,” this period starts with a Palm Sunday celebration, one week before Easter Sunday, commemorating Jesus’ celebrated return to Jerusalem during the Jewish festival of Passover. Maundy Thursday remembers the day of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, followed by Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion (death on a cross) and burial. Easter Sunday, the day after the Jewish sabbath, is the joyful celebration of the empty tomb. When some women went to the place that Jesus had been buried, they found it empty except for the cloths that had covered his face and body and were told by angels he had come back to life. In the following days, Jesus appeared to many people, confirming the fact that he was indeed alive and encouraging them to spread the news. Americans often attend sunrise worship services on this day, wearing new spring clothes and special “Easter bonnets” for the women. White lilies, symbolizing purity, are characteristic of this holiday.
Although its origins are particularly religious and many Americans go to church on Easter Sunday whether or not they do the rest of the year, Easter has also been developed for commercial profit. Because new life is the focus of the Easter story as well as the season - spring - in which Easter is celebrated, that theme has driven the product market as well. Some items commonly associated with Easter and representative of this new life include eggs - plastic, chocolate, candy, and real - and baby animals - particularly lambs, chicks and rabbits/bunnies. Many Easter traditions revolve around these symbols, such as dyeing and decorating Easter eggs, the visit of the Easter Bunny, and the “Easter Egg Hunt.” Just as Santa Claus characterizes Christmas, the Easter Bunny represents Easter by bringing baskets of candy and goodies to children on Easter morning.
The next two holidays are often said to have been created by the greeting card industry in order to maintain business during the long interim between the major holidays of Easter and the Fourth of July. Since 1914, Americans have officially celebrated Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May.
Today, most Americans observe Mother’s Day in a family or church setting by specifically honoring mothers. One way that people do this is by wearing a carnation - a colored carnation indicates that the wearer’s mother is living, while a white carnation indicates that she is dead. In general, people just try to do whatever they know will make their mother feel special, whether that is fixing her breakfast in bed or letting her take a nap. Mother’s Day is a day of appreciation. Mother’s Day is followed by Father’s Day which is the next month, on the third Sunday in June. Like the Mother’s Day tradition involving white and colored carnations, some Americans wear a red rose to honor a father who is still living and a white flower in honor of one who has died. Father’s Day, as well, is very basically an official opportunity and/or reminder to appreciate fathers, and is often observed in any number of ways that are personally significant to individual fathers.
Between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, a special holiday for remembering those who have died - specifically in the defense of the nation - is observed. This holiday is called Memorial Day, originally Decoration Day, and is nationally recognized on the last Monday in May. “Decoration Day” was so called after the practice of decorating the graves of the deceased with flowers. Because it is situated right on the verge of summer and is part of a fixed three-day weekend, picnics and barbequing, swimming, boating and fireworks are common Memorial Day activities. Memorial Day is also the official opening date for many outdoor swimming pools.
In July, Americans remember the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, marking the birth of a new nation, the United States of America, even though the signing of the Declaration was not completed until August of that same year. The first Independence Day was celebrated on 8 July 1776 with the public reading of the Declaration, the ringing of bells and band music. However, it was not until 1941 that it was declared a legal holiday. Called Independence Day or the Fourth of July, the traditions surrounding this holiday have a particularly patriotic and nationalistic theme, with reason. The Fourth of July is traditionally a day for community and family picnics, parades and concerts. Often the festivities end with extensive professional firework displays. Private fireworks, however, have been severely restricted in recent years because they have caused so many injuries.
There are no national holidays in August, so the next important date is in September, the first Monday of the month. This holiday is known as Labor Day. In 1884, however, it was decided that the fixed date for the holiday should be the first Monday in September. In the past, laborers celebrated their day off with street parades and festivals for whole communities. More recently, however, these displays have become less possible and have been replaced by widely covered speeches. So, Labor Day, too, is a holiday for getting together with family and friends, picnicking, and just enjoying the last day(s) of summer.
