The History and Timeline of Federal Holidays in the US

The United States has a long history behind its numerous federal holidays. As of June 2021, there are currently twelve federal holidays. Eleven holidays are celebrated annually, while one (Inauguration Day) is celebrated every four years.

Contrary to popular belief, official federal holidays have not existed since the beginning of the United States. In fact, the first official federal holidays were not enacted until 1870 when the first four holidays were formally recognized into law.

Since then another eight holidays have been added, along with various legislation changing official dates for the holidays to be celebrated.

These holidays have been created for a variety of reasons. Some are to commemorate important national dates and events. Others are to celebrate individual people or moments ingrained in the national psyche. 

It is important to note that these federal holidays only apply to federal government workers across the nation. There is no such thing as a “national holiday” where the federal government requires states to partake in these holidays.

However, as federal agencies are closed down, any businesses that work directly with the government are surely impacted by the holiday.

Each state individually chooses its own holidays. Given the logistical challenges of following different holidays, most states choose to follow the federal holiday guidelines as well as any other official state holidays of their choosing.

For instance, the state of Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on the third Monday in April, while the state of Alaska celebrates Seward’s Day on the last Monday in March to recognize the purchase of Alaska from the Russians.

Regardless of the reason, the federal holidays of the United States are firmly entrenched in society with labor and commerce and weaved together in the fabric of these holidays.

List of 2021 Federal Holidays in the US

January 1st: New Year’s Day (fixed date)

January 18th: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (always the third Monday in January)

January 20th: Inauguration Day (only for federal employees in DC metro area, once every four years)

February 15th: Washington’s Birthday (always the third Monday in February)

May 31st: Memorial Day (always the last Monday in May)

June 18th: Juneteenth (always June 19th when not on a weekend)

July 5th: Independence Day (always July 4th when not on a weekend)

September 6th: Labor Day (always the first Monday in September)

October 11th: Columbus Day (always the second Monday in October)

November 11th: Veterans’ Day (fixed date)

November 25th: Thanksgiving Day (always the fourth Thursday in November)

December 24th: Christmas Day (always December 25th when not on a weekend date)

Timeline of Federal Holidays in the US

1870: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day are established as holidays only for federal employees in the District of Columbia.

1879: Washington’s Birthday is named the fifth holiday in the District of Columbia for federal workers. This holiday is now known as Presidents’ Day, though there is no official act or law that specifies this.

1885: Federal holidays are extended to all federal employees in the nation.

1888: Decoration Day becomes a holiday for federal workers in the District of Columbia. Nearly all states already had their own state holidays to observe Decoration Day. The name gradually shifted to Memorial Day following World War II, and the official name was changed by federal law in 1968.

1894: President Grover Cleveland signs into law the seventh federal holiday, Labor Day.

History of Federal Holidays in the US timeline chart

1938: President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially signs into law Armistice Day to memorialize the veterans from the first World War. The holiday was renamed Veterans’ Day in 1954 to memorialize all veterans including those that fought in World War II and the Korean War.

1957: President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs into law Inauguration Day as the ninth federal holiday. This holiday takes place every four years and only occurs for federal employees in the DC metropolitan area.

1968: The Uniform Monday Holiday Act creates Columbus Day on the second Monday of October as the tenth federal holiday. The law also shifted several holidays to permanently reside on Mondays, instead of on fixed dates, in order to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal workers.

1983: President Ronald Reagan signs into law a bill to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. the eleventh recognized federal holiday.

2021: The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act is signed into law by President Joe Biden, marking Juneteenth as the twelfth federal holiday.

History of Federal Holidays in the US

The history of federal holidays in the United States stretches all the way back to 1870 with the initial passage of four federal holidays.

Since then many laws have added new federal holidays or changed the dates of existing ones.

For holidays that have an annual fixed date (ie Independence Day on July 4th), if the date in question falls on a weekend (Saturday or Sunday), it will be recognized on the Friday or Monday so workers have a three day weekend.

The sections below highlight a brief history of the existing twelve federal holidays in the United States.

History of New Year’s Day Holiday

The New Year’s Day holiday is celebrated annually on January 1st. It first became a holiday in 1870 and was part of the four initial federal holidays passed into law. This was introduced in part to correspond with similar laws from the existing states at the time.

Celebration of New Year’s Day has a long history, one that long predates the United States. There is even evidence of a new year’s celebration from nearly 4,000 years ago.

The famous Rose Parade is an annual occurence on New Year’s Day

The New Year’s Day holiday is widely celebrated as the beginning of a new calendar year per the Gregorian calendar adopted by a majority of the world.

The holiday is often celebrated worldwide via public celebrations including fireworks, parades, and festivals. It is also common for people to name New Year’s resolutions for things they want to accomplish within the coming calendar year.

