What Are the U.S. Federal Holidays?

By Staff WriterLast Updated April 22, 2019
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As days that many people in the U.S. don’t have to go to work, federal holidays are often more popular for the break they provide than the event they celebrate. Even if you’re not one of the lucky ones who gets the day off for a federal holiday, you need to keep track of these days for planning everything from vacations and no-school days to running errands. A vacation that includes a holiday could mean you get an extra day off with pay — or your favorite destination is far more crowded than usual. And you certainly don’t want to waste time driving to the bank on a day that it’s closed.

In the U.S., both the federal and state governments can declare public holidays that give government employees and government-supported businesses like banks, schools and DMV offices the day off. Other businesses aren’t required to close, although many do for at least some of the holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. As of 2020, the U.S. government officially recognizes 10 federal holidays, most of which are also recognized by the states. Here’s a quick look at the history of these days and when they occur.

New Year's Day

Starting off at literally day one, the first federal holiday is New Year's Day on January 1. Although it’s not mandatory, many businesses outside of entertainment and retail close on this day and give their employees a free paid day off. New Year's Day marks not only the beginning of a new year but also the end of the holiday season for many people. The holiday is associated with the “Baby New Year,” which represents the birth of a fresh year, but is perhaps most famous as a much-needed day off after New Year’s Eve celebrations that typically rage on long after midnight. 

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Martin Luther King Jr. Day

You probably don’t have trouble keeping up with the first day of the year, but it gets a little trickier for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This particular holiday always falls on the third Monday of January every year, not on the same exact date. (His actual birthday is January 15.) That means you can’t just memorize a date — but you always get a three-day weekend if your employer closes. First observed in 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day honors the life of the civil rights leader. Government offices, schools and banks are closed, but many other businesses stay open on this day.

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Presidents’ Day (Washington's Birthday)

George Washington's birthday was first celebrated as a federal holiday in 1885. Each year, government offices in Washington, D.C. closed on February 22 to honor the country's first president. Now officially celebrated on the third Monday in February every year, Presidents’ Day became the more common term after lawmakers made Washington’s Birthday part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act to create more three-day weekends. The legal name in the statute is still Washington’s Birthday, but Presidents’ Day now acknowledges the contributions of all presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, who also has a February birthday.

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Memorial Day

Always observed on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day is another popular federal holiday that provides many employees with a three-day weekend. Originating as a day to honor fallen Civil War soldiers, it eventually became a day to celebrate and remember the sacrifices of soldiers in all wars. The holiday originally occurred on May 30 every year, but it was permanently moved to the last Monday in May in 1971. It designates the start of the summer season for many people in the U.S.

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Independence Day

Patriotism is a key part of life in America, and it rarely gets more patriotic than the red, white and blue plastered days leading up to Independence Day celebrations all across the country. Officially designated as our nation's birthday, July 4 commemorates the momentous day in 1776 when our nation’s founding fathers published the Declaration of Independence, laying the groundwork for the American Revolution. Each year, Americans celebrate their day off work with parades, picnics, barbecues, fireworks and fun outdoor pursuits.

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Labor Day

A federal holiday since 1894, Labor Day originally honored the American worker. Today, government offices, schools and banks close, but many other businesses don’t shut down for the day. In fact, the retail industry uses the holiday as an opportunity to run special promotions, which ironically requires even more employees to work. The holiday falls on the first Monday in September, creating another three-day weekend opportunity. For those who do get the day off, it often prompts last-minute trips and backyard cookouts before the weather turns chilly. In parts of the country, the new school year starts immediately after Labor Day, although school resumes in August in many areas.

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Columbus Day

Celebrated on the second Monday in October, Columbus Day honors the landing in the Americas of Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492. The first celebration took place in San Francisco in 1896, but it didn’t become a federal holiday until 1937. Government offices and banks close, but many states don’t require schools and other businesses to close.

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Columbus Day has been a controversial federal holiday for quite some time due to the negative effects of Columbus' expeditions on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In 2020, the tension related to social injustice and racism in American grew to explosive levels, reigniting questions about the suitability of Columbus Day. Some states already call the day Native American Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the people originally living on the continent when Columbus arrived instead of honoring the explorer. This particular federal holiday could see an official name change soon.

Veterans Day

World War I officially ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 — officially known as Armistice Day — so it was no accident when lawmakers chose November 11 as the official day to honor America’s veterans. Armistice Day officially became a federal holiday in 1938 to honor the soldiers of World War I. In 1954, Congress officially changed the name to Veteran’s Day to honor the soldiers in World War II and the Korean War (and all those who followed).

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Thanksgiving Day

Interestingly, Thanksgiving hasn’t actually been around since the days of the pilgrims. George Washington declared the first national day of thanksgiving in 1789, but it was Abraham Lincoln who issued an official proclamation declaring the “last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving,” to celebrate key victories in the Civil War. This established a tradition that continued into the next century, when Congress made Thanksgiving Day a federal holiday in 1941 and designated the fourth Thursday in November as the official day.

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Christmas Day

Between all the stores decked out with fake Santas and reindeer and Christmas tunes blaring over every sound system, it would be hard to overlook Christmas in America. Although Jesus’ birthday on Christmas Day has been celebrated on December 25 for centuries, the day wasn’t an official federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870. Today, Christmas is the main federal holiday that prompts almost all businesses to close for the day, although some essentials like gas stations remain open, and some dining and entertainment venues open later in the day.

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