Americans love to celebrate, and they will find any excuse to do so. Whether it's a big occasion like the Fourth of July or New Year's, a re-appropriated ethnic holiday like St. Patrick's Day or Cinco de Mayo, or even a big sporting event like the Super Bowl, Americans will do anything to get off of work or school and go out and party.
The following eleven holidays are officially recognized federal holidays. All non-essential government offices are closed, and most public employees get the day off with full pay (those who don't usually get bonus pay). If a holiday falls on a Saturday, then the government celebrates it on the Friday before, and if it falls on a Sunday, then it is celebrated the next day on Monday.
One aspect of federal holidays that may be confusing to foreigners (and, indeed, to many Americans at times) is that, under the federalist system, the federal government has the power to set holidays only for the federal government itself. It cannot mandate states, municipalities, private corporations, etc., to observe these holidays. Indeed, it's fairly common for other holiday schedules to diverge from the federal schedule. Columbus Day and Veterans Day are the most likely not to be observed by other entities, which sometimes swap them with other dates, particularly the day after Thanksgiving.
New Year's Day (January 1): Exactly What It Says on the Tin. The day when we all wake up hung over from the New Year's Eve celebrations last night, which is when the actual partying is done. Famous for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, where all floats must be decorated with flowers or other plant materials, and its associated College Football Rose Bowl game. The Rose Bowl (named for the stadium in which the game is played) is America's oldest "bowl game." note Traditionally, the four most prestigious bowl games were all scheduled for New Year's Day, making it second only to Super Bowl Sunday as an American "football holiday." The Bowl Championship Series format, adopted in 1998, among other things has spread out the dates for the final bowl games.
Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third Monday in January): A holiday created to honor civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement in general. Often referred to simply as Martin Luther King Day. First observed as a Federal holiday in 1986, it took some time to gain acceptance nationwide. South Carolina became the last state to officially recognize the holiday in 2000. There aren't any standard traditions, but many people do charity and community service work on that day. The slogan "A Day On, Not a Day Off!" has been used to encourage people to treat the holiday as a "day of service."
Inauguration Day (January 20): The day that the new President, elected the previous November (or the old President, reelected the previous November), is sworn in. Happens, of course, only every 4 years. Not exactly a holiday in the ordinary sense of the word and only formally observed as a holiday in Washington DC and the immediate suburbs, mainly in order to relieve the congestion that goes along with the event. In 2013, Inauguration Day happened to coincide with the Federal Martin Luther King Day holiday, which simplified things.
Washington's Birthday (third Monday in February): A holiday to honor George Washington, America's first President. Starting in The Eighties, many people and states (but not the Federal government) started calling it Presidents' Day, partly to honor all of America's Presidents, and partly because Abraham Lincoln's birthday was around the same time. To most people, this day means huge sales at stores. Watching television in February will make you wonder if our forefathers simply wanted to ensure we could buy inexpensive cars and mattresses.
Memorial Day (last Monday in May): A holiday for recognizing those soldiers who have died in service to the United States. All flags are lowered to half-mast. To most people, it is also the unofficial start of summer. For a long time, this day was the official start of the Hollywood summer movie season, although many studios have taken to releasing their big summer movies earlier in May or even in April. The Indianapolis 500 is run over Memorial Day Weekend. Most Americans celebrate Memorial Day by holding picnics and barbeques, visiting memorials and graves of loved ones, and going to sporting events. Originally created to commemorate the end of the American Civil War, the holiday used to be held on May 30; the move to the last Monday in May was fairly contentious among veterans.
Independence Day (July 4): The celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Also known simply as the Fourth of July. Celebrations usually pull out all the stops, with barbeques, parades, carnivals, concerts, baseball games, and fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks. Not surprisingly for a holiday where Patriotic Fervor and Stuff Blowing Up are key parts of the celebration, Hollywood studios typically save their biggest movies of the summer for the Fourth of July weekend (one famous example is, of course, Independence Day). A recent tradition is for someone in Congress to put forth a Constitutional amendment banning flag burning in the weeks leading up to the Fourth of July. They tend to go nowhere, and are quickly forgotten in a couple of weeks. On the lighter side, expect to see stories in the news about America's newest citizens taking the naturalization oath en masse on July 4.
