Holidays: Religious and Secular, 2008
by Liz Olson
In the United States,
there are ten federal holidays set by law. Four are set by date (New
Year's Day, Independence Day, Veterans Day, and Christmas Day). The other
six are set by a day of the week and month: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
Birthday, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day,
and Thanksgiving. All but the last are celebrated on Mondays to create
three-day weekends for federal employees. All Jewish and Islamic holidays
begin at sundown the day before they are listed here.
- New Year's
- Tues., Jan. 1. A federal holiday in the United States, New Year's
Day has its origin in Roman times, when sacrifices were offered to
Janus, the two-faced Roman deity who looked back on the past and
forward to the future.
- (from Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation"), Sun., Jan. 6. Falls on
the 12th day after Christmas and commemorates the manifestation of
Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, as represented by the Magi, the baptism
of Jesus, and the miracle of the wine at the marriage feast at Cana.
One of the three major Christian festivals, along with Christmas and
Easter. Epiphany originally marked the beginning of the carnival
season preceding Lent, and the evening preceding it is known as
- Thurs., Jan. 10. The month of Muharram marks the beginning of the
Islamic liturgical year. On the tenth day of the month, many Muslims
may observe a day of fasting, known as Ashurah.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
- Mon., Jan. 21. A federal holiday observed on the third Monday in
January that honors the late civil rights leader. It became a federal
holiday in 1986.
- Sat., Feb. 2. Legend has it that if the groundhog sees his shadow,
he'll return to his hole, and winter will last another six weeks.
- Shrove Tuesday (Mardi
- Feb. 5. Falls the day before Ash Wednesday and marks the end of
the carnival season, which once began on Epiphany but is now usually
celebrated the last three days before Lent. In France, the day is
known as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), and celebrations are held in
several American cities, particularly New Orleans. The day is
sometimes called Pancake Tuesday by the English because fats, which
were prohibited during Lent, had to be used up.
- Feb. 6. The seventh Wednesday before Easter and the first day of
Lent, which lasts 40 days. Having its origin sometime before A.D.
1000, it is a day of public penance and is marked in the Roman
Catholic Church by the burning of the palms blessed on the previous
year's Palm Sunday. With the ashes from the palms the priest then
marks a cross with his thumb upon the forehead of each worshipper. The
Anglican Church and a few Protestant groups in the United States also
observe the day, but generally without the use of ashes.
- Chinese New
- Thurs., Feb. 7, is the most important celebration in the Chinese
calendar. Chinese months are reckoned by the lunar calendar, with each
month beginning on the darkest day. New Year festivities traditionally
start on the first day of the month and continue until the fifteenth,
when the moon is brightest. In China, the New Year is a time for
family reunions. In the United States, however, many early Chinese
immigrants arrived without their families, and found a sense of
community by celebrating the holiday through neighborhood
- Tues., Feb. 12. A holiday in a few states, this day was first
formally observed in Washington, DC, in 1866, when both houses of
Congress gathered for a memorial address in tribute to the
- St. Valentine's
- Thurs., Feb. 14. The holiday's roots are in an ancient Roman
fertility festival. Circa 496, Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan
festival as a Christian feast day in honor of St. Valentine, but there
are at least three different early saints by that name. How the day
became associated with romance remains obscure, and is further clouded
by various fanciful legends.
- Washington's Birthday or
- Mon., Feb. 18. (The actual date of his birthday is Feb. 22.) A
federal holiday observed the third Monday in February. It is a common
misconception that the federal holiday was changed to Presidents' Day
and now celebrates both Washington and Lincoln. Only Washington is
commemorated by the federal holiday; 13 states, however, officially
celebrate Presidents' Day.
- Leap Year
- Fri., Feb., 29. This is a leap year, which means that it has 366
days instead of the usual 365 days that an ordinary year has. An extra
day is added in a leap year—February 29—which is called an intercalary
day or a leap day. For more on this
special day, read: Leap Year
- March 16. Observed the Sunday before Easter to commemorate the
entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
- St. Patrick's
- Mon., March 17. St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, has been
honored in America since the first days of the nation. Perhaps the
most notable observance is the annual St. Patrick's Day parade in New
- Thurs., March 20. This holiday celebrates the birthday of
Muhammad, the founder of Islam. It is fixed as the 12th day of the
month of Rabi I in the Islamic calendar.