After celebrating and honoring America’s laboring population in September, Americans turn again to mourn the men and women who have died in the service of their country. Proclaimed in 1919, Armistice Day originally commemorated the armistice signed on 11 November 1918, ending World War I. Wilson’s proclamation for this day called Americans to thanksgiving, prayer and “exercises designed to perpetuate peace” among nations, following the most internationally destructive war in history. After World War II, and the realization of even greater destruction, in 1954 Armistice Day was renamed Veteran’s Day and its scope was expanded to honor the fallen in all wars the U.S. had been and would be involved in. Ultimately, Veteran’s Day exists to honor America’s veterans“for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good,” according to Veteran’s Day legislation. Sometimes convocations and special decoration ceremonies take place on this day.
Also in November is the holiday of giving thanks for all the blessings of the year, and particularly for the harvest. Americans call this holiday Thanksgiving and celebrate it on the fourth Thursday in November. Although for centuries people all over the world have observed harvest celebrations, the story of American Thanksgiving began with the Plymouth colonists in 1621. They had arrived in Massachusetts late in the year of 1620, with no time to plant and harvest crops. Many of them died in that first terrible winter. However, the summer of 1621 brought renewed hope for the colonists and valuable relationships with their Native American neighbors who taught them how to grow maize and hunt and fish in their new, unfamiliar home. When the second winter set in, the colonists were better prepared with stores of food and knowledge of their surroundings.
To celebrate, Governor William Bradford set aside 13 December 1621 for feasting and prayer and invited their new Native American friends to show their gratitude. The Native Americans brought wild turkey, deer meat and fish to the feast. The men of the colony provided geese, ducks and more fish. And the women spent several days preparing journey cake, corn meal bread with nuts and succotash, and pumpkin stewed in maple sap. For three days, the colonists and the Indians ate and prayed and sang together before returning to their regular work.
After that, Thanksgiving was celebrated by colonies and then states on an individual basis. Then, for 75 years, the president set aside the last Thursday of November as “a day of thanksgiving and praise to the beneficent Father” by yearly proclamation. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date a week earlier in hopes of stimulating the economy by adding an extra week of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Finally, Congress set the official date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November, starting after 1941.
Today, many Americans join their extended families, sometimes traveling great distances, for a day (or more) of giving thanks, fellowshipping and eating. Each family usually has its own traditional Thanksgiving dishes. Typical American Thanksgiving foods such as turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, corn, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie supposedly come from accounts of that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Visiting, watching T.V. (football games and parades), napping or playing a game of football in the brisk, fall weather commonly follow the Thanksgiving meal. Some people have church services and community and church dinners. Others give thanks for what they have been given by serving a Thanksgiving meal to people who can not afford it or have no one to share the holiday with.
Thanksgiving Day is also the official start of the Christmas season, so it is not unusual to see favorite, old Christmas movies on television for the first time on this day. It is also common to see people out on ladders, hanging their Christmas lights and decorations on Thanksgiving. The day after Thanksgiving is known as the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States. People take the day off to get a head start on their Christmas shopping and stores have big sales to encourage these shoppers. Americans tend to move very quickly from a Thanksgiving frame-of-mind to a Christmas frame-of-mind.
Depending on the date of the fourth Thursday in November, the length of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas varies from year to year, but it is always one of the busiest times of year, full of parties and shopping and charitable functions. Unlike Thanksgiving, Christmas is celebrated on a set date every year, 25 December. Christmas is the annual Christian holiday celebrated in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ. This story can be found in the biblical books of Matthew (1:18-2:12) and Luke (1:26-56), however, nowhere does it tell the actual date of his birth. Neither do historians know when Christians first began celebrating the event of his birth, but most conclude that the origins of this holiday date back to the fourth century, and 25 December was chosen as a Christian alternative to the pagan festivals of winter solstice. The Catholics might have used it to introduce new meaning to these pagan observances.
Christmas came to America in as many different forms as nationalities represented. However, due to the different conditions of the New World, some of these traditions and customs had to be altered or forgotten altogether. But still, today Christmas traditions in America can be traced back to a dozen or more parent cultures. Kissing under the mistletoe was borrowed from the ancient Europeans who believed that the mistletoe plant had magical powers. Santa Claus has his origins in Dutch and German folklore, but has taken on a different appearance since being adopted by American culture. The Christmas tree, another significant part of the American celebration of Christmas, originated in Germany, with Martin Luther, according to legend. And the custom of sending Christmas cards came from this common practice in Europe. This blending of cultures is actually representative of the affect celebrating Christmas had on early American colonists. In spite of their diverse backgrounds, the Christmas holiday became a time of community and good will, as it continues to be today.
