The Difference Between U.S. Federal and Public Holidays

by CiCi
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In the United States, holidays play a significant role in the cultural and social fabric of the nation. However, there is often confusion between what constitutes a federal holiday and a public holiday. Understanding the distinction between these two types of holidays is essential, as it impacts everything from government operations to employee rights. This article will explore the definitions, historical contexts, and implications of federal and public holidays in the United States, providing a comprehensive understanding of each.

Federal Holidays: Definition and Historical Context

Federal holidays in the United States are designated by Congress in Title V of the U.S. Code (5 U.S.C. § 6103). These holidays are legally recognized nationwide and apply specifically to federal employees and the operations of the federal government. On federal holidays, non-essential federal government offices are closed, and federal employees are typically given the day off with pay.


The concept of federal holidays dates back to the late 19th century. The first four federal holidays—New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day—were established by Congress in 1870. At that time, these holidays were only applicable to federal employees in the District of Columbia. Over time, the observance of these holidays was extended to all federal employees, regardless of their location, and additional holidays were added.


List of Federal Holidays

As of now, there are eleven federal holidays recognized in the United States:

  1. New Year’s Day (January 1)
  2. Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Third Monday in January)
  3. Presidents’ Day (Third Monday in February)
  4. Memorial Day (Last Monday in May)
  5. Juneteenth National Independence Day (June 19)
  6. Independence Day (July 4)
  7. Labor Day (First Monday in September)
  8. Columbus Day (Second Monday in October)
  9. Veterans Day (November 11)
  10. Thanksgiving Day (Fourth Thursday in November)
  11. Christmas Day (December 25)

Each of these holidays has its own historical significance and cultural impact, reflecting important aspects of American history and values.

Implications of Federal Holidays

Federal holidays have several key implications:

  1. Government Operations: On federal holidays, most federal offices and institutions, including postal services and national parks, are closed. Essential services, such as national security and emergency services, continue to operate.
  2. Employee Rights: Federal employees are entitled to paid leave on federal holidays. If a federal holiday falls on a Saturday, it is typically observed on the preceding Friday; if it falls on a Sunday, it is observed on the following Monday.
  3. Economic Impact: Federal holidays can influence economic activities, such as stock market operations and retail sales. For example, the stock market is usually closed on federal holidays, and retail businesses often see increased sales around holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Public Holidays: Definition and Variability

Public holidays, also known as state holidays or legal holidays, are holidays that are recognized by state and local governments. These holidays can vary significantly from state to state, reflecting the diverse cultural, historical, and social landscapes across the United States. While some public holidays coincide with federal holidays, states and local jurisdictions may also recognize additional holidays based on regional significance.

Variability Across States

The variability of public holidays is a distinctive feature of the United States’ federalist system, where states have the autonomy to declare their own holidays. For example, while Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday, some states also celebrate other notable figures or events on this day or around this period. In Alabama and Mississippi, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed in conjunction with Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

Another example is the celebration of César Chávez Day on March 31, which is recognized as a public holiday in California, Texas, and several other states to honor the labor leader and civil rights activist. Similarly, states with significant indigenous populations may observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day in lieu of or in addition to Columbus Day, reflecting a growing movement to recognize the history and contributions of Native American communities.

Implications of Public Holidays

Public holidays have several implications that differ from those of federal holidays:

  1. State and Local Government Operations: Public holidays affect the operations of state and local government offices and services. For instance, state courts, public schools, and local government offices may close or operate on a limited schedule on public holidays.
  2. Employment and Business: Unlike federal holidays, there is no federal mandate requiring private sector employers to provide paid leave on public holidays. However, many employers choose to do so voluntarily. Public holidays can also affect local businesses, with some closing in observance and others capitalizing on increased consumer activity.
  3. Cultural Significance: Public holidays often reflect the unique cultural and historical context of a state or region. These holidays can foster a sense of community and shared heritage, celebrating events and figures of local importance.

Overlap and Differences Between Federal and Public Holidays

While there is overlap between federal and public holidays, the key differences lie in their scope, recognition, and impact. Federal holidays are mandated by Congress and uniformly observed by federal employees nationwide. In contrast, public holidays are determined by state and local governments and can vary widely across the country.

Overlap Examples

Many federal holidays are also observed as public holidays by most states. For instance, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day are widely recognized and celebrated across the United States. These holidays typically see a nationwide observance, with both federal and state employees enjoying a day off, and businesses often closing or operating on reduced hours.

Differences in Observance

The differences in observance are more pronounced with holidays that are not federal holidays or are observed differently by states. For example:

  • Patriots’ Day: Observed in Massachusetts and Maine on the third Monday in April, this holiday commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the American Revolutionary War.
  • Pioneer Day: Celebrated in Utah on July 24, this holiday marks the arrival of the first group of Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
  • César Chávez Day: Recognized in several states, this holiday celebrates the birthday of the civil rights and labor leader.

Federal vs. Public Holiday Calendar Examples

To illustrate the differences and overlaps, here are examples of how federal and public holidays might appear on calendars in different states:

  • California: Alongside federal holidays, California observes César Chávez Day on March 31 and Admission Day on September 9, commemorating the state’s admission to the Union.
  • Texas: In addition to federal holidays, Texas recognizes holidays such as Texas Independence Day on March 2 and San Jacinto Day on April 21, celebrating key events in Texas history.

Legal and Practical Considerations

Both federal and public holidays have legal and practical implications that affect various aspects of life in the United States.

Legal Implications

For federal holidays, the legal framework is clear: Congress designates these holidays, and federal employees are entitled to paid leave. The legal implications for public holidays, however, are governed by state law and can vary. Employers in the private sector are not legally required to provide paid leave for public holidays, though many choose to do so as a matter of policy or collective bargaining agreements.

Practical Implications

Practically speaking, the impact of holidays on businesses and individuals can be significant. Federal holidays often result in widespread closures of government offices and services, affecting everything from mail delivery to court schedules. Public holidays, depending on the state, can lead to closures of schools, banks, and other local institutions.


Understanding the difference between federal and public holidays is crucial for navigating the cultural and operational landscape of the United States. Federal holidays, established by Congress, provide uniformity and recognition of key national events and figures. Public holidays, determined by state and local governments, reflect the diverse and rich heritage of different regions. Both types of holidays play a vital role in shaping the cultural identity and societal rhythm of the nation, offering moments of reflection, celebration, and unity.

As the United States continues to evolve, so too may its holidays, with new observances emerging to reflect the changing values and histories of its people. Recognizing and respecting the diversity of holidays allows for a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of American culture.

Related topics:

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The Lengthy American Summer Holidays


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