Labor Day (first Monday in September): A holiday honoring the organized labor movement in the United States. The date was chosen partly because of the growing association of May 1 (International Workers' Day in much of Europe) with radical leftist groups. It has become viewed as the symbolic end of summer, with most Americans celebrating by holding barbeques and going on trips with their family. It's also the offical end of the summer movie season, and is generally the weakest weekend in terms of box-office gross*
Weekend totals that would keep a movie out of the top ten during the summer could well make a movie #1 on this weekend.
Columbus Day (second Monday in October): Celebration of Christopher Columbus' landing in the Americas on October 12, 1492. In some places, it is also an unofficial Italian-American heritage holiday. Celebration of Columbus Day is very controversial in many parts of the country (especially as you head out west), where many Native Americans and like-minded groups have serious objections to the idea of honoring a man who they feel was a racist butcher. As a result, some states and towns have created an alternative Indigenous Peoples Day, held on the same day. There are rarely any particular celebrations, and mostly schools teach elementary students about the landing the week beforehand (this used to be heavily airbrushed in the past, but since the 90's, schools have been more likely to give the story straight), before giving them the day off.
Veterans Day (November 11): A holiday celebrating American military veterans. Whereas Memorial Day honors the dead, this one is for those still living. Coincides with the celebrations of Armistice Day/Remembrance Day in Canada and Europe. The date itself commemorates the ceasefire that ended World War I.
Thanksgiving Day (fourth Thursday in November): A holiday that traditionally celebrated giving thanks for the fall harvest, but is more commonly associated with the dinner shared by the colonists at Plymouth, Massachusetts and the local Native Americans. It is usually celebrated with a big turkey dinner, parades (including the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade), and TV specials.
Christmas (December 25): Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, it is the only religious holiday recognized by the federal government. But as can be seen from the wide variety of "True Meanings of Christmas", it's not exclusively (or, arguably, even primarily) a religious holiday today. A 2008 Gallup poll revealed that 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas, while only 80% identify with a Christian belief system.
The following holidays aren't recognized by the federal government, but they are recognized by many states and/or celebrated by most Americans:
Super Bowl Sunday (first Sunday in February): The Big Game for the NFL. Many people watch it, even if they hate football—and those who don't hear about it, and often even hold parties on the same day. Some businesses may give the following day off due to how drunk most of their employees got the preceding night. The night when companies are willing to blow $2.4 million on an ad that is going to be seen by at least ninety million Americans, most of whom are probably tuning in just for the advertisements. The subsequent Monday or Tuesday is a de facto holiday in the winning city, as they host a parade for the winning team. There is a movement to make the Monday after the game an official holiday for what should be obvious reasons.
Groundhog Day (February 2): The day when a groundhog (the most famous being the one in the small town of Puxatawney, Pennsylvania) crawls out of his hole, supposedly predicting the onset of spring (if he doesn't see his shadow, then spring is coming soon; if he sees it and runs back into his hole, then there will be six more weeks of winter). TV news studios often have competitions regarding which groundhog was the most accurate one. If the groundhog's wrong about winter ending early, then one can expect lots of angry people sharing recipes for groundhog stew. One of Bill Murray's most famous movies was named after it.
St. Valentine's Day (February 14): A celebration of The Power of Love (and, technically, a formerly obscure 3rd century Christian martyr), commonly known as simply Valentine's Day (or, jokingly by the dateless, "Singles' Awareness Day"). Celebrated with the exchange of candies, cards, and other gifts. In school, not getting a Valentine's Day gift is a sign that you are a dork who will never get a girlfriend, though most elementary schools require you to give a card to everyone or no one. Hollywood celebrates by releasing sappy romantic comedies (or gore-soakedslasherflicks).
Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday (date varies; usually February or March): Also "Fat Tuesday," "Shrove Tuesday" and "Paczki Day." The former holiday is a day of massive, indulgent celebrations, the most famous being the one in New Orleans (where it's always this day). And they should be celebrating, too, because the following day, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period (not counting Sundays) where all Catholics (and members of some other denominations) must give up doing one thing. The US not having seen the reduction in religious attendance that Europe has, Lent is taken rather more seriously (although not half as seriously as in the past). Traditionally, Lent was also a time of fasting (not indulging in non-essential eating, and only consuming small meals during the day with no snacks in between) when meat could not be eaten on Fridays. Mardi Gras developed as a feast to consume all the excess food beforehand so it wouldn't go bad.
Black History Month (February): Created to emphasize the scarcity of history education about the contributions of Africans and their descendants. It's not really "celebrated" by anyone, but it usually triggers a lesson or two in high school history class, and at least one Very Special Episode a year.
St. Patrick's Day (March 17): Originally a Catholic feast day celebrating one of Ireland's patron saints. Like many other holidays, it has taken on a life of its own in America, where it's now a secular celebration of Irish-American heritage. It's typically observed with parades, wearing green, playfully pinching one's friends and/or co-workers, and lots of drinking. The holiday is Serious Business in cities with a large Irish-American population. The Chicago River is famously dyed green this day of the year.
Good Friday and Easter Sunday (date varies; usually March or April): One of the most important times of the year for most Christians, the other being Christmas. The other holiday where everyone, even lapsed Christians, goes to church. The holidays celebrate, respectively, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Easter also marks the end of Lent. Many businesses are closed on one or both days, and schools typically take an extended break around this time.
Patriots' Day: (April 19) Anniversary of the "shot heard round the world" at the opening battles of the American Revolution, Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Somewhat similar to the confusingly named "Patriot Day" except that it commemorates a victory instead of a defeat. A state holiday in Massachusetts, commemorated with a Red Sox home game and the running of the Boston Marathon.
Cinco de Mayo (May 5): The St. Patrick's Day of Mexican-Americans. While commonly mistaken for Mexican Independence Day and actually a minor Mexican holiday celebrating the 1862 victory of the Mexican Army over the French, in America it's a celebration of Mexican-American heritage. Typical celebrations include wearing traditional Mexican costumes, wearing Mexican colors, and having Mexican-style barbecues.
Mother's Day (second Sunday in May): Honors mothers and motherhood. Technically a federal holiday, but since it falls on a Sunday, this distinction doesn't change anything. Notable in that the originator of the holiday wanted to bring attention to the plight of female factory workers. When the perceived Misaimed Fandom turned it into a general card-and-gift holiday, she renounced it.
Armed Forces Day (May 21) pretty much Exactly What It Says on the Tin; one of a trio of military holidays, Armed Forces Day celebrates those currently serving as Veterans day celebrates veterans and Memorial Day commemorates the dead. Not a big popular holiday but celebrated by the Military with open houses and air shows.
Decoration Day (varies by location) An informal holiday for sprucing up and decorating graveyards, Decoration Day is a local community holiday originating in the rural mountainous south. Believed to be the inspiration for Memorial Day.
Flag Day (June 14): Commemorates the adoption of the first United States flag. The most common "celebration" of this holiday (also seen on the Fourth of July) is for somebody to rant about flag burning.
Father's Day (third Sunday in June): The Spear Counterpart of Mother's Day. Usually celebrated in the form of kids buying ties and tool sets for their dads.
Old Home Days/Settler's Days/Fall Foliage Festival/Town Festival etc. Many American cities and towns celebrate their own local holidays and festivals, usually but not always in late summer or early fall and either commemorating the town's founding or some other local event or person with far too many examples to list. Beloved by politicians who are always up for a Barbecue or a Parade and frequently used as fundraisers for local charitable causes. Mostly associated with small towns; a rare big city example being Indianapolis' "Carb Day" (Carburettion Day, AKA the last day of practice) celebrated every year on the Friday before the 500 mile race.