Today, like many other present-day holidays, the celebration of Christmas in the United States has both religious and secular elements. Traditionally, the sacred season of Christmas, called Advent, starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and culminates with a candlelight service (Protestant)/Mass (Catholic) on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Each week of Advent, a candle is lit in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. Christians give gifts, during the Christmas season, as a reminder of the gift God gave to man in His Son Jesus Christ. This practice of gift-giving has dominated the secular celebration of Christmas. But even secularly, Christmas in the United States is traditionally a time for family.
Each American family usually has a few of its own unique traditions that make Christmas Christmas for them. Some of the characteristic elements and activities of the season are Christmas caroling - where people go from house to house singing Christmas songs and wishing best Christmas wishes to those at home, decorating the Christmas tree with ornaments and strings of popcorn and/or cranberries, drinking hot apple cider and hot chocolate, making and decorating sugar cookies in the shape of Christmas trees and angels and stars and candy canes. The traditional colors of the Christmas holiday are red, green, gold and silver. Other decorations include Christmas wreaths, evergreen garlands, stockings hung by the fire ready to be filled with treats and small gifts, and Christmas lights on houses and trees - inside and out. Entire cities in some areas of the United States have contests to see which house is best decorated for the holiday season. The list of ways Americans celebrate the Christmas holiday could go on forever, but here the discussion will be turned to a few holidays celebrated by Americans purely for fun.
The first of these, in order according to their position in the calendar year, is Groundhog’s Day. This holiday is not entirely native to the United States, but comes from the German tradition of Candlemas, a celebration of the mid-point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Superstition holds that on this day, 2 February, if the sun is shining, winter will last another six weeks, but if it is cloudy, spring is just around the corner. The German settlers brought this tradition with them when they settled in present-day Pennsylvania where the Delaware Indians were already established at a campsite called Punxsutawney. The Delawares believed groundhogs were their honorable ancestors. The intermingling of this belief and the German tradition of Candlemas resulted in what is now called Groundhog’s Day when the whole country watches this groundhog to see if, when he pokes his head out of his hole, he will see his shadow (because the sun is shining) and scurry back into his hole to hibernate for six more weeks of winter, or if no shadow (because of a cloudy sky) will scare him back into his hole and everyone can look forward to a quickly approaching spring. The name of the current weather-predicting groundhog is "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.''
Later in February, on the fourteenth to be exact, Americans celebrate another imported holiday, although the origins of this one are not as clear. Just who Saint Valentine was and why he is associated with the sending of love letters remains a mystery. Possibly, Valentine was a priest who was put to death for secretly performing marraiges for young lovers after Emperor Claudius II outlawed marraige because he believed that single men made better soldiers. Or he may have been killed for freeing Christians from terrible Roman prisons. According to a third legend, Valentine fell in love with a young girl while he was in prison and wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine” before his death.
Whoever Saint Valentine was, the holiday that bears his name came to America with the early settlers and is still observed by many Americans to this day. Although it is still a special holiday for lovers, Valentine’s Day has gained a more general appeal as well. School children exchange Valentine’s Day cards -both homemade and store-bought, called just “valentines,” with each classmate. Card companies have come up with a stunning array of manufactured valentines in all shapes and sizes with all kinds of messages on them. Special candy has even been made for the occasion.
In March, many Americans celebrate the Irish holiday of St. Patrick’s Day. In Ireland 17 March began as a religious feast day and the anniversary of the death of St. Patrick. The holiday fell in the middle of Lent for Catholic Irish families, but meat-eating restrictions were set aside for the day of church and celebrations featuring dancing, drinking and the traditional Irish meal of bacon and cabbage. St. Patrick’s Day was introduced to the United States by Irish immigrants who, while serving in the English army, reconnected with their Irish roots through the hearty celebration of this holiday. Thus, the United States - New York City - became the site of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade. Still today, St. Patrick’s Day is characterized by parades as well as four-leaf clovers, leprechauns, rainbows and pots of gold, and the color green. The most common tradition is that of wearing green and pinching those who forget to do so.
