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U.S. Federal Holidays: From Founding to Festivities

U.S. Federal Holidays: From Founding to Festivities

Federal holidays are more than just dates on the calendar—they hold a special significance for federal workers and private companies across the United States. These Congress-designated days off provide a well-deserved break for all employees in the U.S. 


But why should you, as an employer, recognize these holidays? 


By familiarizing yourself with these important dates, you can effectively plan and ensure your business operates smoothly while offering employees competitive holiday time off. Here, we’ll explore the history and why each federal holiday is celebrated. 


What’s a Federal Holiday?


Federal holidays are special days that the government acknowledges each year. Nonessential government agencies don’t operate these days; their employees get paid a day off. Banks, post offices, and schools usually close too.


Some private companies also give their employees paid or unpaid time off on these holidays, but it’s not a legal requirement. In industries like healthcare or hospitality, where closing for a day isn’t feasible, organizations may offer other benefits like extra pay for working on a holiday.


Why Federal Holidays Are Important

Here are some reasons federal holidays should be observed and celebrated:


Economic Impact

Federal holidays often witness a surge in travel and tourism, leading to increased spending on transportation, accommodation, dining, and entertainment. This influx of visitors can boost local economies, particularly in popular tourist destinations, stimulating job creation and generating tax revenue.


Hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality-related businesses experience a direct impact from federal holidays due to the increase in leisure and recreational activities. This sector often relies on holiday weekends to boost revenue and profits.


Employee Wellbeing

Holidays contribute to employee well-being by providing paid time off for workers to disconnect from work and focus on physical and mental health activities. The anticipation of a holiday can boost happiness and productivity for up to eight weeks. Offering paid holidays as part of an employee benefits package can help promote better mental health and prevent absenteeism.


Honor the Country’s Sacrifices

National holidays allow us to show respect and remember important sacrifices and events in our country. One example is Memorial Day, when we honor the death of military personnel while serving in the U.S. armed forces. It’s a way to thank and show appreciation for the brave service members who protect our nation daily.


12 U.S. Federal Holidays

Here’s a list of federal holidays stated in federal law (5 U.S.C. 6103):


New Year’s Day

January 1st

New Year’s Day
Photo by ladyphoto89/Shutterstock


In the mid-1800s, some states like Connecticut and New York began considering New Year’s Day as a holiday. Later, on June 28, 1870, Congress made a law that allowed federal employees in Washington, DC, to have the day off on New Year’s Day. Then, in 1885, Congress extended this holiday to all federal employees.


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 

January 15th or the Third Monday in January

Martin Luther King, Jr Day
Photo by Roy Harris/Shutterstock


President Ronald Reagan signed a law called the King Holiday Bill in Novermber 2, 1983. This law made the third Monday in January a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights movement leader. It took 15 years of discussion and debate before this law was passed.

President Reagan praised Dr. King’s impact on the nation and said he touched the American people’s hearts. There were earlier attempts to create a holiday for Dr. King, with one bill coming close to passing in 1979 but falling short by four votes.


Inauguration Day

January 20th or 21st

Inauguration Day
Photo by JRAphotographics/Shutterstock


On January 11, 1957, Inauguration Day became a permanent federal holiday in the Washington, DC area. It’s a special day when the formal transition of presidential power happens every four years on January 20, as the Constitution requires. President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law, making this holiday official.

The law also states that if Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday, the following day would be a federal holiday. In the past, federal employees were given a holiday to observe the important activities associated with the inauguration. On this day, an inauguration ceremony occurs in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC.


President’s Day

February 19th or the Third Monday in February

President’s Day
Photo by Be Pro/Shutterstock


The history of Presidents’ Day traces back to 1800 when George Washington’s February 22nd birthday became a significant day of remembrance. In January 1879, Congress included Washington’s Birthday or Presidents Day as an official holiday. However, the transition from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day began in the late 1960s with the introduction of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. 

While four presidents, namely George Washington (February 22nd), Abraham Lincoln (February 12th), William Henry Harrison (February 9th), and Ronald Reagan (February 6th), have birthdays in February, according to federal law, the holiday is officially recognized as Washington’s Birthday. 


Memorial Day

May 27th or the Last Monday in May

Memorial Day
Photo Contributor: Arina P Habich/Shutterstock


Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, which moved the date of Memorial Day to the last Monday in May. This was done to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The new law took effect in 1971, making it a federal holiday. 

The decision to establish Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was influenced by many federal employees. These were members of the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union Civil War veterans who wanted to participate in the festivities honoring those who died in the war. 

Participating means they would lose a day’s wages because they would be absent from work. With this in mind, some members of Congress believed that federal employees should enjoy this as a holiday with pay, to honor those who died in service, and not suffer financial loss.



June 19

Photo by Tippman98x/Shutterstock


Juneteenth, officially known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, is a holiday that marks the end of slavery in the U.S. Observed every year on June 19, it was also called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and eventually, Juneteenth Independence Day.

Juneteenth has been a Texas state holiday since 1980; later, other states began recognizing and celebrating it as well. In 2021, it was officially designated as a federal holiday in the United States. Organizations in several countries also recognize this day as a way to acknowledge the abolition of slavery and honor the culture and achievements of African-Americans.