- Purim (Feast of
- Fri., March 21. A day of joy and feasting celebrating the
deliverance of the Jews from a massacre planned by the Persian
minister Haman. According to the Book of Esther, the Jewish queen
Esther interceded with her husband, King Ahasuerus, to spare the life
of her uncle, Mordecai, and Haman was hanged on the same gallows he
had built for Mordecai. The holiday is marked by the reading of the
Book of Esther (the Megillah), by the exchange of gifts, and by
donations to the poor.
- March 21. The Friday before Easter, it commemorates the
Crucifixion, which is retold during services from the Gospel according
to St. John. A feature in Roman Catholic churches is the Liturgy of
the Passion; there is no Consecration, the Host having been
consecrated the previous day. The eating of hot-cross buns on this day
is said to have started in England.
- Easter Sunday,
- March 23. Observed in all Western Christian churches, Easter
commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus. It is celebrated on the first
Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or next after the vernal
equinox (fixed at March 21) and is therefore celebrated between March
22 and April 25 inclusive. This date was fixed by the Council of
Nicaea in A.D. 325.
- April Fool's
- Tues., April 1. The origins of April Fool's Day are uncertain.
Some see it as a celebration related to the turn of the seasons, while
others believe it stems from the adoption of a new calendar.
- Passover (Pesach),
- Sun., April 20. The Feast of the Passover, also called the Feast
of Unleavened Bread, commemorates the escape of the Jews from Egypt.
As the Jews fled, they ate unleavened bread, and from that time the
Jews have allowed no leavening in their houses during Passover, bread
being replaced by matzoh.
- Orthodox Easter (Pascha),
- Sun., April 27. The Orthodox church uses the same formula to
calculate Easter as the Western church, but bases it on the
traditional Julian calendar instead of the more contemporary Gregorian
calendar. For this reason Orthodox Easter generally falls on a
different date than the Western Christian Easter.
- Ascension Day,
- Thurs., May 1. The Ascension of Jesus took place in the presence
of his apostles 40 days after the Resurrection. It is traditionally
thought to have occurred on Mount Olivet in Bethany.
- Mother's Day,
- Sun., May 11. Observed the second Sunday in May, as proposed by
Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia in 1907. West Virginia was the first state
to recognize the holiday in 1910, and President Woodrow Wilson
officially proclaimed Mother's Day a national holiday in 1914.
- Pentecost (Whitsunday),
- May 11. This day commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon
the apostles 50 days after the Resurrection. Whitsunday is believed to
have come from "white Sunday," when, among the English, white robes
were worn by those baptized on the day.
- Memorial Day,
- Mon., May 26. Memorial Day became a federal holiday in 1971 and is
observed on the last Monday in May. It originated in 1868, when Union
General John A. Logan designated a day in which the graves of Civil
War soldiers would be decorated. Originally known as Decoration Day,
the holiday was changed to Memorial Day within 20 years, becoming a
holiday dedicated to the memory of all war dead.
- Shavuot (Hebrew Pentecost),
- Mon., June 9. This festival, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks,
or of Harvest, or of the First Fruits, falls 50 days after Passover
and originally celebrated the end of the seven-week grain-harvesting
season. In later tradition, it also celebrated the giving of the Law
to Moses on Mount Sinai.
- Flag Day,
- Sat., June 14. This day commemorates the adoption by the
Continental Congress on June 14, 1777, of the Stars and Stripes as the
U.S. flag. Although it is a legal holiday only in Pennsylvania,
President Truman, on Aug. 3, 1949, signed a bill requesting the
president to call for its observance each year by proclamation.
- Sun., June 15. Observed the third Sunday in June. The exact origin
of the holiday is not clear, but it was first celebrated June 19,
1910, in Spokane, Wash. In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed a
proclamation making Father's Day official.
- Independence Day,
- Fri., July 4. The day of the adoption of the Declaration of
Independence in 1776, celebrated in all states and territories. The
observance began the next year in Philadelphia.
- Labor Day,
- Mon., Sept. 1. A federal holiday observed the first Monday in
September. Labor Day was first celebrated in New York in 1882 under
the sponsorship of the Central Labor Union, following the suggestion
of Peter J. McGuire, of the Knights of Labor, that the day be set
aside in honor of labor.