History of Martin Luther King Day Holiday

The holiday for Martin Luther King Day was enacted by Congress and signed into federal law in 1983. The holiday was to commemorate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr and was to be held annually on the third Monday in January.

Martin Luther King, Jr was a civil rights leader and activist who famously used nonviolent methods to protest racial discrimination in America. Proposals for a holiday in his name sprung up almost immediately after his 1968 assassination.

Martin Luther King in Washington DC

By 1983 enough momentum and public support for a holiday in his name had emerged. Though President Ronald Reagan initially opposed a holiday in King’s name, Congress passed the bill with veto-proof majorities.

While the holiday was passed at the federal level in 1983, it was not until 2000 that the last state (South Carolina) officially created its own holiday for Martin Luther King Day in conjunction with the federal holiday.

History of Presidents’ Day Holiday

The holiday commonly known as Presidents’ Day was originally named a holiday by Congress  in 1879. This holiday was to commemorate George Washington’s birthday on the fixed date of February 22nd and celebrated annually.

As one of the founding fathers, George Washington’s birthday (and the holiday) was cherished greatly by the American public. Over time, this influence would gradually wane.

By the 1950s and 1960s public opinion had subtly changed in regards to Washington. As the general public became more aware of his transgressions (his owning of enslaved people and brutal raids on Native American villages, including against women and children), the holiday began to lose its luster.

In the 1968 passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress changed the date of the Washington’s Birthday holiday to occur annually on the third Monday of February.

This holiday date change reflected the lessening influence Washington’s birthday had on the public. Many states took the opportunity to broaden the scope of this holiday to include memorializing other notable figures, including Lincoln’s birthday. Because of the multiple notable events, many states have since referred to the holiday as Presidents’ Day.

Despite this, there has been no formal action by Congress to change the name of the holiday. Thus, at the federal level the holiday is still referred to as “Washington’s Birthday.”

History of Memorial Day Holiday

The Memorial Day holiday first came into being in 1888 under the original title of “Decoration Day.” The holiday was created to remember the nation’s Civil War dead and honor their sacrifices made in preserving the Union.

In these early celebrations, graves of Civil War soldiers would be decorated with wreaths, flowers, and other items, hence the original title of Decoration Day. The holiday was originally celebrated annually on May 30th.

Honoring the those who have sacrificed the most for the nation on Memorial Day

With the passage of the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Congress changed the date of Decoration Day to occur annually on the last Monday of May. In the law the name was also officially changed to “Memorial Day.”

Gradually over time the observance of Memorial Day came to include honoring not just the Civil War dead, but all US military personnel who have died on duty. The day is meant to serve as a reflection on the heavy cost of preserving the nation’s freedoms.

History of Juneteenth Holiday

The Juneteenth National Independence Day holiday is the most recent federal holiday passed into law. In June 2021 Congress passed a law creating Juneteenth as a federal holiday to be celebrated annually on June 19th.

The Juneteenth holiday is a celebration of the date when the enforcement of emancipation was officially extended to all states in the former Confederacy. The celebration of the occasion dates back to shortly after the Civil War.

Though President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in 1863 outlawed slavery in Confederate states, it was only enforced upon the occupation of Union troops.

As Texas was the most remote of the southern states at the time, it was not until June 19, 1865 that Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas and freed the remainder of the enslaved people in the former Confederate states.

The holiday is meant to memorialize the official emancipation of slaves in the former Confederacy as well as dually celebrating African American history and culture.

History of Independence Day Holiday

The Independence Day Holiday is celebrated annually on July 4th. It first became a holiday in 1870 and was part of the four initial federal holidays passed into law. This was introduced in part to correspond with similar laws from the existing states at the time.

The Second Continental Congress formally approved a resolution of independence from Great Britain on July 2nd, 1776. Despite this, Independence Day is celebrated on July 4th, which is the date the Declaration of Independence was issued.

Independence Day features great displays of American patriotism

Historians debate when the actual Declaration of Independence was signed, as it is doubtful all members actually signed it on July 4th. Nevertheless, as the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4th, this is the date Americans have taken as Independence Day.

The Independence Day holiday is widely celebrated with displays of patriotism throughout the nation. Occurring in the middle of summer, the day is often commemorated with outdoor festivals, fireworks, and copious use of the colors of the United States’ flag (red, white, and blue).

History of Labor Day Holiday

The Labor Day holiday was created in 1894 through an act of Congress. Labor Day has always been held on the first Monday of September, giving workers a three-day long weekend.

The origin of Labor Day is unique among the federal holidays in the United States. Labor Day is meant to recognize the average laborer and to give the everyday person a cause for recognition and celebration.

The emphasis for this holiday was to give workers an extra day of rest. Advocates for the holiday also hoped that Labor Day would “increase the feeling of a common brotherhood among men in all crafts and fields.”