Independence Day

July 4th

Independence Day
Photo by iHumnoi/Shutterstock


On July 4, 1946, the United States officially acknowledged the independence of the Republic of the Philippines. This was the final step in a process that began in 1916 with the Jones Law, which promised to recognize Philippine independence.

The Philippine Independence Act, or the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, provided ten years for the Philippines to transition and prepare self-governance. Manuel Roxas retook his oath as the President of the Philippines, removing the requirement to pledge allegiance to the U.S. This date was significant as it coincided with the United States’ Independence Day.


Labor Day

September 2nd or the First Monday in September

Labor Day
Photo by U2M Brand/Shutterstock


Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 to celebrate and honor the hard work of the country’s labor force. Unlike other holidays that focused on traditional celebrations or individuals, Labor Day was specifically dedicated to recognizing the importance of labor. 

The House Committee on Labor, in their report on the legislation, explained that national holidays serve to highlight significant events or principles in people’s minds by providing them a day of rest, recreation, and enjoyment to commemorate it. 

Providing the labor force its own holiday would uphold their dignity and ensure that they feel valued and respected as important members of society, leading to their loyalty and dedication as citizens.


Columbus Day

October 14th or Second Monday in October

Columbus Day
Photo by siam.pukkato/Shutterstock


Columbus Day, also known as Indigenous Peoples Day, is a federal holiday in the U.S. honoring Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World on October 12, 1492. It is also a day to celebrate the cultural heritage of Italian Americans, as it is believed that Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy.

Since 1937, Columbus Day has been an annual holiday in the United States. On April 30, 1934, the U.S. Congress, in a joint resoliution, declared this day as a federal holiday. Initially, it was celebrated on October 12, but it was later moved to the second Monday in October to provide workers with a long weekend.

The purpose of commemorating Columbus’s voyage was for Congress to acknowledge and honor the bravery and determination that allowed generations of immigrants from various nations to find freedom and opportunities in America. 

Additionally, the holiday serves as an annual reaffirmation by the American people of their optimism for the future and their willingness to face the uncertainties.


Veterans Day

November 11th

Veterans Day
Photo by Cheryl Casey/Shutterstock


In 1938, Armistice Day, later known as Veterans Day, was established as a federal holiday. It was chosen to commemorate the end of World War I on November 11. 

Before the passage of the legislation, one Representative proposed that this day should focus not on glorifying war achievements but on highlighting the blessings associated with peaceful activities. Referring to it as a “national peace holiday” received enthusiastic approval from societies representing World War I veterans. 

By 1938, Armistice Day was already recognized as a holiday in 48 states. Although Congress was aware that it did not have the authority to establish a national holiday in individual states, passing this bill would align the federal government with the sentiments of the United States regarding the significance of this day.


Thanksgiving Day

November 28th

Thanksgiving Day
Photo by Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock


In September 1789, the first Federal Congress, shortly before their recess, passed a resolution requesting President George Washington to recommend a national day of thanksgiving to the nation. A few days later, he responded by issuing a proclamation, declaring Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a “Day of Public Thanksgiving.” 

That day marked the first official celebration of Thanksgiving under the newly established Constitution. Subsequent presidents also issued Thanksgiving Proclamations. However, the specific dates and even the months of the celebrations varied. It was not until President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation in 1863 that Thanksgiving began to be regularly observed each year on the last Thursday of November.


Christmas Day

December 25th

Christmas Day
Photo by Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock


On December 25, 1789, the U.S. Congress convened and at that time, the country didn’t have a president yet because the first national election was still ongoing that would end in January. While some people in the early United States celebrated Christmas that day, for most Americans, it was just a regular Friday in December.

Things changed about 150 years ago when President Ulysses S. Grant passed a law, declaring Christmas as a federal holiday in the District of Columbia. The law was signed on June 28, 1870. Additionally, the law also named New Year’s Day, July 4th, and Thanksgiving as federal holidays, although a  specific date for Thanksgiving had not been decided yet.




Do all U.S. employees get federal holidays off?


Most federal employees can take paid time off on designated holidays when excused from work. Designated holidays include official federal holidays, holidays that are observed instead of the official ones, and Presidential Inauguration Day, if applicable to the Washington, DC, area. 

Federal holidays declared by Executive order are also treated as holidays for pay and leave purposes. However, employees with an irregular work schedule do not receive paid time off or additional pay for holidays. 

In the private sector, no federal law requires employers to give employees time off for federal holidays. It would all depend on the employer’s policy.


What are the most popular U.S. holidays?


The most popular holidays in the United States are Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Memorial Day. However, the popularity of each public holiday varies by generation, with Thanksgiving being the most popular holiday among all generations.

Other popular holidays include New Year’s Eve, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Independence Day, Labor Day, Halloween, and Father’s Day. So far, Christmas is the holiday with the highest greeting card sales.


How do U.S. businesses typically handle holidays that fall on weekends? 


When a holiday occurs on a weekend in the United States, businesses usually handle it in one of three ways:

  • They may give employees the day off on the closest weekday, the Friday before or the Monday after the weekend.
  • They may provide employees with an additional day of paid time off, allowing them to use it whenever they choose.
  • Alternatively, they may treat the holiday as a regular workday and not give employees extra time off.

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