The History and Timeline of Federal Holidays in the US

History Federal Holidays United States

The United States has a long history behind its numerous federal holidays. As of June 2022, there are currently twelve federal holidays. Americans celebrate eleven holidays annually, while DC residents enjoy another (Inauguration Day) 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 Congress formally recognized the first four holidays into law.

Since then Congress added another eight holidays, along with various legislation changing official dates for the holidays celebrations.

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 close down, the holidays impact any business that works directly with the government.

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 2022 Federal Holidays in the US

January 3rd: New Year’s Day (always January 1st when not on a weekend)

January 17th: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (always the third Monday in January)

(Not in 2022) January 20th: Inauguration Day (only for federal employees in DC metro area, once every four years – next in 2025)

February 21st: Washington’s Birthday (always the third Monday in February)

May 30th: Memorial Day (always the last Monday in May)

June 20th: Juneteenth (always June 19th when not on a weekend)

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

September 5th: Labor Day (always the first Monday in September)

October 10th: Columbus Day (always the second Monday in October)

November 11th: Veterans’ Day (fixed date)

November 24th: Thanksgiving Day (always the fourth Thursday in November)

December 23rd: Christmas Day (always December 25th when not on a weekend)

Timeline of Federal Holidays in the US

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

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

1885: Congress extends federal holidays 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 federal law changed the official name 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. Congress renames the holiday to Veterans’ Day in 1954 to memorialize all veterans including those that fought in World War II and the Korean War.

1957: Inauguration Day becomes 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: Congress enacts a bill to make the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. the eleventh recognized federal holiday.

2021: President Joe Biden signs into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act 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. Congress has added several new holidays since then and the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted most holidays to the dates recognized in the modern day.

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), the federal government recognizes the holiday on the Friday or Monday so workers have a three day weekend.

The sections below summarizes 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.

New Years celebration federal holiday
Celebration of New Years’ Eve in 1910 via LOC

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

In 1983 Congress enacted a federal law creating a holiday for Martin Luther King Day. The holiday commemorates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr and occurs 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 Jr federal holiday
Martin Luther King in Washington, DC via Wikimedia

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, the American public greatly cherished George Washington’s birthday (and the holiday). 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’s official name is still “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, Americans decorated the graves of Civil War soldiers with wreaths, flowers, and other items, hence the original title of Decoration Day. The United States originally celebrated the holiday annually on May 30th.

Memorial Day history federal holiday
Memorial Day poster from 1917 via LOC

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 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 serves 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 celebrated annually on June 19th.

The Juneteenth holiday is a celebration of the date when federal enforcement of emancipation 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 memorializes the official emancipation of slaves in the former Confederacy as well as dually celebrating African American history and culture.

History of Independence Day Holiday

Americans celebrates the Independence Day Holiday annually on July 4th. It first became a holiday in 1870 and with its inclusion in the four initial federal holidays passed into law. Legislators introduced Independence Day 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 Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence.

Independence Day poster federal holiday
1918 poster celebrating Independence Day via LOC

Historians debate the actual date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as the founders did not likely all sign it on July 4th. Nevertheless, as the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4th, this is the date Americans have taken as Independence Day.

Americans widely celebrate thee Independence Day holiday 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

An act of Congress in 1894 created the Labor Day holiday. Labor Day has always occurred on the first Monday of September, giving workers a crucial 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 citizens widely celebrate and cherish Labor Day weekend. Many also see it 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. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act created Columbus Day among other changes to holiday dates 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. Americans generally already had celebrated the “discovery” of the Americas as historians of the time inaccurately credited Columbus with this discovery.

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

Congress created the Veterans’ Day holiday 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 the devastation of 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 Congress changed “Armistice Day” to “Veterans’ Day” which now served to honor all veterans that have served in the United States’ 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

Americans celebrate the Thanksgiving Day Holiday annually on the fourth Thursday in November. It first became a holiday in 1870 and included as part of the four initial federal holidays passed into law.

A day of thanks had been celebrated in America long before the official holiday. These “thanksgiving” days most often associated with harvest festivals celebrated after a successful harvest for the year.

Historians widely associate the first Thanksgiving in America with the Pilgrims during their festival with the local Wampanoag natives. The Wampanoag natives crucially helped the Pilgrims during the brutal first year of the Plymouth colony.

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

First Thanksgiving federal holiday
An oil painting of the first Thanksgiving via LOC

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 in the United States on December 25th. It first became a federal holiday in 1870 and included as part of the four initial federal holidays passed into law. Many states at the time already recognized the holiday on their own.

The Christmas Day holiday exists as the only religious event included as a federal holiday in the United States. The holiday pays homage to the deep Christian religious roots that helped to found the principles of the nation.

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, Americans associate Christmas 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

Every four years resident of the District of Colombia celebrate the Inauguration Day holiday upon the inauguration of the President of the United States. In recent years, Inauguration Day has been held on January 20th, though the next holiday is not until 2025. Inauguration Day became a holiday in 1957 when Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law to this effect.

This federal 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, Congress only gave the holiday to federal workers located in the DC metropolitan area.

Congress justified the holiday for DC federal workers by stating that these employees can now partake in the historically momentous and important activities associated with a presidential inauguration.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

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