Across the nation Labor Day weekend is widely celebrated and cherished.

It is also seen by some as the unofficial end of summer given that many schools and sports leagues begin around this time period.

History of Columbus Day Holiday

The Columbus Day holiday was created as a federal holiday in 1968 and takes place on the second Monday in October. Its creation was included among other changes to holidays in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

As with many other federal holidays, Columbus Day has a long history prior to becoming an official US holiday. A celebration of Columbus was often wrapped up in general celebrations of the “discovery” of the Americas of which Columbus is incorrectly accredited with in 1492.

In the United States the holiday gradually transformed to become a celebration of Italian-American heritage. Upon immigration into the United States, Italians initially faced discrimination and suspicion along with other immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

Upon passage into an official federal holiday, Congress hoped the holiday would honor the courage and honor of all immigrants that, like Columbus, voyaged across the Atlantic.

The Columbus Day holiday is not without its controversy. Given Columbus’ brutal (and arguably genocidal) treatment of Native Americans as well as the now well-accepted truth that the Vikings “discovered” America long before Columbus, there are questions whether such a man deserves a holiday in his name.

In fact, several states have already officially renamed Columbus Day to “Indigenous People’s Day” to shift the focus and celebration towards those Columbus harmed.

History of Veterans’ Day Holiday

The Veterans’ Day holiday was created in 1938 under the original title of “Armistice Day.” The holiday was to be held annually on November 11th, and honored all those who fought and served during World War I.

The date of November 11th was important as it was this day that hostilities ceased on the Western Front. Congress hoped that in addition to commemorating all veterans of WWI, it could also serve as a reminder of the harmony of peacetime.

Just a few decades later, the US had already fought in another world war, and a large conflict in the Korean War. Rather than create new holidays honoring veterans of each war, in 1954 “Armistice Day” was changed to “Veterans’ Day” and now served to honor all veterans that have served in the US military.

Veterans Day was initially included in the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which changed the fixed date of November 11th to the fourth Monday in October.

However, the movement of this holiday faced considerable backlash from veterans’ groups. A majority of states also refused to change the celebration date.

In 1975, Congress reversed course and changed the official observance of Veterans’ Day back to November 11th.

History of Thanksgiving Day Holiday

The Thanksgiving Day Holiday is celebrated annually on the fourth Thursday in November. It first became a holiday in 1870 and was part of the four initial federal holidays passed into law. This was introduced in part to correspond with similar laws from the existing states at the time.

This day of thanks had been celebrated long before the official holiday. These “thanksgiving” days were often associated with harvest festivals celebrated after a successful harvest for the year. The Pilgrims are often associated with the First Thanksgiving for their festival with the local Wampanoag natives.

Upon passage into law, the Thanksgiving Day holiday initially did not have a specific date. This holiday was determined to be on “any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fasting or thanksgiving.”

An oil painting of the first Thanksgiving

In keeping with tradition set by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, most presidents named the final Thursday of November to be the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke tradition by naming the fourth Thursday in November (that year had five Thursdays) the holiday instead. Roosevelt hoped that the earlier holiday would give the Christmas shopping season a boost and help the United States out of the Great Depression.

This move was extremely unpopular, but despite the backlash, for the next two years Roosevelt moved up the holiday to the second-to-last Thursday of the month.

In 1941, Roosevelt finally relented and officially signed a law designating that the fourth Thursday in November was to be the Thanksgiving holiday.

History of Christmas Day Holiday

The Christmas Day Holiday is celebrated annually on December 25th. It first became a holiday in 1870 and was part of the four initial federal holidays passed into law. This was introduced in part to correspond with similar laws from the existing states at the time.

The Christmas Day holiday is the only religious event included as a federal holiday in the United States. This pays homage to the deep Christian religious roots that the nation was founded upon.

The Christmas holiday celebrates the birth of Jesus, an important day of faith for those that follow the Christian religion. For those not of Christian faith, the holiday is often celebrated culturally for its emphasis on family and social gatherings.

Along with the religious significance, Christmas is often associated with holiday decorations and gift-giving. The commercialization of Christmas is well-known, with the holiday retail sales totaling over 750 billion dollars in 2020.

History of Inauguration Day Holiday

The Inauguration Day holiday is celebrated every four years upon the inauguration of the President of the United States. In recent years, Inauguration Day has been held on January 20th. Inauguration Day became a holiday in 1957 when Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law to this effect.

This holiday is unique in that it is not celebrated annually; in addition, unlike other federal holidays, it does not apply to all federal employees across the nation. Instead, the holiday is only given to federal workers located in the DC metropolitan area.

The justification behind the holiday for DC federal workers is such that these employees can partake in the historically momentous and important activities that are often associated with a presidential inauguration.

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