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Quick Overview of American Holidays

Quick Overview of American Holidays

Welcome to America! This fascinating country is a multicultural nation, home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, traditions, and values. Aside from the now small Native American and Native Hawaiian populations, nearly all Americans or their ancestors immigrated within the past five centuries. As in every culture, holidays and celebrations are the reflection of customs and traditions that unites a nation.

In the US, Federal holidays are designated by Congress. If a holiday falls on a Saturday it is celebrated the preceding Friday; and if it falls on a Sunday it will be celebrated the following Monday. The Congress can also designate federal observances - days, weeks, months, and other periods for the commemoration, or recognition of events, individuals, or other topics.

Every third Monday in January schools, federal offices, post offices and banks across America close as we celebrate the birth, the life and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The campaign for a federal holiday in King's honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983. At first, some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Martin Luther King Jr. was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. He became famous around the world after his speech “I have a dream” on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

Washington's Birthday is the official name designated to what many of us know as Presidents Day. Every 3rd Monday of February the US honors two of our greatest Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln – with a federal holiday. Today, this holiday has become well known for being a day in which many stores, especially car dealers, hold sales. Until the late 1980s, corporate businesses generally closed on this day. With the late 1980s advertising push to rename the holiday, more and more businesses are staying open on the holiday each year.

Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day commemorates U.S. soldiers who died while in the military service. It is celebrated every last Monday in May. First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War and was then extended after World War I to honor Americans who have died in all wars.
Many people observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time.
The National Memorial Day Concert takes place every year on the west lawn of the United States Capitol. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who gave their lives for their country.

In the United States, Independence Day, commonly known as the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. Independence Day is marked by patriotic displays, often taking place outdoors. Many politicians make it a point on this day to appear at a public event to praise the nation's heritage, laws, history, society, and people. Families often celebrate by hosting or attending a picnic or barbecue and take advantage of the day off and, in some years, long weekend to gather with relatives. Decorations (e.g., streamers, balloons, and clothing) are generally colored red, white, and blue, the colors of the American flag. Parades often are in the morning, while fireworks displays occur in the evening at such places as parks, fairgrounds, or town squares.

The first Labor Day (every first Monday in September) in the United States was celebrated in 1882 in New York City. In the aftermath of the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the US military and US Marshals during the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Cleveland put reconciliation with Labor as a top political priority. The form for the celebration was outlined in the first proposal of the holiday: A street parade to exhibit "the strength and esprit corps of the trade and labor organizations," followed by a festival for the workers and their families. Nowadays, speeches by prominent men and women were introduced later, as more emphasis was placed upon the economic and civil significance of the holiday.

Many countries in the New World and elsewhere celebrate the anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas, which occurred on October 21, 1492 in the modern Gregorian calendar, as an official holiday. Columbus Day (2nd Monday in October) became a federal holiday in 1934. However, people have celebrated Columbus' voyage since the colonial period. Actual observance varies in different parts of the United States, ranging from large-scale parades and events to complete non-observance. It remains a celebration in New York State, and government offices and public schools are closed.

Veterans Day is an annual United States holiday honoring the 24.9 million American military veterans. A federal holiday is observed on November 11, which is the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. (Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice). Many sites around the country will host parades, ceremonies, military exhibits, and tributes that will honor America’s heroes.

Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November, has been an annual tradition in the United States since 1863. Thanksgiving was historically a religious observation to give thanks to God. It is thought that the "first" Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks to God for helping the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony survive the brutal winter. Certain kinds of food are traditionally served at Thanksgiving meals. Firstly, baked or roasted turkey is usually the featured item on any Thanksgiving feast table (so much so that Thanksgiving is sometimes referred to as "Turkey Day"). Stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet corn, other fall vegetables, and pumpkin pie are commonly associated with Thanksgiving dinner. During Thanksgiving Day families and friends usually gather for a large meal or dinner. Consequently the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Thanksgiving is a four-day or five-day weekend vacation for schools and colleges. Most business and government workers are given Thanksgiving and the day after as paid holidays. Thanksgiving is by far the holiday the most inherent to the North American culture, as it also is celebrated in Canada, but at a different date.

Now you know more about American holidays! You may also want to check out what other days are observed in your state. Au pairs can ask their host families how they celebrate those holidays, and families can share their own traditions with their au pairs, because family values are the core of the customs and traditions practiced here in the United States.

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