Before switching to the Gregorian calendar, 1 April used to be the beginning of the calendar year. When the new calendar was introduced in 1564, the date of the new year shifted to 1 January, however, some people continued to celebrate the new year on 1 April. In France these people were called “April Fools.” The tradition of playing absurd, but harmless, jokes on friends and relatives also originated in France and quickly spread to other European countries and eventually to the United States, where the holiday continues to be observed through the playing of sometimes ridiculously elaborate April Fool’s Day jokes. Last year, April Fool’s Day ended up being at the end of spring break at my university. A group of my fellow students and I had gone on a mission trip down to Mexico for the week and were returning on 1 April. Classes were supposed to start the next day. In the bus on the way home, when we were driving through Kansas, not far from home, one of the girls decided to play an April Fool’s joke on her roommate. She called the girl on her cell phone and told her that we had gotten stopped by the border guards at the Mexico - U.S. border, that we were still there waiting and wouldn’t make it back for class the following day. Her roommate completely believed her and began asking what she could do to help. At that point, all of us on the bus gathered around the phone and shouted “April Fool’s!”
Finally, in October, many Americans - not all - celebrate a holiday called Halloween. Halloween has its history in several ancient festivals including the Celtic festival of “Samhain,” the Roman “Pomona Day,” and the Christian holidays “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day.” The “Samhain” festival was a kind of harvest festival and new year celebration for the ancient Celts whose calendar started on 1 November. On 31 October, after the harvest had been gathered and stored, all fires were put out and the Druids, Celtic priests, met on a hilltop in a dark forest to light a new fire, sacrifice crops and animals to their sun god, and dance to pass the old season of the sun and bring in the new season of darkness. In the morning, each family would take an ember from the fire on the hilltop to start a new fire in their homes. The Celts believed that “Samhain,” their “Lord of Death,” allowed the spirits of the deceased to return to their homes on this night. These fires supposedly kept homes free from evil spirits in addition to keeping them warm. The festival traditionally lasted for three days and often involved parades in which people dressed in costumes made from the heads and skins of their animals. These costumes and noisy parades were intended to confuse and frighten spirits looking for bodies to possess.
When the Romans took over in the first century, the customs of their “Pomona Day,” also a harvest festival celebrated around the beginning of November, blended with those of “Samhain.” In 835 AD, the Roman Catholic Church created “All Saint’s Day” (also known as “Hallowmas,” or “All Hallows”), a holiday to honor all the saints, to be celebrated on 1 November. They later created “All Souls Day” for 2 November. This “holy day” (from which “holiday” is derived) included bonfires, parades, and people dressing up as saints, angels and devils.
Halloween appeared in America in the 1840's, brought by Irish immigrants trying to escape their country’s potato famine. In the United States, the customs of these Irish immigrants combined with the customs observed by European Christians on “All Saints” and “All Souls Days” to form the present American version of “Halloween.” American children still dress in costumes and walk from door to door saying “trick or treat.” Tradition holds that, if person at the house does not provide a “treat” (candy nowadays, formerly fruit and such), the children will play a trick on them.
However, Halloween is not only a children’s holiday. Many companies host Halloween costume parties for employees and individuals plan a fun and spooky evening for friends. American teenagers enjoy going to haunted houses, which are usually open throughout the month of October preceding Halloween. Traditional American symbols of Halloween include: ghosts, witches, devils, black cats, apples, the colors orange and black, and pumpkins. Jack-o-lanterns, or empty pumpkins with faces carved out of them and a candle set inside, sit on the front porches of many American homes during this holiday season. Smashing these jack-o-lanterns in the streets has, unfortunately, become a common teenage prank.
From the preceding discussion, it is evident that the sum of American holidays and traditions actually represent a number of different countries and cultures. Like the American people themselves, the days set aside for celebration and the ways in which they are celebrated come from customs developed all over the world. In addition, over the 200+ years the United States has been in existence, the American people have added original holidays such as the Fourth of July. However, the ways in which even these original holidays are celebrated will forever be influenced by the rich traditions and backgrounds of the cultures from which the American people have descended.