What are Legal Holidays in the United States

by CiCi
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The United States, with its diverse cultural tapestry, observes a variety of legal holidays that reflect its history, traditions, and values. These holidays, often termed public or federal holidays, are days recognized by the government during which certain public and private institutions close, and employees might receive a day off with pay. This article explores the legal holidays in the United States, their origins, significance, and the traditions associated with each.

Federal Holidays

Federal holidays in the United States are designated by the government and are applicable to federal employees. The following are the federal holidays observed across the country:


New Year’s Day (January 1)

New Year’s Day marks the beginning of the Gregorian calendar year. Celebrations typically begin on New Year’s Eve with festivities, fireworks, and gatherings. It’s a day of new beginnings, resolutions, and looking forward to the year ahead.


Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Third Monday in January)

This holiday honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a pivotal leader in the American civil rights movement. Observed on the third Monday of January, it commemorates King’s birthday on January 15. The day promotes equality, civil rights, and the continuing struggle against racial discrimination. It’s marked by parades, educational programs, and community service activities.

Presidents’ Day (Third Monday in February)

Presidents’ Day, initially established in 1885 to honor President George Washington’s birthday, has evolved to celebrate all U.S. presidents. Observed on the third Monday in February, it’s a day to reflect on the contributions of American presidents to the nation’s history. Many states also use this day to honor Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is February 12.

Memorial Day (Last Monday in May)

Memorial Day is dedicated to honoring and remembering military personnel who have died in the service of the United States. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated after the Civil War. Observed on the last Monday in May, it involves parades, the decoration of graves with flags and flowers, and ceremonies at cemeteries and memorials.

Independence Day (July 4)

Independence Day celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. It’s a national holiday marked by fireworks, parades, concerts, barbecues, and patriotic displays. The day symbolizes American freedom and independence from British rule.

Labor Day (First Monday in September)

Labor Day honors the contributions of American workers and the labor movement. Observed on the first Monday in September, it signifies the end of summer for many and is celebrated with parades, picnics, and family gatherings. It also emphasizes the importance of workers’ rights and fair labor practices.

Columbus Day (Second Monday in October)

Columbus Day commemorates Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492. Celebrated on the second Monday in October, it recognizes the historical significance of the event. However, it is also a day of reflection on the impact of European colonization on indigenous peoples, with some states and cities observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

Veterans Day (November 11)

Veterans Day honors all military veterans who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Originally known as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, it was renamed Veterans Day in 1954. The day includes ceremonies, parades, and other events to recognize and thank veterans for their service.

Thanksgiving Day (Fourth Thursday in November)

Thanksgiving Day is a time to give thanks for the harvest and blessings of the past year. It has roots in early American history, particularly the 1621 feast shared by Pilgrims and Native Americans. Observed on the fourth Thursday in November, it involves family gatherings, feasts, and traditional foods such as turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

Christmas Day (December 25)

Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and is a major Christian holiday. Observed on December 25, it includes religious services, gift-giving, festive decorations, and family gatherings. It has also become a cultural celebration encompassing various secular traditions such as Santa Claus and holiday lights.

State Holidays

In addition to federal holidays, states have the authority to designate their own holidays. These state holidays may be observed in addition to or in place of federal holidays. Some notable state-specific holidays include:

Confederate Memorial Day

Observed in several Southern states, Confederate Memorial Day honors Confederate soldiers who died during the American Civil War. The dates of observance vary by state, with some marking it in April and others in May or June.

César Chávez Day (March 31)

César Chávez Day, observed in states like California, Arizona, and Texas, honors the legacy of labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez. It includes educational events, community service projects, and celebrations of Chávez’s contributions to the labor movement.

Patriots’ Day (Third Monday in April)

Observed in Massachusetts and Maine, Patriots’ Day commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord, which marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. The day includes reenactments, parades, and the Boston Marathon.

Juneteenth (June 19)

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, marks the anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Texas on June 19, 1865. It has become a broader celebration of African American culture and freedom. It is now recognized as a holiday in many states and was declared a federal holiday in 2021.

Native American Day

Several states, including South Dakota and California, observe Native American Day to honor the culture, heritage, and contributions of Native Americans. It involves cultural events, educational programs, and celebrations of indigenous traditions.

Local and Municipal Holidays

Local governments may also designate holidays specific to their communities. These holidays can reflect regional history, cultural heritage, or local traditions. Examples include:

Mardi Gras (Varies)

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a major celebration in New Orleans, Louisiana, and other parts of the Gulf Coast. It involves parades, masquerade balls, and festivities leading up to Lent in the Christian calendar.

Pioneer Day (July 24)

Observed in Utah, Pioneer Day commemorates the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The day includes parades, fireworks, and other celebrations reflecting the state’s pioneer heritage.

Emancipation Day (April 16)

In Washington, D.C., Emancipation Day marks the anniversary of the signing of the Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862, which ended slavery in the district. It includes parades, concerts, and educational events.

Legal Holidays and Employment

Legal holidays in the United States often impact the workplace. Federal employees are typically given these days off, and many private sector employers also offer paid holidays. However, practices can vary widely:

Paid Holidays

Many employers provide paid holidays as part of their benefits packages. This typically includes the major federal holidays, with some companies offering additional paid days off for state or local holidays.

Overtime and Holiday Pay

Employees who work on legal holidays may be entitled to overtime or holiday pay, depending on company policies and state laws. This often involves higher pay rates, such as time-and-a-half or double-time.

Floating Holidays

Some companies offer floating holidays, which allow employees to take a paid day off on a holiday of their choice. This provides flexibility for employees to observe cultural or religious holidays not recognized as federal or state holidays.

Essential Services

Certain essential services, such as healthcare, law enforcement, and public transportation, continue to operate on legal holidays. Employees in these sectors may receive holiday pay or compensatory time off.

Cultural and Religious Observances

In addition to legally recognized holidays, the United States is home to a wide array of cultural and religious observances. While not always designated as legal holidays, these days hold significant importance for various communities:

Hanukkah (Varies)

Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, is an eight-day celebration commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It involves lighting the menorah, playing dreidel, and enjoying traditional foods.

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr (Varies)

Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, prayer, and reflection for Muslims. It concludes with Eid al-Fitr, a festival celebrating the end of fasting, marked by communal prayers, feasts, and giving to charity.

Diwali (Varies)

Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. It involves lighting oil lamps, exchanging gifts, and participating in feasts and fireworks.

Lunar New Year (Varies)

Lunar New Year, celebrated by many East Asian communities, marks the beginning of the lunar calendar. It includes family reunions, festive meals, dragon dances, and the exchange of red envelopes with money.

See also: 12 Most Popular Holidays in America


The legal holidays in the United States reflect the nation’s diverse history, cultural heritage, and values. From federal holidays that unite the country in shared observance to state and local holidays that celebrate regional traditions, these days off provide opportunities for reflection, celebration, and community. Understanding the significance of these holidays helps to appreciate the rich cultural tapestry that defines the American experience.


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