County and State Fairs (dates vary, usually late summer) are frequently week-long local festivals. Especially in the rural Midwest.
Women's Equality Day (August 26): A celebration of feminism. Commemorates two events: the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (granting women the right to vote), and the Women's Strike for Equality in 1970.
Patriot Day (September 11): A day of remembrance for those who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A moment of silence is held at 8:46 AM, and all flags are lowered to half-mast. Ironically, the people who first proposed designating September 11 "Patriot Day" where not themselves patriotic enough to know that the U.S. already had a "Patriots Day" — April 19th. For this and other reasons, the name "Patriot Day" is scarcely used except on calendars. In common parlance, expect to hear "September 11th," "nine-eleven," or similar. Another big day for attention-seeking politicians and opinion jockeys.
Constitution Day (September 17): Commemorates the ratification of the United States Constitution.
Rosh Hashanah (date varies; usually September or October): The Jewish New Year, and the first of the High Holidays. In places with large Jewish populations, Jewish-run businesses and schools with lots of Jewish students close on this day.
Yom Kippur (date varies; usually September or October): The Jewish Day of Atonement and last of the Jewish High Holidays. Like on Rosh Hashanah, schools and some businesses are closed on this day.
Homecoming (date varies): A local fundraiser holiday found in mainly in college towns, usually commemorated with reunions, a football game, and a parade, and with Toga Parties back in The Seventies.
Halloween (October 31): Brought over by the Irish and the Scots, this is the national "scary day" for Americans. Typically celebrated with costume parties and horror films by adults and trick-or-treating by children. For more information, see All Hallows Eve.
Election Day (Tuesday after the first Monday in November): The day when everybody votes for the newest bunch of crooks... oops, sorry, their new leaders. Sadly, it is not the day when all of the corrupt politicians are electrocuted. When the election is for the President, the twelve months running up to it are a circus that must be seen to be believed. Some state and local employees actually get Election Day as a paid holiday, a holdover from the patronage era when they often had to work the polls in order to keep their jobs; many argue that this should be true for everyone, on the grounds that it would increase turnout.
The Day After Thanksgiving (the Fourth Friday in November, aka "Black Friday"): Often treated as a holiday (and possibly swapped with one of the less popular federal holidays) by businesses as a concession to reality. Thanksgiving is often associated with travel, to celebrate with more distant family members, and a great many workers will take the following Friday off as leave, even if it's not recognized as a holiday, in order to have a longer weekend. As "Black Friday," this date denotes the kickoff of the Christmas shopping season, and is named for the traditional notion that retail businesses do not go "in the black" (i.e., become profitable) for the calendar year until this day. (In)famous for the many early-morning sales held by retailers and accompanying crowds.
Pearl Harbor Day (December 7) commemorates the victims of the Japanese sneak attack that convinced the U.S. to enter World War II. Flags are flown at half-staff.
Hanukkah (date varies; usually December): The eight-day Jewish celebration commemorating the dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The holiday receives increased attention in America due to its proximity to Christmas and gets lumped into the general December holiday season. Celebrations include lighting the Chanukiah, spinning dreidels and eating fried latkes. Kids usually receive presents as consolation for not getting Christmas gifts.
Kwanzaa (December 26 through January 1): A secular holiday created in The Sixties as a celebration of African-American heritage. Is mostly celebrated in community centers and churches in predominantly-Black neighborhoods.
New Year's Eve (December 31): The last day of the year, when everybody parties and makes New Year's Resolutions that they will have broken by the end of January. Celebrated worldwide with massive spectacles, American New Year's Eve celebrations consist of staying up until midnight (and often much later) to watch the Times Square Ball drop on TV (the most famous broadcast is the New Year's Rockin' Eve celebration on ABC with Dick Clark and, since 2005, Ryan Seacrest) — unless they can be there in person. Generally it's celebrated like an alcoholic's birthday party without the cake. The single busiest night of the year for taxi drivers, with no close second.