- First Day of
- Tues., Sept. 2. This day marks the beginning of a month-long fast
that all Muslims must keep during the daylight hours. It commemorates
the first revelation of the Qur'an. Following the last day of Ramadan,
Eid al-Fitr is celebrated on Thurs., Oct. 2.
- Rosh Hashanah (Jewish
- Tues., Sept. 30. This day marks the beginning of the Jewish year
5768 and opens the Ten Days of Penitence, which close with Yom
- Yom Kippur (Day of
- Thurs., Oct. 9. This day marks the end of the Ten Days of
Penitence that began with Rosh Hashanah. It is described in Leviticus
as a Sabbath of rest, and synagogue services begin the preceding
sundown, resume the following morning, and continue to sundown.
- Columbus Day,
- Mon., Oct. 13. A federal holiday observed the second Monday in
October, it commemorates Christopher Columbus's landing in the New
World in 1492. Quite likely the first celebration of Columbus Day was
that organized in 1792 by the Society of St. Tammany, or the Columbian
Order, widely known as Tammany Hall.
- Thanksgiving (Canada),
- Mon., Oct. 13. A national holiday celebrated on the second Monday
in October to give thanks for a successful harvest.
- Shemini Atzeret (Assembly of the Eighth Day),
- Tues., Oct. 21. This joyous holiday, encompassing Simchat Torah
(Rejoicing in the Torah), falls immediately after the seven days of
Sukkot. It marks the end of the year's weekly readings of the Torah
(Five Books of Moses) in the synagogue, and the beginning of the new
cycle of reading.
- Fri., Oct. 31. Eve of All Saints' Day, formerly called All Hallows
and Hallowmass. Halloween is traditionally associated in some
countries with customs such as bonfires, masquerading, and the telling
of ghost stories. These are old Celtic practices marking the beginning
- All Saints'
- Sat., Nov. 1. A Roman Catholic and Anglican holiday celebrating
all saints, known and unknown.
- Election Day (legal
holiday in certain states),
- Tues., Nov. 4. Since 1845, by act of Congress, the first Tuesday
after the first Monday in November is the date for choosing
presidential electors. State elections are also generally held on this
- Veterans Day,
- Tues., Nov. 11. Armistice Day, a federal holiday, was established
in 1926 to commemorate the signing in 1918 of the armistice ending
World War I. On June 1, 1954, the name was changed to Veterans Day to
honor all men and women who have served America in its armed
- Thurs., Nov. 27. A federal holiday observed the fourth Thursday in
November by an act of Congress (1941), it was the first such national
proclamation issued by President Lincoln in 1863, on the urging of
Mrs. Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book. Most Americans
believe that the holiday dates back to the day of thanks ordered by
Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony in New England in 1621, but
scholars point out that days of thanks stem from ancient times.
- First Sunday of
- Nov. 30. Advent is the season in which the faithful must prepare
themselves for the coming, or advent, of the Savior on Christmas. The
four Sundays before Christmas are marked by special church
- Tues., Dec. 9. Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice,
commemorates Abraham's willingness to obey God by sacrificing his son.
Lasting for three days, it concludes the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to
Mecca. Muslims worldwide sacrifice a lamb or other animal and
distribute the meat to relatives or the needy.
- Hanukkah (Festival of
- Mon., Dec. 22. This festival was instituted by Judas Maccabaeus in
165 B.C. to celebrate the purification of the Temple of Jerusalem,
which had been desecrated three years earlier by Antiochus Epiphanes,
who set up a pagan altar and offered sacrifices to Zeus Olympius. In
Jewish homes, a lamp or candle is lighted on each night of the
- Christmas (Feast of the
- Thurs., Dec. 25. The most widely celebrated holiday of the
Christian year, Christmas is observed as the anniversary of the birth
of Jesus. Christmas customs are centuries old. The mistletoe, for
example, comes from the Druids, who, in hanging the mistletoe, hoped
for peace and good fortune. Comparatively recent is the Christmas
tree, first set up in Germany in the 17th century. Colonial Manhattan
Islanders introduced the name Santa Claus, a corruption of the Dutch
name St. Nicholas, who lived in fourth-century Asia Minor.
- Fri., Dec. 26. This secular seven-day holiday was created by Black
Studies professor Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 in the U.S., to reaffirm
African values and serve as a communal celebration among African
peoples in the diaspora. Modeled on first-fruits celebrations, it
reflects seven principles, the Nguzo Saba: unity, self-determination,
collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose,
creativity, and faith.